President Obama added a couple of firsts to his list of achievements when he became the first sitting president to visit Myanmar and, later, Cuba. He will add another at the end of this month when he visits Hiroshima in conjunction with the Group of 7 leaders meeting in Japan. Though the White House is playing down expectations, the visit gives him a significant opportunity to offer some tangible new initiatives to advance his vision of a nuclear-free world — a major goal at the outset of his administration that has since faded against a host of other foreign policy challenges.
Apart from an appearance in 2010 by an American ambassador, John Roos, and Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Hiroshima early last month, senior American officials have conspicuously avoided the war memorial for the 200,000 people who lost their lives in the two nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the war in the Pacific. Given the 70-year alliance between Japan and the United States that has flourished since the end of the war, Mr. Obama’s decision to visit the memorial seems well overdue.
Yet it was arrived at only after an intense monthslong debate within the administration. Some officials were concerned that such an appearance would be interpreted as an apology for America’s wartime actions and further inflame this year’s presidential election. During Mr. Obama’s first year in office, his critics unfairly accused him of making an “apology tour” when he traveled to the Middle East and Europe in an effort to reset relationships that had deteriorated during the Bush administration.
News reports have said that most Japanese are not looking for an apology, and Mr. Obama is not planning to offer any. Instead, according to one senior official, he will “offer a forward-looking vision focused on our shared future.”
Japan and the United States have much to celebrate. The alliance constructed from the ashes of devastation and war has helped keep the peace in Asia. The two countries continue to work together on development and security projects in other parts of the world as well.
Though he has fallen well short of his lofty aim of a world “without nuclear weapons” announced in 2009, Mr. Obama can justly claim important achievements. Among these are the 2015 nuclear deal that seeks to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and the 2010 New Start Treaty mandating cuts in the number of strategic warheads deployed by the United States and Russia to 1,550 warheads each.
One big obstacle to further progress has been Russia’s increasingly aggressive president, Vladimir Putin, who has opposed more arms reduction. Other impediments include a Senate that refuses to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and Pakistan, which has blocked negotiations on a treaty to halt production of fissile material.
Mr. Obama’s missteps have made his goal harder to achieve. Nothing is more at odds with his vision than his befuddling support for a $1 trillion program to rebuild the American arsenal over the next 30 years. But there are still opportunities to improve his credibility — small steps like canceling the new air-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missile and persuading the United Nations Security Council to endorse the nuclear test moratorium that all countries but North Korea observe. Perhaps, too, in his visit to Hiroshima, a strong speech and even a new initiative.