On May 27, President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will make a historic visit to Hiroshima. There will likely be speeches about the consequences of nuclear weapons and the expression of everyone’s hopes for a nuclear-free world.
What does it mean when a U.S. president visits one of the two cities destroyed by U.S. atomic bombs in 1945? It opens an opportunity to focus on the military policies of both the U.S. and Japan.
Some observers see this visit as a symbolic endpoint of Obama’s 2009 Prague nonproliferation speech, in which he stated: “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it.”
Other scholars welcome the visit as an opportunity to reexamine the legacies of the Second World War. For example, some have argued that Abe should visit Pearl Harbor, to set U.S.-Japan relations off on a new course. Elsewhere in Asia, there is wariness about the Hiroshima visit, with critics arguing that it signals U.S. support for Japanese World War II revisionism.
But the Obama visit to Hiroshima gives us a moment to go beyond the rhetoric and look at what the two leaders have accomplished on peace and security in the nuclear era. Although the U.S. is generally committed to reducing nuclear stockpiles and Japan’s constitution is a significant obstacle to nuclear weapons acquisition, both leaders have taken actions against the spirit of nonproliferation.
The U.S. is still adding nuclear weapons
The U.S. is set to spend $350 billion over the next 10 years to modernize its nuclear arsenal. According to some estimates, the cost of the U.S. nuclear weapons program could balloon to $1 trillion over the next 30 years. In the best-case scenario, the nuclear weapons collect dust. In the worst case, they bring about human extinction. In this light, the budget line items Obama will approve will have a far more enduring legacy than a 2009 speech — or the 2016 trip to Hiroshima.
Bilateral agreements between the U.S. and Russia since 1991 significantly diminished the nuclear stockpiles on both sides, but current relations between the two are very strained. Russia boycotted the April 2016 Nuclear Security Summit because of steadily weakening relations. A number of nuclear security groups criticized the U.S.-led summit for not doing enough to get states to incorporate nuclear safety measures.
The U.S. declined to participate in more comprehensive non-proliferation efforts, such the Open-Ended Working Group on Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations in Geneva, an effort supported by over 100 countries, major NGOs and the United Nations, arguing that it could undermine the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Japan is looking at nuclear weapons, too
During his tenure as prime minister, Abe has worked to increase Japan’s military capabilities and commitments abroad — but with a half-hearted antinuclear posture. Abe has made numerous attempts to revise Article 9 of Japan’s “peace constitution,” which outlaws war as a means of settling international disputes. Abe’s formal policy of “proactive peace” is not so much a problem. To play a greater role in maintaining international peace and combating terrorism, Japan will need to increase its capabilities and update its security policies.
However, Japan’s militarization means greater insecurity, and thus more opportunities to justify the possession of nuclear weapons. China and North Korea have warned Japan about its current security posture, and Japan’s increased presence abroad has brought the attention of terrorist groups, such as ISIS.
Recently, the Abe cabinet argued that possessing nuclear weapons would not violate the country’s constitution — a statement that provoked a strong reaction from the public and opposition forces. A strict reading of the Japanese constitution, however, would suggest otherwise. The document states, “Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes,” and in order to accomplish this, “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”
More importantly, this sentiment violates the Three Non-Nuclear Principles Japan adopted in the late 1960s, which forbid it from developing, possessing or introducing nuclear weapons onto Japanese soil. Japan’s aversion to nuclear weapons has always been a matter of principle rather than a legal mandate. Under Abe, however, security concerns have far outweighed antinuclear sentiments — and the Japanese people seem less averse to the idea of having a nuclear arsenal.
Abe also is a strong believer in the benefits of nuclear power, a politically difficult position given the ongoing clean-up efforts following the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Abe has had a poor relationship with non-proliferation activists; he sees them as obstacles to his security agenda. At present, Japan has one of the largest global stockpiles of plutonium and has enough material to make thousands of nuclear weapons.
Can we make the world safer?
Nearly all of the world’s countries — 191 nations — are parties to the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty. As a nuclear-weapons signatory, the U.S. has pledged to pursue disarmament. As a non-nuclear weapons signatory, Japan has pledged not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons. By signing this agreement, the majority of the planet showed its desire for a nuclear-free world.
The upcoming meeting between Obama and Abe will certainly make news — and offer the world a chance to reflect once more on the horrors of nuclear war. But the symbolism should not obscure the fact that both the United States and Japan are pursuing troubling paths of nuclear proliferation.
Tom Le is an assistant professor of politics at Pomona College whose research interests include Japanese security policy, militarism norms, military/security balance in East Asia and war memory and reconciliation. He was a Sasakawa Peace Foundation non-resident fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS and a Fulbright Fellow at Hiroshima City University.