To Hiroshima (cont.)

An earlier post called on President Obama to visit Hiroshima when he visits Japan for the G-7 Summit on May 26-27. If he fails to visit, the journey begun with a stirring speech at Prague in April 2009 and the Nobel Peace Prize will end with a damp squib. It will be a great disappointment and a letdown if the President doesn’t visit Hiroshima.

Now the flip side of this coin: If he agrees to go, what will he say? When foreign leaders attended the last Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on April 1st, they were kindly asked to bring “gift baskets” – deliverables to advance the purpose of NSS process. Will Mr. Obama bring a gift basket with him to Hiroshima, or does this concept apply only to foreign leaders when they come to Washington? Will a presidential visit to the cenotaph and the museum be accompanied by any concrete step to advance his vision of a world without nuclear weapons? Or will stirring words be enough of a deliverable for this trip?

Hard choices, but they come with being the personification of hope and by setting the bar so high. Politics amidst polarity is, in growing measure, the art of the gesture. Gestures are extremely important, but they are more meaningful when backed up by actions. Mr. Obama promised much by way of the reduction of nuclear risks and weapons, but the circumstances weren’t right, conditions for success were absent, or there were higher priorities to pursue.

Being President means making difficult choices, and the choices attendant to visiting Hiroshima are worthy of the man and the meaning of his presidency. The one promise most relevant to everything that Hiroshima represents is advancing the prospects of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The President promised in his first election campaign and in his Prague speech to “immediately and aggressively” pursue U.S. ratification. This promise can now be partially and belatedly advanced in Hiroshima.

The President has an exceptional capacity to match the right words to the proper moment. I have no doubt that he can manage the sensitivities and sensibilities of this occasion with grace and dignity. But finding the right words strikes me as insufficient; the moment is worthy of not just a stirring speech but an action that will help his successor to secure the U.S. Senate’s consent to ratification.

Yes, I know! Republicans on Capitol Hill now specialize in blocking action, and blocking a treaty is even easier than blocking confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee. If Hillary Clinton succeeds Barack Obama, many Republicans will resist any step she takes that could be characterized as a success – even if that step demonstrably reduced nuclear dangers. But the sorry state of the Republican Party might lead enough Senators to reconsider whether opposition to a nuclear test ban – on top of being on the wrong side of environmental protection, civil rights, voting rights, regulating economic excess, etc. – is substantively and politically helpful.

Perhaps enough Republican Senators, aware of the danger of being viewed as the Party of rejection and blockage, will consider the Treaty on its merits. Perhaps they will acknowledge that concerns about U.S. stockpile stewardship and verification of compliance have been addressed; that the United States has no place to test and no need to test; and that, if the United States Senate can see its way clear to consent to ratification, the door is open for China, India, and Pakistan to follow suit. (Russia has already ratified the CTBT.)

All of this is conjectural and a matter for the next President to consider. For the near term, we need only concern ourselves with whether a speech by Mr. Obama at Hiroshima could advance the prospects of the CTBT and would be worthy of the place and the moment. In my view, the answer is clear and obvious. It’s the speech he never gave during his two terms, one that can be very meaningful and can frame future terms of debate over the Treaty.

The President could also use this solemn occasion to commit publicly to seek a UN Security Council resolution on the CTBT this fall that goes beyond the usual pabulum. On this, the twentieth anniversary year of the Treaty’s opening for signature, he can pledge to work for a resolution that declares that nuclear testing would trigger proliferation and undermine international peace and security; declares that the conduct of a nuclear test explosion would defeat the object and purpose of the CTBT; supports a continuous, real-time global nuclear test monitoring capability; and reaffirms the vital contributions of the Test Ban Treaty Organization.

A speech in Hiroshima that advances prospects for a successful ratification debate and a UN Security Council resolution that reaffirms the permanent value of the CTBT will be worthy of the occasion. So, why not do this? The best answer I can come up with is that well-meaning, dedicated people inside the Administration have been deeply scarred by the Senate’s hasty rejection of the CTBT in 1999, and are in a defensive crouch because of ceaseless attacks from Capitol Hill. The surest sign that officials are worn down by their duties is when they can readily see what might possibly go wrong rather than what might go very right. This syndrome hasn’t prevented the President and Secretary of State John Kerry from accomplishing very hard things, but it has constrained lesser officials from trying to do hard things on less-than-top-tier priorities.

As this presidential trip to Hiroshima falls above their pay grade, I expect Mr. Obama to go and to make the most of this occasion.

The article was originally published on Arms Control Wonk