The U.S. presidential election and the fate of nuclear weapons abolition

by Hiromi Morita, Staff Writer

November 4th is now at hand, the day ballots will be cast to elect the next president of the nuclear superpower, the United States of America. Democratic candidate Barack Obama, with the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons included in his policy statement, is reported to be in the lead. Republican candidate John McCain has moved away from the administration of George W. Bush to express a more positive stance in regard to nuclear disarmament. Does this represent a turning point in history, a new momentum toward the total abolition of nuclear weapons and an answer to the prayers of the A-bombed city of Hiroshima?

Hiroshima eyes the dawning of change

Hiroshima, one of the “hibakuchi” or A-bombed cities, is paying close attention to the direction of the presidential election. In his scheduled briefing on October 20th, Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba indicated hope for progress toward global nuclear disarmament, stating, “This is a sign of change in U.S. nuclear policy.” In the Peace Declaration of August 6th, too, the mayor added unprecedented comments which expressed hope that the new president would take steps to abolish nuclear weapons.

The president of the United States is the military commander-in-chief with authority over the use of nuclear weapons. During the Democratic National Convention in August, Mr. Obama asserted in his policy statement that he would “set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and pursue it.” He has made clear, too, that he intends to stop the development of new nuclear weapons systems and work for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), a pact the Bush administration has failed to endorse.

In a speech in May, Mr. McCain, too, quoted fellow Republican and former President Ronald Reagan in saying, “Our dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the earth,” and went on to support the abolition of nuclear weapons by adding, “That is my dream, too.” No matter which candidate emerges as the victor, it will signal a clear departure from the Bush administration and a step forward for nuclear disarmament, raising expectations in the hibakuchi of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Since September of last year, the city of Hiroshima and the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation have held exhibitions on the atomic bombings nationwide in the U.S., with an eye on the presidential election. A-bomb survivors (hibakusha) have traveled to exhibition sites to speak of their experiences in person. Miyoko Watanabe, 79, a resident of Hiroshima who spoke in three states, including Alabama, was very touched by how keenly the American people listened to her story. “It’s not just the presidential candidates,” Ms. Watanabe said. “It’s the citizens themselves who are anxious about the policies of their own country which pursue military expansion.”

Shigeko Sasamori, 76, is a survivor living in the U.S. who took part in an A-bomb Exhibition. She points out that, “Nuclear disarmament is not an issue in the U.S. presidential election, nor is it a major concern for the average American citizen.” However, Steven Leeper, chairman of the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation, maintains, “While the exhibitions may not have had an impact on the presidential election itself, I do believe they have had some influence on the people who will make the decision when they vote.”

With the hibakusha feeling that “Our hope for an American president is someone who will stand for the abolition of nuclear weapons and stand by his word,” expectations are high that Mr. Obama will be elected.

And what will happen to nuclear policy after the presidential contest is over? Kazumi Mizumoto, associate professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University predicts, “As opposed to the Bush administration, which was fixed unilaterally on its own nuclear policy, either candidate would likely come to a multilateral table to negotiate nuclear disarmament.” 

At the same time, the fact remains that neither candidate has foresworn the theory of nuclear deterrence. In response to a question from the U.S. Arms Control Association, Mr. Obama is quoted as saying, “I have made it clear that America will not disarm unilaterally. Indeed, as long as other states retain nuclear weapons, the United States will maintain a nuclear deterrent that is strong, safe, secure, and reliable.”

With proposals calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons issued from former U.S. officials, including former Secretary of State George Shultz, the United States is beginning to show signs of change. On the other hand, critics are “wary of just how well the atrocity of nuclear weapons is understood.” Takanori Mikami, professor at Hiroshima Shudo University, researches civilian participation in international politics. “There are many issues to be resolved, but this is a significant opportunity for Hiroshima. We must take advantage of this time and make our voices heard,” he stressed. Mr. Mikami encourages people to take direct action, such as sending email and letters to the White House to convey messages from residents of the A-bombed cities.

The new administration’s nuclear policy and the role of an A-bombed city
Interview with Taketo Suzuki, associate professor at Hiroshima City University

I spoke with Dr. Taketo Suzuki, associate professor at Hiroshima City University and an expert on security, about post-election nuclear policy and the role of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Both candidates have mentioned the abolition of nuclear weapons.
This is striking progress toward nuclear disarmament and not simply an idealistic view. It is a realistic assessment of elimination which stems from the fear that there is no telling who might get their hands on a nuclear weapon. For the time being, the premise is still deterrence, but the fact that the next U.S. leader has indicated an aim of “ultimately zero” is a critical step forward.

Specifically, how will the nuclear policy unfold?
Whether the next president is Obama or McCain, some sort of nuclear disarmament treaty will be negotiated and concluded between the U.S and Russia. The First Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) expires in December 2009. In 2012, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (Moscow Treaty) will expire. Russia, far behind the United States in the technology and financing to support its nuclear capability, is showing an interest in reduction, in order to maintain a strategic balance. I would like to see the new president implement a new nuclear arms control treaty with Russia that includes reserve warheads and missiles.

How easy do you expect this to be?
There will be opposition from the military, so it will be difficult. If the United States maintains its position of pursuing the missile defense (MD) programs, which started after the Bush administration unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002, Russia will be unlikely to comply. For nuclear disarmament to proceed, revision of the MD programs is also an issue. The challenge lies in drawing up a treaty that can include all these concerns.

Do you think that appeals from Hiroshima and Nagasaki could have some impact?
In the United States, the belief that “the A-bombs ended the war” is used to justify the possession of nuclear weapons. It is crucial, then, to raise the awareness that as long as the U.S. continues to possess nuclear weapons, threats appearing from other countries will not abate. We must not only voice our opposition to nuclear weapons, we must correct the false notions found in historical interpretation and understanding.

(Originally published on October 31, 2008)

Related articles
A-bomb survivor reports on A-bomb exhibitions in U.S. (Oct. 7, 2008)
Now is the time to abolish nuclear weapons (Sept. 28, 2008)
A-bomb exhibitions in U.S. wrap up their first year (Sept. 26, 2008)