Why It Matters

Noting Obama's nuclear message

While the symbolism of US President Barack Obama's historic visit to the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima was evident the moment he set foot in the Japanese city, the actual impact is much less clear.

Mr Obama had hoped, being the first sitting US president to visit the site, that he would be able to deliver a stirring emotional message - both about the reconciliation between two wartime foes as well as about the dangers of nuclear proliferation.

It seems like his goals were only half complete.

Though the bond between the United States and Japan is now undoubtedly stronger than ever, the world is no closer today to a non-nuclear future than it was when Mr Obama first took office in January 2009.

Part of the problem is that Mr Obama has had little of the help he needed to advance non-proliferation goals. Russia ceased being a partner with the US on the issue beyond a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed early during the Obama administration. North Korea, meanwhile, has demonstrated growing nuclear ambitions.

But the US also is not entirely blameless, given that Washington is embarking on a US$1 trillion (S$1.4 trillion) nuclear modernisation programme. Though it argues that the move will produce a smaller and more reliable arsenal, others say the potentially smaller impact may make the nuclear weapons more tempting to use.

This backdrop, of course, diminishes the nuclear message of Mr Obama's Hiroshima visit. If there is any impact on the nuclear issue, it may be on how the Obama agenda carries over to the next presidency.

Mr Obama's actions have served to raise awareness of the nuclear disarmament issue nationwide and his Hiroshima visit reinforces that.

Having broken the ice, Mr Obama has also paved the way for visits by future US presidents.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2016, with the headline 'Noting Obama's nuclear message'. Print Edition | Subscribe