The Obama administration emphasizes that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to Pearl Harbor in late December is in no way a quid pro quo for President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Hiroshima in May.
“We want to make clear to the Japanese people that Obama went to Hiroshima because that was the right thing to do, not because he wanted the Japanese prime minister to come to Pearl Harbor,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said in a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun.
At the same time, Rhodes acknowledged that U.S. officials “knew it (Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor) was a possibility” when they visited Hiroshima in May.
He indicated that the Japanese side had notified the White House that Abe could visit the site in Hawaii where the Japanese military attacked 75 years ago.
A key architect of the Obama administration’s foreign policy and his most trusted speechwriter, Rhodes said about the two visits, “I think the fact that we’re able to have both of them take place in the same year does send a powerful message of reconciliation.”
In addition to Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, Rhodes discussed the legacy of the president’s foreign policies, including his rebalance to Asia.
Rhodes said one achievement is that “our alliances are on a stronger foundation,” although he candidly admitted that “our biggest disappointment will be that the TPP wasn’t concluded.”
In pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons, Rhodes said that “we’ve made some progress. Not as much, I think, as we would have liked, on reductions (of nuclear arms).”
Still, Rhodes emphasized the significance of Obama’s visit to Hiroshima in this endeavor.
“We’ve also tried to breathe some new energy into the cause of nuclear disarmament as well. And that’s where the Hiroshima trip was important,” he said.
(The interview was conducted on Dec. 7 by Senior International Correspondent Toshihiko Ogata and Washington Political Correspondent Taketsugu Sato.)
Excerpts from the telephone interview follow:
Ogata: U.S. President Barack Obama, speaking on the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor will be a tribute to the power of reconciliation. What’s your sense on Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor?
Rhodes: Well look, we think it’s a very positive step. We, as an administration, have made our own efforts to acknowledge difficult history and to do so in a way that demonstrates how nations can move beyond that history in forging better relations. And that was definitely the message that President Obama delivered in Hiroshima. So, we think that Prime Minister Abe’s visit is both a very moving tribute to the people lost at Pearl Harbor but is also a demonstration of how far the United States and Japan have come in emerging from the war and building an alliance.
So, to us, it demonstrates to the world how two nations that had once been adversaries can become the closest of allies.
Ogata: When Obama visited Hiroshima in May, one U.S. official told me that it was up to Abe to decide whether to visit Pearl Harbor but that the White House would welcome it and they would anticipate it at that time. Were you talking about it when Obama visited Hiroshima?
Rhodes: We knew it was a possibility. But we also wanted to be very careful and clear that we didn’t want to see--we didn’t want the two visits to be linked. You know, it was basically, just as it was President Obama’s decision on his own to visit Hiroshima, that we wanted the Japanese government and the Japanese prime minister to make their own decision about whether or not to visit Pearl Harbor.
And now the fact that we’re able to have both of them take place in the same year, I think, does send a powerful message of reconciliation. I think we did think it was quite likely that the visit would go forward, but we wanted to have the decision made, distinct from the Hiroshima visit.
Ogata: You said you knew the possibility at that time, in May. Does it mean Abe brought up the idea to U.S. officials that he might go to Pearl Harbor?
Rhodes: It’s the anniversary, so given that it’s the 75th…. Both the Hiroshima visit and the Pearl Harbor visit had their own logic, in that Japan was hosting the G-7, at Hiroshima, in the ministerials at least, and that the 75th anniversary was coming this year, for Pearl Harbor. So, both of those visits, again, had events that made them more natural.
So, we were aware of that but we didn’t finalize the plans until later this fall.
Ogata: What was the timing of your final decision, or when were you notified by Abe?
Rhodes: When they saw each other in Peru, at the APEC summit, they talked about it, and at that point the decision was made, and then we just had to determine the timing for the announcement and for the visit itself.
Ogata: Why did you not want the two visits to be linked? I knew that there has been discussions on the U.S. president’s Hiroshima visit and also the Japanese prime minister’s Pearl Harbor visit, and they had been tied together for several years. But, it seemed to me that Obama cut the tie when he decided to come to Hiroshima. Is that the right notion?
Rhodes: Yeah, it is. I mean, we didn’t want it to--we didn’t want it to--we think that it was important for President Obama to go to Hiroshima, for its own sake. In other words, he felt it was very important that he be the first American president to visit Hiroshima, both given the message that it sends about our alliance, and given the message that it sends about nuclear weapons. And so we did not want to suggest that we would only go to Hiroshima if the Japanese prime minister was also going to go to Pearl Harbor.
You know, we supported both visits, but we supported them on the merits, in each case. So, we wanted to make clear we would go to Hiroshima, no matter what. And, as we said at the time, we would welcome the Japanese prime minister to come to Pearl Harbor, but we didn’t want it to appear that this was some kind of trade. But rather, each visit, each gesture, was necessary for its own reasons, and they’re very different. Because again, the Hiroshima visit raises issues related to that history and our alliance, but also to issues of nuclear disarmament that are completely distinct from Pearl Harbor.
On the other hand, Pearl Harbor does indicate the reconciliation as well, but from a different perspective. So, we just think it’s important to not see them as linked.
Now, the thing that is common is that we do believe that candidly addressing history, honoring history, is important and useful to moving forward. So, in that regard, there’s a similar philosophy that guides both visits. But again, we want to make clear to the Japanese people that President Obama went to Hiroshima because that was the right thing to do, not because he wanted the Japanese prime minister to come to Pearl Harbor, just as I’m sure Prime Minister Abe would say the same thing.
Ogata: In February, I was struck by a comment by a senior White House official, who told me, “We forced the Japanese government to face its past, difficult past, so now it’s our turn to face our difficult past.” Is that the notion behind Obama’s visit to Hiroshima?
Rhodes: I think we wanted to send a message to the Japanese. In many ways, we felt that there was no reason to appear to be avoiding that issue. You know, that Hiroshima is a major city, with a very unique history, and yet, when we took office, no U.S. ambassador had even gone there for the commemoration. And so we, over the course of the administration, I think made a point of steadily making it normal for Americans to honor the victims of the bombings, first with our Ambassador going, then with Secretary (of State John) Kerry going, and then with the president.
And, for the president, there’s a secondary reason, of course, which is his commitment to nuclear disarmament and how much Hiroshima is central to that global movement. So, there are reasons that go beyond marking the past, for going to Hiroshima, that have to do with sending a message about nuclear weapons.
It’s also true that we have encouraged Japanese efforts to recognize difficult history. In that regard, we welcome the agreement with the Republic of Korea, over the “comfort women” issue, for instance. All of these historical issues are difficult and they’re all different. But the main thread is that we think that nations are more able to reconcile and work together when they are able to look candidly at history and yet not be overly constrained by history.
Ogata: President Obama asked Prime Minister Abe to converge on the historic agreement between Japan and Korea on the “comfort women” issue? Is that safe to say so?
Rhodes: He definitely encouraged that process. Now ultimately, that had to be agreed between the Republic of Korea and Japan. But we encouraged it. And when relations between the Republic of Korea and Japan were suffering, he hosted a trilateral meeting in The Hague, in The Netherlands, with (South Korean) President Park (Geun-hye) and Prime Minister Abe. So, we did what we could, to support that effort.
You know, our view of that is, beyond even just the history, we think it’s good for Asia and it’s good for the United States and it’s good for our allies, when our allies are getting along. And so, we wanted to support in any way we could an agreement between the Republic of Korea and Japan.
Ogata: Before Prime Minister Abe issued a statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, did President Obama urge Prime Minister Abe to face up to Japan’s difficult past too, and perhaps soften the statement to the public?
Rhodes: You know, I don’t know--I don’t remember--how involved we were in that. I mean, I’d just say, again, as a general matter, we recognize how sensitive historical issues are in Asia, and have encouraged efforts to not let history contribute to tension or stand in the way of cooperation. So, while I don’t remember that specific episode in detail, that’s definitely been our general message, to not just Japan, by the way, but all of the different countries in the region.
Ogata: What was Obama’s reaction after he visited Hiroshima? He made a speech, but what was his impression or his quotes, after the visit?
Rhodes: Yeah. He thought--you know, he said to us that he thought that it was one of the most powerful things that he’s experienced as president. He said that by far the most powerful part of the visit for him was just the brief interactions he had with the survivors. And he thought that that was the most moving part of the visit, and they were--I think he was struck by how grateful they were to him for visiting, how much it, clearly, meant to them, that an American president was coming, to recognize the lives that had been lost and the suffering and the work of the survivors.
So, he was definitely very moved by it. And he also--he continues to get letters from the families of survivors, today. And he has personally read letters that he’s gotten from families who have indicated how meaningful and important it was for him to go.
Ogata: When I met with Ambassador Caroline Kennedy in October, she told me that President Obama was checking the draft until the very last minutes, on the airplane. You were the speechwriter for the speech and worked with the president extensively during the trip to Japan. The president’s historic speech in Hiroshima was very well received among Japanese. In what direction did you, with the president, try to shape the speech?
Rhodes: Yeah, I think he thinks it was one of his more important speeches. It even got more attention in Japan than here. But he spent a lot of time on it and was working on it extensively during our trip, until the last minute.
And I think what he wanted to do is--Hiroshima was such an enormous event in world history, and the scale of the suffering was so significant, the fact that it was the first use of an atomic weapon makes it enormously significant. And he wanted, in the speech, to do a number of things. First, he wanted to pay tribute to the humanity of the people who were lost in Hiroshima and make clear that, more than anything else, this was an event that was experienced by people, ordinary people just like us, in this city on the other side of the world, so to make sure that there was a clear message of empathy for the lives that have been lost, or changed, in the bombing.
He also wanted, however, to make a broader point about the nature of--well, secondly, he wanted to make the point about nuclear weapons and the dangers of nations having nuclear weapons, and the responsibility to continue to work for disarmament.
But then, I think, what he did that was unique in the speech is he also wanted to speak broadly about the need for nations to avoid war, and to find peaceful ways of resolving differences. Because, World War II and Hiroshima in particular remind us of what the price is, can be, of not finding peaceful resolutions to differences.
And that’s why he took this kind of broader message, about how human beings need to resolve disputes peacefully, and he was able to use the example of the U.S.-Japan alliance as proof that there is far more to be gained through cooperation than through conflict. And both of our nations have benefited greatly from our friendship, in terms of strategic cooperation, in terms of trade and commerce and people-to-people ties, and that’s a better model for the relations between countries than what is represented by the history of World War II.
Ogata: From a broader perspective, in a historic speech in Prague in 2009, Obama sent a message that he was going to pursue a world without nuclear weapons. But it has been difficult to move in that direction due to geopolitically difficult things that have taken place.
Rhodes: Yeah. I think that what happened is we had a lot of momentum early in the administration, and that’s when we were able to achieve a New START Treaty, which reduced our nuclear stockpiles and Russia’s nuclear stockpiles. And we were able to make some changes in how we approach the use of nuclear weapons, in our own national security planning.
Then, in terms of disarmament, we, once President (Vladimir) Putin came to power in Russia, he had no interest in pursuing additional discussions around reducing the nuclear stockpiles. And that made it difficult to make progress on disarmament.
I think we do feel like we’ve made progress on nonproliferation, with the Iran deal.
Part of pursuing a world without nuclear weapons is the nations with nuclear weapons getting rid of them, and part of it is stopping other countries from getting nuclear weapons. So, there has been progress in the second term on nonproliferation. Less so, obviously, on disarmament, and that’s mainly because of the change in leadership in Russia.