Within a few months of taking office in 2009, Barack Obama made two trips – and speeches – that raised the world's already giddy expectations that his would be a transformational presidency, one that would positively change the world and America's place in it.
In Cairo, in June, the new President, noting that his own "father came from a Kenyan family that [included] generations of Muslims," called for a "new beginning" between the United States and the Islamic world. If any U.S. leader could achieve this, it seemed it was him.
In Prague, two months earlier, Mr. Obama had made an even bolder undertaking. He promised to devote his presidency to ridding the world of nuclear weapons. "To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same," he vowed. He would set an example, he insisted, to reassure other fast-arming nuclear powers that the proliferation of nuclear weapons need not be inevitable.
If Mr. Obama's new beginning with Muslims became collateral damage amid his widely panned reactions to the Arab Spring, the war in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State, what can be said of his nuclear non-proliferation agenda?
The Prague speech helped earn him a Nobel Peace Prize, but Mr. Obama will leave office with the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight – three minutes at last count – than when he arrived and with the threat of nuclear confrontation at its highest since the Cold War. This is not the context the President had hoped would surround his historic visit to Hiroshima.
Most of the debate at home about his planned Hiroshima visit later this month – the first by a sitting American president to the Japanese city where the United States dropped the first atomic bomb in 1945 – will focus on whether the trip amounts to a U.S. apology for that horrible attack and a second one, three days later, in Nagasaki. The White House insists that the President will "not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb," but that won't prevent anti-Obama talk-radio hosts from accusing him of staging a farewell "apology tour."
Still, the visit is overdue and promises to be a poignant moment in the recollection of one of humanity's darkest moments. One need not dispute Harry Truman's reasons for dropping the bomb to agree that no U.S. president should ever be faced with such a gruesome decision again.
Yet the awkward truth is that Mr. Obama's moves to initiate a $1-trillion (U.S.) modernization of the country's nuclear arsenal raise the prospects of that happening. The development of a new generation of nuclear bombs that are more precise but less lethal, experts agree, will make their use easier to contemplate by future presidents. New cruise missiles, which can carry conventional or nuclear warheads, are a nuclear accident waiting to happen.
"The probability of a nuclear calamity is higher today than it was during the Cold War," former Clinton-era defence secretary William Perry said in January. "A new danger has been rising in the past three years and that is the possibility there might be a nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia … brought about by a substantial miscalculation, a false alarm."
Arms-control advocate Tom Collina calls Mr. Obama's modernization of the nuclear arsenal "Prague in reverse." It "is giving Russia and China an excuse to do the same and creating new security threats. India, Pakistan and North Korea will follow. And the more weapons there are, the more opportunities there will be for terrorists to seize nuclear materials. "
Mr. Obama did negotiate a new arms-reduction treaty with Russia early in his presidency. But instead of a first step toward more substantial reductions, as he had hoped, he has faced in his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin an interlocutor wholly uninterested in pursuing further cuts.
Nor was Mr. Obama's 2015 deal to contain Iran's nuclear program enough for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the body that oversees the Doomsday Clock, to move back the minute hand this year.
If a President who began his tenure so committed to nuclear security and non-proliferation can countenance a $1-trillion renewal of the U.S. atomic arsenal, the world can only expect a more hawkish (Hillary Clinton) or unpredictable (Donald Trump) successor to go at least as far, if not further. This is why Mr. Obama's Hiroshima visit will be so much less than it could have been.