Posts Tagged ‘arms control’


The annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly always draws distinguished speakers, but their speeches rarely have much international impact. General Assembly speeches are heavy on rhetoric and image, but they tend to have little policy substance, especially for the most powerful states that work through the Security Council, if they consult the United Nations at all.

Tuesday’s opening is different. Three of the headline speakers – US president Barack Obama, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani – will give revealing policy speeches with far-reaching international implications. The presidents will use their statements to signal to their critics, at home and abroad, that coherent and worthwhile strategies lie behind some of their surprising recent moves.

Obama will make his first authoritative statement about the US position on the Syrian civil war since the last-minute agreement on 14 September 2013 that averted an American military strike. Obama will want to show that the United States is willing to enforce “red lines” on chemical and nuclear weapons, just as it is eager to negotiate agreements for disarmament and stability in the region. American efforts to nurture democratic governments in the Middle East during the Arab Spring have failed. The president will try to set a new agenda for US efforts to foster openness, stability, and reform in Egypt, Iraq, and of course Syria.

Rousseff will address different but equally controversial issues. She will make a strong argument for giving her country more influence in the United Nations and other international bodies. It makes little sense to have France on the Security Council but not Brazil. Rousseff’s cancellation of a state dinner with President Obama and her angry condemnation of American surveillance efforts in Brazil (including Rousseff’s private conversations) reflect her aim to assert a more independent Brazilian position in the world. Her speech will announce a Brazilian alternative to US domination in Latin America.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will probably give the most closely watched and important speech of the group. The new leader of Iran will be introducing himself to a worldwide audience for the first time. Like Rousseff, he will assert Iranian independence, and he will claim for his nation a legitimate role as a cultural, economic, and military leader in the Middle East. Like Obama, however, Rouhani will emphasise the importance of negotiated agreements to ensure openness, peace, and stability in the region.

Rouhani might even indicate a willingness to negotiate with Israel. His primary goal will be to lift international sanctions that are crippling the Iranian economy, and reduce sources of conflict that ultimately limit Tehran’s regional influence. Rouhani will pursue routes to stability in the Middle East that increase Iranian influence, often at the cost of the United States.

These three speeches and the many other statements at the opening of General Assembly reflect an international system in transition. Since the end of the Cold War attention to human rights, ethnic conflict, terrorism, and counter-insurgency has increased across the globe. Each of these phenomena has brought new state actors to centre stage. Each of these phenomena has also challenged American international dominance, while reinforcing the need for continued American leadership, especially during moments of conflict in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Libya, and now Syria. The post-Cold War world has shown the limits of American power, but also the fundamental role the United States still plays in so many regions.

The opening of the General Assembly will neither diminish nor increase the power of the United States. The speeches will represent a serious grappling, by major figures, with our messy multipolar moment. The United States, Brazil, and Iran are highly independent, yet deeply dependent on one another. Their futures will be determined by their respective actions, as is also true for China, Russia, Germany, Japan, Israel, and South Africa. These heavyweights are struggling to shape the actions of each other that avoid war, increase wealth, and create strategic advantages.

East-West and North-South polarities are less important than anytime in recent decades. A global great game is our present condition. That makes diplomacy and posturing at the United Nations more revealing than ever before. Perhaps this much-maligned international body is entering its golden age of maximum influence.


This post originally appeared at


Hiroshima, 6 August 2013


Today I had the opportunity to visit the site of the first atomic bombing, Hiroshima, and participate in the annual commemoration. Events began at 8:15am this morning, sixty-eight years after the world entered the atomic age. I have written and taught about the atomic bomb for more than a decade, but I never really understood the meaning of this powerful weapon until today. Everyone who thinks about international security, foreign policy, and nuclear issues should visit Hiroshima on August 6.


Numerous scholars have written excellent books about the American decision to drop the first atomic bomb in Hiroshima, the effects of the bomb on the ground, the geopolitical consequences, the distorted memories of the event, and the uses of Hiroshima for political purpose. The permanent museum in Hiroshima addresses these issues in a partial and often biased way, but that is to be expected.


The museum, the haunting Atomic Dome, and the Peace Park are not the things that moved me at the commemoration today. Nor did the speeches by the visiting dignitaries, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, accomplish very much. Standard words about “suffering victims” and the “imperative for peace” did not have much effect.


What moved me was the assembly of young Japanese and Americans this evening around the site of the atomic blast. I have been to many demonstrations, but I have never seen anything like this before. Thousands of men and women below forty (I am on the borderline) decorated candles, made paper lanterns, and played music that evoked a shared hope for peace. There were no political slogans, no efforts to assign blame, no calls for easy answers. This was just a moment of supreme and sincere solidarity.


It was also a moment of deep Japanese and American friendship. The Peace Park was filled with Americans: students, military servicepeople, businesspeople, tourists, and parents. I have not seen so many Americans in Japan before. They walked side-by-side with Japanese they had never previously met, engaged in friendly but serious conversation, reflecting on the meaning of this moment.


None of this was organized or contrived. The young Americans and Japanese came to remember the tragedy of August 6. They enacted a common bond. The young Americans and Japanese also assembled to imagine a better future. They advocated a shared mission.


Again, there were no simple slogans or efforts to assign blame. There were no pretensions to easy answers. This was a moment of aspiration, an unscripted cross-cultural performance of young people who recognized the tragic history in Hiroshima and wanted to make it real for themselves. They made it real by transcending, at least for a moment, the angry arguments of politicians, pundits, and scholars.


The men and women who visited the atomic bomb site tonight took clear inspiration from a monumental tragedy to find new ways to come together. They modeled dialogue, civility, forgiveness, and cooperation because of what happened here sixty-eight years ago. They made a very dark history into a forward-looking light of hope. You could see it on their faces: solemn and hopeful, cautious and confident.


The time has come for historians, including this one, to re-write our histories of the atomic bomb. Here is what I will say the next time I lecture on this topic: On 6 August 1945 the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, in hopes of ending the Second World War. The bomb caused enormous damage and suffering and it contributed to a Cold War. The experiences of the bomb, in both Japan and the United States, also brought these two warring societies together in startling, unpredictable, and enduring ways. The strength and depth of Japanese-American friendship since 1945 is a testament to how human beings can turn the worst weapons into catalysts for common action.


Contemporary leaders can learn a lot from this final insight. It was on display tonight, amidst all the partisan division in both Japan and the United States. Sometimes the best policy insights come from those who are concerned about the past, but not stuck in it.

This blog post originally appeared at

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.