Return Of Nuclear Fears Shapes World Leaders' Summit In Japan : The NPR Politics Podcast As world leaders convene in Japan for the G7 summit, contemporary concerns including climate change and Russia's invasion of Ukraine are on the agenda alongside a resurgent worry: nuclear war.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, White House correspondent Scott Detrow, and international correspondent Anthony Kuhn.

The podcast is produced by Elena Moore and Casey Morell. Our editor is Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi.

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Return Of Nuclear Fears Shapes World Leaders' Summit In Japan

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ERIC: Hi. This is Eric (ph) in Hiroshima, Japan. Right now I'm out and about in the center of the city looking to eat some of the regional specialties before the G-7 summit road closures make it a hassle to get around the city.


ERIC: This podcast was recorded at...


9:16 a.m. Eastern time on Thursday, the 18 of May.

ERIC: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, and I will have gobbled down some of the best Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. Here's the show.


KEITH: Oh, sounds so good. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House. I have eaten that two times already. It's delicious. And, Tam, I hate to correct you, but it's 10:15 p.m.

KEITH: That's because you're in Hiroshima, Scott.

DETROW: (Laughter.)

KEITH: And NPR's Anthony Kuhn is there as well. Hello, Anthony.

KUHN: Hey there.

KEITH: You are there for that G-7 summit we heard about. President Biden is also in Japan for the G-7 World Leaders' Summit. And on the agenda - Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, China's economic coercion, semiconductors and the global supply chain. But Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has also said he hopes the danger of nuclear weapons will be top of mind for the leaders. This is an issue that is close to home for Kishida, is that right?

KUHN: Well, he represents Hiroshima in parliament, and he says he's made it his life's work to try to work towards a world without nuclear weapons. And he's trying to use this platform to get the G-7 leaders to come up with a statement and a consensus that they will try to have more transparency about their nuclear stockpiles. They will try to recommit to making sure that no country ever uses them again. And the reason they can speak with moral authority on this is because they were the first country and the first city to suffer a nuclear attack, and in particular, the nuclear survivors, known in Japanese as the hibakusha - their voice carries a special weight.

I spoke to one of these people. His name is Hiroshi Harada, and he was 6 years old in 1945 when the bomb was dropped. And he was going to evacuate from the city because he was afraid he was going to be attacked. So he was at the train station standing on the platform at Hiroshima station when the bomb hit, and that's what saved him from being obliterated. Now, he made it his life's mission to try to educate young people about the horrors of nuclear war, and one way he did this was to work at a local museum. But he said that the museum just could not tell the whole story.

HIROSHI HARADA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: So he says, "the museum exhibit does not tell the whole story. If we were to reproduce the situation of that time, no one, including myself, would be able to enter the museum." And he added, "one of the issues is the smell - the smell that 140,000 citizens emit when their bodies rot and are thrown out into the blazing sun. It's never forgettable, not even now, almost 80 years later." So, like many of the hibakusha, Mr. Harada feels it's a good thing that this summit is being held in Hiroshima to send out this message that nuclear war must never happen again. But the problem is that Japan is in a very rough neighborhood with Russia, North Korea and China, and Japan is dependent on the U.S.'s nuclear umbrella for protection.

KEITH: Right, right. Scott, this is a moment where all of these leaders are in a city that was obliterated, where all of these people were killed, where this terrible thing happened. Are the leaders going to take that in? Are they going to, you know, experience those stories?

DETROW: Yeah, the summit's going to start with a visit to the Peace Memorial and Museum. And that is that iconic building you've probably seen pictures of, and I saw for the very first time today - the so-called A-bomb Dome, which was basically the only surviving structure of the atomic blast in 1945. And there's another dynamic here in that Joe Biden, alone of all these leaders, will be representing the country that made the decision to use this weapon, to drop this bomb. And, you know, we talk about this being a moment of increased nuclear threats. Chief among them is Russia. Vladimir Putin has been threatening several times to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and he has repeatedly said the U.S. used nuclear weapons in a war. The U.S. did this first. Therefore, they have no right to tell me I can't do this. So there's an interesting dynamic there.

Biden is the second U.S. president to visit Hiroshima. Barack Obama came in 2016. And he delivered a very thoughtful speech where he did not apologize for the U.S. using this weapon, but he put it into the context of war and destruction and the innocent death that comes along with war, arguing for better efforts for peace. The Biden White House has repeatedly stressed that things are different here. It's the G-7. It's not an individual Biden visit. They've said that it wouldn't be appropriate for Biden to speak individually despite the fact that he plays this outsized role here. So that's the script. Of course, you and I both know that Joe Biden often says unscripted things, and he is often very moved by visits to places with emotional impact and by meeting people. So I'm curious to see how Biden reacts if he's meeting with survivors of this blast.

KUHN: There's another dynamic at play. As the host nation, I think Japan really does not want to put Biden on the spot. And I think Biden is very aware of how the older generation of Americans, obviously especially World War II veterans, feel about, you know, the dropping of the atomic bomb. This is one of the great debates in American history. Did the dropping of the bomb cause the war to end? Did it save lives? And historians have questioned that. Some have said that Japan was going to surrender anyway, and it wasn't really necessary. But it's a political minefield. Biden does not want to really make a statement about this, much less apologize. That's just not possible. The Japanese know that, and so they're not going to press him on it.

KEITH: All right. Well, we're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, more on President Biden's trip to Asia. And we're back. And the G-7 is this meeting of the leaders of the globe's leading economies. Scott, what are you watching out for in these talks aside from the themes we already talked about?

DETROW: You know, Japan's ambassador to the United States held a press conference in Washington talking about Japan's goals. And he's worked in several of these summits before. And he said something that was really funny where he said, you know, every time, we go into these summits hoping to issue a final statement that's really short and punchy and focused, and then it just becomes bloated and bloated and goes on and on. And I thought, well, that's a sentiment I can relate to...


DETROW: ...A lot when I try to write stories. But I mean, I think Ukraine is going to be a major focus of the summit, as has been the case in just about every summit that Joe Biden has been to since the war began. We can expect more sanctions to be issued early on in this summit. There's a big question about whether or not these sanctions work. So I thought it was interesting that the summit will also get to ways that the G-7 countries can better enforce the existing sanction.

And one thing to look out for is that there have been a lot of cryptic comments and a lot of cryptic nonanswers from U.S. officials on the question of whether Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will make an appearance at the summit. Zelenskyy is currently on a bit of a world tour. He's left Ukraine. He's visited several capitals in order to shore up international support for the Ukrainian war effort. So perhaps he will make an appearance in Hiroshima. We will see. But one way or another, he will be participating and voicing his views at this summit.

KEITH: And what about, Anthony, offsetting China's influence in the region?

KUHN: Yeah, well, a lot of it is going to be about China and their talking points. I think they're going to stick to them in a pretty disciplined way. The message is going to be that China has got to act responsibly, and it must not change the status quo in Asia by resorting to force. And there, they're talking about territorial disputes in the East China Sea. They're talking about Taiwan.

At the same time, we're seeing a kind of discussion more often these days, and that is that China's neighbors here in Asia have centuries of experience in dealing with China. And sometimes they have ways of dealing with China that are a little bit different from the U.S. And they sometimes feel that the U.S. is poking China in the eye and that they can get things done without that. So it'll be really interesting to see whether Japan makes a point, which it makes domestically a lot of the time, that - you know, yes, they have to keep China from trying to coerce other nations, but it'll be interesting to see whether they also encourage the U.S. and other countries to engage with China and to keep relations stable.

KEITH: Yeah, Scott, I think there is sometimes a theme of the U.S. being more oppositional towards China than some of the U.S.'s allies.

DETROW: That is a growing theme. And sometimes, you spot those differences in the body language and in slight differences in statements. Other times, it's very blatant, like when Emmanuel Macron, French president, went to China for a high-profile red-carpet state visit in April of this year at a time when Biden is working to line up support against China. Another big way that Biden has been doing that is this - the so-called quad, which is the U.S., Japan, Australia and India, which is a coalition that's all about countering China. Biden was going to go from Japan to Australia for a quad meeting to talk more about China. That has been canceled because of the debt-ceiling negotiations. He wants to get back to D.C. quicker to finish those off.

KEITH: Yeah, and I do have a question about that. They, in theory, were supposed to be rescheduling the quad to happen on the sidelines of the G-7. Have you seen any indications of that?

DETROW: Not yet. We'll see.

KEITH: Yeah, we shall see. Scott, you were supposed to be in the pool on the plane, on Air Force One, traveling from Japan to Australia. And along the way, President Biden was supposed to stop in Papua New Guinea. And the White House had made a very big deal about this, saying it was going to be a historic visit. And now it's not happening.

DETROW: You know, about an hour after the White House cancelled this trip, I got an email that my visa to enter Papua New Guinea was approved (laughter). I do not need it. The bigger consequence is that - just to rerack here and explain the context...

KEITH: Yeah.

DETROW: ...Biden was going there because China has done enormous economic outreach to Pacific Island nations like Papua New Guinea and has really tried to improve its relationships and be seen as their top reliable trading partner and superpower friend. So the U.S. has been trying to counter this, and this was part of that effort. Papua New Guinea was very excited about this visit. They had declared the day of the visit, even though it was just for three hours, a national holiday. And now it has been canceled, and - well, post - the White House says postponed. So the next time he's in the area, he will hopefully stop there.

KEITH: It's not a nearby neighborhood.

DETROW: No, it is not. But the White House has been very defensive, saying, just because we're canceling the trip doesn't mean we should be viewed as any less of a reliable partner to Pacific Island nations. But I will say I was having conversations with people in Papua New Guinea who felt deep disappointment and said that this does further the viewpoint that perhaps the U.S. is a flaky partner who has its focus on many other things, whereas China seems to be very dedicated here.

KEITH: Anthony, how is the changed itinerary being viewed in the region?

KUHN: I would not say that the region is freaking out because Biden is not going to Australia. I think they certainly heard Janet Yellen when she said in Japan this week that defaulting on the debt would be a huge catastrophe that would send the global economy into a tailspin. And you know, they're receptive - they've been receptive to messages from Washington when presidents, including President Obama, have said the U.S. needs to lead by example. It needs to get its own economic house in order, and they're OK with that. So I think people in Asia are actually a little bit surprised to see the talk of U.S. losing credibility because Biden is staying at home to do this. And this whole concern that the U.S. cannot walk and chew gum at the same time, that it cannot pivot to Asia while constantly being distracted by crises in Europe, in the Middle East - this has been going on for a long time. It's not new at all.

KEITH: Indeed. I feel like we've been having this conversation through at least three administrations at this point - probably more.

KUHN: At least.

KEITH: All right. Well, let's leave it there for today. Anthony Kuhn, thank you so much for coming on the pod.

KUHN: Hey, thanks for having me.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DETROW: I'm Scott Detrow. I also cover the White House.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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