Paul B. Stares, General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action
The Obama administration can justifiably pat itself on the back following today's conclusion of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. Aside from the logistical challenge of convening leaders from forty-seven countries in the capital for one of the largest diplomatic events on U.S. soil since the founding of the United Nations, important progress was made on a critical issue: increasing the security of nuclear material stored around the world from theft by terrorist groups and criminal gangs.
Some observers will doubtless pronounce the summit's outcome as modest and, in any case, pre-cooked. True, much of what was agreed had been hammered out by so-called "sherpas" in advance, but those negotiations should be considered part and parcel of the summit. In short, summits raise expectations for demonstrable outcomes and whether progress is made before or at the actual meeting is largely irrelevant.
So what was accomplished?
First, the participation of so many countries, especially from the developing world, helps dispel the argument that this is primarily a U.S. or Western concern. The United States may be the number one target for al-Qaeda, but al-Qaeda is hardly the only non-state actor potentially interested in nuclear terrorism. Many countries are at risk. Moreover, no country in possession of nuclear materials wants to be held responsible should the worst happen.
Second, the summit injects important momentum toward the goal of securing all nuclear weapons-usable material within four years, which President Barack Obama announced a year ago in Prague. Besides their declarative statements, each state has signed on to specific national implementation plans to make their holdings of highly enriched uranium or separated plutonium less vulnerable to theft and trafficking. Ukraine, Chile, Mexico, and Canada also announced that they would eliminate their stockpiles of highly enriched uranium. [The role of the International Atomic Energy Agency as well as two important multilateral agreements--the International Convention for the Protection of Nuclear Materials and the Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism--will also be strengthened.] When the group of nations reconvenes in Seoul in two years--itself a good sign--participants will be under pressure to show that they have followed through on their commitments.
Third, though the Obama administration went to some length to make sure the focus of the summit did not stray from nuclear security to the larger nuclear nonproliferation agenda, the reality is that progress toweatrd preventing nuclear materials from falling into the wrong hands helps that broader objective. Along with the recently signed follow-on START treaty reducing U.S. and Russian strategic weapons and the findings of the Nuclear Posture Review, the Obama administration has put itself in a much stronger position to argue for increased international pressure against North Korea and Iran--not to mention other potential proliferators--to relinquish their nuclear ambitions.
There are still important gaps to be filled; the threat from makeshift radiological weapons is one. Doubtless those seeking more comprehensive and binding commitments will be disappointed by the summit. But multilateral diplomacy is hard, and the Obama administration should be applauded for not making the perfect the enemy of the good by seeking to construct an ambitious new global architecture for nuclear security. Patient, incremental steps may not be very exciting, but they can still achieve a lot.