from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

The Nuclear Security Summits: Welcoming Strangers Bearing Gifts

U.S. President Barack Obama walks onstage for his press conference at the conclusion of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC, on April 1, 2016.

April 15, 2016

U.S. President Barack Obama walks onstage for his press conference at the conclusion of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC, on April 1, 2016.
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The following is a guest post by Naomi Egelresearch associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance program.

The nuclear security summits, one of President Obama’s greatest legacies, have unquestionably made the world safer by reducing global quantities of fissile materials and improving the security of existing nuclear and radioactive materials. When President Obama hosted the first such summit in 2010, there was plenty of skepticism about what an ad hoc gathering of heads of state could accomplish. But that meeting surpassed expectations—as did subsequent ones in Seoul in 2012 and The Hague in 2014. World leaders arrived at each summit with meaningful pledges to lock up the world’s most dangerous materials—and they followed through on them. The fourth (and last) summit, held just two weeks ago (March 31-April 1, 2016) in Washington, went even further. It established mechanisms to ensure continued progress on nuclear security without summitry.

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The 2016 summit attained several noteworthy goals. First, it achieved the required number of ratifications to bring into force the amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials, paving the way for more rigorous global physical nuclear security standards. Second, China and India endorsed a joint statement from the 2014 summit in The Hague, through which states agreed to implement International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recommendations to strengthen nuclear and radiological source security. Third, Argentina completed the removal of all of its highly enriched uranium (HEU), effectively making Latin American an HEU-free zone. Fourth, Japan announced the successful removal of more than five hundred kilograms of HEU and separated plutonium from its territory.

Most importantly, world leaders guaranteed that cooperation on nuclear security would outlive the summit process, creating a contact group led by the sherpas (national points of contact for the summits) to sustain momentum on the issue. They also endorsed five action plans, each of which will be carried out by a different multilateral agency or initiative: the United Nations, the IAEA, INTERPOL, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction.

Delivering on these action plans will not be easy. It remains to be seen how the five multilateral bodies—each with its own distinctive politics, institutional culture, and membership—will incorporate the nuclear security agenda into their existing operations. At the UN and IAEA, for instance, political jockeying already threatens many worthwhile initiatives. Moreover, these organizations and initiatives will require increased and sustained funding to accomplish the additional missions they have now adopted.

There are also areas where the summit fell short. Most importantly, it focused entirely on improving the security and transparency of civilian stocks of nuclear material, while remaining silent on the military stocks that comprise roughly 83 percent of fissile material worldwide. In addition, Russia’s nonattendance meant that the summit made no progress with the country that holds the most fissile material in the world. And while China engaged far more actively than in past summits, both India and Pakistan remained reluctant to participate. But there are also issues the summit was never intended to address—namely, disarmament—and the success of the summit should not be measured against false metrics.

More positively, the new contact group is a laudable innovation, which will help ensure the implementation and consolidation of commitments agreed through the summit process. While it is not intended to generate new commitments, it could help push forward new thinking and generate momentum to hold another nuclear summit in the future.

More on:

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Nuclear Weapons

Beyond their tangible contributions to nuclear security, the summits have introduced a promising new model of international cooperation. They are part of a larger shift away from formal, standing institutions—which tend to seek consensus-based outcome documents—to informal groupings that make progress through “opt-in” contributions from individual countries (or groups of countries).

The second nuclear security summit in Seoul popularized the concept of “gift baskets”—voluntary initiatives offered by different groupings of countries. That approach has since been picked up by the Global Health Security Agenda (as “action packages”) and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (as “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” or INDCs). At the Paris climate conference last December, this approach helped break the deadlock on climate change negotiations and drive global contributions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This individualized model—whether termed gift baskets, action packages, or INDCs—is a pragmatic approach to global governance. It recognizes that national interests and capacities are diverse and uneven, and that the most promising route to cooperation is to allow states to contribute what their own circumstances permit, rather than seeking the lowest common denominator that can command consensus.

Less certain is whether this general approach will lead to sustained—and intensified—contributions, or whether its primary value is in galvanizing action where there is low-hanging fruit ready to be picked. The future trajectories of gift baskets are also unclear: will they be opened up to allow all states—including those not invited to the summits—to participate?

The nuclear security summits have made the world a safer place—surely a cause for celebration. At the same time, much hard work lies ahead, as the world seeks to turn these ad-hoc initiatives into a sustainable framework for preventing nuclear terrorism.

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