It was on a visit to Prague in 2009 that President Obama fired a shot across the bow of nuclear proliferation. Articulating a somewhat utopian vision of a nuclear-free world, Mr. Obama’s first big foreign policy speech focused on “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Pledging a ban on U.S. nuclear testing, he said he would rethink and downgrade the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security doctrine. Seven other states were known to have nuclear weapons at the time. North Korea has since become the eighth nuclear state, and it’s possible to count Israel, which has never tested a nuke and maintains a policy of careful ambiguity about whether it has a bomb.
Mr. Obama’s commitment to eliminating the thousands of known nuclear weapons was criticized as impossibly idealistic — “Obama’s lonely quest,” said The Economist.
The president acknowledged that it might be impossible to realize that goal in his lifetime. Still, his speech resulted in putting the topic of nuclear disarmament into the geopolitical agenda, at least for discussion, to a degree that it had not been since the 1960s.
It also led to the creation of the Nuclear Security Summit, which convenes for the fourth time March 31 and will be led again by Mr. Obama.
The first Nuclear Security Summit was held in Washington in April 2010. Forty-seven countries met and agreed on broad declarations of intent and that the threat of nuclear terrorism was real, serious and urgent. They also agreed to work cooperatively to secure nuclear material within their own borders, and to identify and secure other vulnerable nuclear material worldwide.
They gathered again in Seoul in 2012 to assess how their 2010 resolve went. A few more countries came to the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, and the group broadened the scope of vigilance to include radiological material that, while not suitable for a nuclear weapon, could be used in a “dirty bomb.”
The third Nuclear Security Summit, in 2014 in The Hague, continued discussions about how to make sure everything fissile was under lock and key. It also established radiation-detecting equipment at ports and transit points to prevent nuclear smuggling, while Mr. Obama noted that “12 countries and two dozen nuclear facilities around the world have now rid themselves entirely of highly enriched uranium and plutonium.”
The 2014 summit required examination of Russia’s recent annexation of the Ukraine. Mr. Obama addressed this, saying, “One of the achievements of our first summit in 2010 was Ukraine’s decision to remove all its highly enriched uranium from its nuclear fuel sites. Had that not happened, those dangerous nuclear materials would still be there now, and the difficult situation we’re dealing with in Ukraine today would involve yet another level of concern.”
Agenda for 2016
World leaders of more than 50 countries and four international organizations that focus on preventing nuclear terrorism throughout the globe are gathering March 31 and April 1 for the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the District of Columbia.
North Korea is likely to be mentioned frequently in absentia, especially as conferees take up discussions on the “evolving threat.”
This year’s Nuclear Security Summit will be missing Russia’s voice, however. Even though Russia owns nearly half of the world’s known and presumed 16,300 nuclear weapons, its leadership indicated soon after the 2014 summit that it would not participate in this year’s event. Russia has since voiced skepticism about the effectiveness of the Nuclear Security Summit as a governing body and raised concerns about its interference in the work of international organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Mr. Obama has said he wants to “finish strong in 2016,” and the legacy of the summits will be addressed as the process is coming to an end, barring an extension.
Its achievements include reducing the amount of unsecured nuclear material — a goal that will need to be continued under the auspices of the IAEA, which has been a key player in all the summits.
Also, at The Hague in 2014, 35 countries signed a joint statement, “Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation,” also called the “Trilateral Initiative,” which is the primary agreement for implementing security of nuclear and radiological materials. Notably, the nuclear-owning nations Russia, China, India and Pakistan have not signed that accord, but it is hoped that the IAEA will bring them on board.
Separately, the Nuclear Industry Summit and a nongovernmental organization event called Solutions for a Secure Nuclear Future are also held this week in Washington.
• Larry Moffitt is vice president of The Washington Times Foundation. He is former vice president for editorial at Tiempos del Mundo newspapers in Latin America.
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