At the just-concluded summit on nuclear security, representatives from 47 nations — 38 of them heads of state — joined with host U.S. President Barack Obama to rally support for the goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years. Coming on the heels of publication of the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review and the signing of a bilateral strategic arms reduction treaty between the United States and Russia, the summit was a unique opportunity to build international consensus on one of the most dangerous and misunderstood security threats. It also keeps the pressure on leaders to ensure that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Review Conference, to be hosted by the United Nations in May, will also be a success.
It is tempting to think that the threat posed by nuclear weapons and materials has diminished since the end of the Cold War. While the prospect of a superpower confrontation that ends in planetary destruction has receded, ironically, the end of that standoff in many ways increased the chances that nuclear weapons might be used in other circumstances.
The end of the bipolar world order loosened the grip the two superpowers had over client states, raised doubts about the value of those ties and emboldened some governments to develop their own nuclear arsenals, either for security or status. Nuclear facilities and specialists in the former Soviet Union have lost their former high status. Their knowhow and the materials and technologies they once safeguarded are now available on the open market.
With terror groups like al-Qaida pledging to acquire or develop nuclear capabilities, there should be no mistaking the gravity of the threat posed by unsecured nuclear materials. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Many, if not most, nations refuse to believe that they are threatened by nuclear terrorism. It is seen as either the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters or a danger that is focused squarely on the U.S. Widely ignored is the grim fact that as American targets have become tougher, terrorists have had no compunction about attacking more vulnerable civilian sites — ask residents of Jakarta, London, Madrid, Mumbai, Nairobi or Dar es Salaam. Moreover, the terrorists’ twisted logic — if it can be called that — allows them to justify any attack. All it takes is a perceived grievance.
The nuclear security summit that Mr. Obama hosted on April 12 and 13 was intended to build that missing consensus. It worked. After two days of intense discussions, the leaders agreed on a 12-point communique that reaffirms their commitment to strengthen nuclear security and reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism, and pledged to secure all vulnerable nuclear material within four years by way of a 50-point work plan. The plan relies on existing frameworks — proof that the tools to fight nuclear proliferation are in hand: It is just the will that is lacking.
In addition to pledges to honor previously made commitments, several states announced concrete steps at the meeting itself. Ukraine promised to dispose of all of its 90 kg of highly enriched uranium (HEU) by 2012; Chile agreed to give up its HEU too. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Canada will help Mexico convert a research reactor so that it uses less-enriched fuel.
Russia and the U.S. built on the cooperation embodied in their recent strategic arms reduction treaty. Russia announced that it will shut down its last plutonium production reactor, while both Washington and Moscow will each dispose of 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium — enough to build 17,000 nuclear weapons — and seek to get rid of additional material.
The representatives also agreed to meet again in Seoul in 2012 to assess their progress.
The summit clearly signals newfound international determination to clamp down on proliferation. That should be worrisome to nations like North Korea and Iran that appear bent on acquiring their own nuclear capabilities; Pyongyang has shown little inclination to share its skills or knowledge. (North Korea was not invited to the summit.) It is especially heartening that even China is reportedly now more inclined to work with the U.S. and other nations at the United Nations to take a tougher line against Iran.
The tide appears to be turning. Mr. Obama’s determination to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons has reinvigorated global efforts to reach that goal. Success will require efforts from all states, but, finally, it looks like optimism may be order. The indifference that once characterized much of the international community when it came to fighting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction appears to be ending. Credit real leadership from the two states with the most nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia, which have recognized that they must lead by example. Their readiness to make significant cuts to their strategic arsenals should motivate other nations to take action as well — whether by cutting their arsenals or getting serious about nonproliferation. It is about time.