Some of the news coverage anticipating this week’s Nuclear Security Summit was confused (WaPo, NYT) about the purpose of this meeting. It’s becoming clear that Barack Obama had many goals for this meeting.
The stated purpose is securing fissionable material. That sounds pretty boring, but David Hoffman gives us one example of why it’s important. The New York Times editorialized a nice list of things that might get done, also pretty boring.
But the news coming out of the summit is not boring. Shoutout to South Africa for giving up its nukes all by itself! And lookee here! Ukraine will give up its stockpile of enriched uranium! Canada too! Georgia has broken a uranium-smuggling ring! Here’s a list of goodies that were offered up, with more here. Let’s hear it from some European high-level politicos! China is getting a lot of attention, too, partly to secure its cooperation on Iran sanctions. Iran and North Korea weren’t invited.
More quietly, there were the side meetings in which all sorts of things were discussed and politicked over, one of which will be next month’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference.
It looks like this is one more part of Barack Obama’s long view.
Getting world stocks of fissionable materials under control is a good thing, and this conference looks like it has moved us closer to that goal. Opportunities in this area, despite nice words from Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, have been squandered since 1991. Barack Obama is serious about this in ways the previous two presidents never were.
But that’s not the only thing that is going on at this conference. As the numbers of nuclear weapons go down, the accounting has to get sharper. Warheads have to be counted, rather than delivery vehicles. All plutonium and uranium will have to be declared and tracked. The agreements from this conference will move a few small steps closer to that goal, bringing it closer to normalization in the minds of the attendees, and eventually their military and bureaucracy, along with the general public.
Additionally, other nations that have nuclear weapons besides the United States and Russia have to be brought into the process. So do nations that don’t have nuclear weapons but do have large stocks of fissionable material, like Japan. And other nations that don’t have that fissionable material but need to watch out for smuggling.
So we have the largest gathering of heads of state since the beginning of the United Nations to tell everyone they’ve got a role and to get them bought into that role.
I share the Armchair Generalist’s skepticism about the degree of hazard in nuclear terrorism. That was the focus of this meeting, and it’s today's biggest nuclear danger as defined by the Nuclear Posture Review. But I would ask J. and others to consider that for this week’s meeting, the hyping was done in order to get people’s attention for the boring things that need to be done. I’m not sure it would have worked if he and I had written the hazard assessment.
There’s a parallel to the development of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The International Atomic Energy Agency was formed in the 1950s, before the NPT, with duties of safeguarding nuclear activities. The Agency then came to serve the NPT. And not everyone signed the NPT at first; it came into force in 1970 with only 43 signatories after almost ten years of drafts and conferences. Hmmm...47 attending the Nuclear Security Summit. There’s nothing magic about those approximately-40 numbers; just that they're enough to get things going. And early in the summit, Obama declared that there will be a followon meeting in two years, to be held in South Korea. That keeps the pressure on countries to deliver and underlines the importance of the effort.
One reason why nations make and hold nuclear weapons is prestige. Britain and France, stung by World War II, showed the world that they still were powerful by building nuclear arsenals. Pakistan is proud of its “Islamic bomb.” There has grown up a sense that to be taken seriously, a country must have nuclear weapons. This sense was powerfully reinforced by Bush’s “Axis of Evil” and the attack on Iraq.
And the Nuclear Security Summit is turning that around. Let’s celebrate NOT having nuclear weapons! Yay South Africa! Congratulations Ukraine! High-five Georgia! It’s hard to make news with good news. But these countries deserve praise for their actions, and they’re getting their fifteen minutes of fame.
There will always be an element of prestige in having nuclear weapons, of course, and there are other reasons for having them as well. But attaching prestige to actions toward a safer and more peaceful world is a useful counterweight.
Steven Walt makes the point that all this took serious staff work before the conference. That’s a big change from the previous president’s practices, and a welcome one. Joe Klein repeats a point that many of us kept making throughout that eight years, that diplomacy consists of a series of small steps, which, I will add, come about because of that hard work in the background. The national leaders at the summit are bound to notice this careful diplomacy.