In April 2010, Barack Obama convinced leaders from forty-seven countries to meet in Washington and discuss a topic to which most had previously paid scarce attention: securing vulnerable nuclear materials. Most of these leaders cared little about the matter at hand but were eager to please a popular new U.S. president with the goal of securing all nuclear materials within four years. The desire to cultivate Obama's favor had an important payoff: high-profile attention to an issue that has often lingered in obscurity, even compared to other concerns in the abstruse world of global nuclear politics. And that attention meant potentially significant progress in keeping nuclear-weapons materials from terrorists.
The leaders at that summit also agreed that South Korea would host another nuclear-security summit in 2012. On the face of it, South Korea was a strange choice, given that it neither possessed nuclear weapons nor the materials to make them--highly enriched uranium or separated plutonium. But Obama's first choice, Russia, turned down the opportunity, and South Korea's president Lee Myung-bak was eager to raise Seoul's standing on the global stage and give the country's burgeoning nuclear-energy industry a global seal of approval.
So late this March, fifty or so leaders will descend on Seoul to track progress since the last summit and make a batch of fresh commitments. While their presence is sure to be heralded by the U.S. government, Korean citizens are likely to be less welcoming. Many in Korea find it strange that their government should be putting so much effort into an event on nuclear terrorism when nuclear threats from North Korea and the effects of the Fukushima accident in Japan appear to be more pressing issues for the peninsula. Other countries share similar concerns, believing that the United States has devoted too much attention to the threat of nuclear terrorism at the expense of nonproliferation, safety and disarmament issues.
These concerns are likely to limit the ambitions of those who would like to see governments make significantly deeper nuclear-security commitments at Seoul. They are also likely to hamper efforts to make the current biannual security-summit process an ongoing fixture of international relations--particularly if attempts are made to stretch the current process beyond Obama's four-year time frame. States face a choice: they can move forward with a wider process that takes in more issues in order to justify continued high-level attention; they can continue discussing a relatively narrow set of issues at a lower level; or they can maintain these high-level meetings but on a less frequent basis.
In a 2009 speech in Prague, President Obama called for a world without nuclear weapons and identified nuclear terrorism as the most serious threat to international security. His focus was on nuclear-security measures aimed at preventing, detecting and responding to intentional human actions such as theft of nuclear material or sabotage of nuclear facilities. The international community has a long way to go before it can address such issues effectively, however. Some limited international mechanisms cover aspects of the problem, but there is no comprehensive international framework for nuclear security.
In his Prague speech, Obama announced plans to hold a nuclear-security summit in 2010. In addition to delegates from the forty-seven represented nations, this first summit in Washington pulled in representatives from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the European Union and the United Nations. The meeting produced a communique, which set broad goals, and a work plan that detailed objectives for all states. The work plan emphasized cooperation, whether through sharing information or coordinating efforts among states on various levels. Though all countries supported these documents, the commitments and goals …