Bring in the Big Guns

Article excerpt

Byline: Jonathan Alter

Obama prioritizes nonproliferation.

An enduring mystery of modern global politics is why the biggest threat to security--the one most likely to kill hundreds of thousands or millions of people--has been such an afterthought. Harvard's Matthew Bunn puts the chances of terrorists exploding a nuclear device in the next decade at about 30 percent (others say 50). Of course, he says, no one knows the real percentage. But he asks a reasonable question: Let's say the chances are only 1 percent. Can you imagine how any community would react to a new nuclear-power plant if it were told the odds of a meltdown were one in 100? The plant would never open. And yet the problem of loose nukes falling into the hands of terrorists has, until now, been handled at the ministerial level.

President Obama's elevation of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism to the top of his agenda is an effort to restore common sense to the world's conception of its own security. Shortly before his landmark speech on nuclear weapons a year ago in Prague, he confided to aides, "If we can do this and do health care, we will have made a huge difference." The "this" is not his dream of eliminating all nuclear weapons, which Obama doesn't expect in his lifetime; it's real progress toward disarmament and fulfillment of his pledge to secure all loose nukes by 2012.

To that end, Obama is hosting 40 world leaders this week at a first-of-its-kind Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. The aim is to ask all major countries to explain what they're doing to secure not just nuclear weapons (applicable only to the half-dozen members of that club), but also their enriched uranium and other dual-use technologies. Obama sees himself as a complacency buster. Many of these countries wrongly assume that terrorists couldn't gain access to nuclear materials, and wrongly figure that if a device were to detonate, it would do so in the U.S. or Israel--not where they live. If it does nothing else, the summit will disabuse Obama's peer group of these myths and elevate the issue to the presidential level.

In May, many of the same nations will gather in New York to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The treaty is the best way to hold the high ground with Iran and North Korea. Leverage doesn't come from bombast; it comes from the world saying to rogue states, "We did our part, now you do yours. …