Making the Nuclear Security Summit Matter: An Agenda for Action

By Luongo, Kenneth N. | Arms Control Today, January/February 2010 | Go to article overview

Making the Nuclear Security Summit Matter: An Agenda for Action


Luongo, Kenneth N., Arms Control Today


The April nuclear security summit that President Barack Obama will host in Washington will be an unprecedented event. More than 40 heads of state from the developed and developing world will gather to discuss the need to prevent nuclear terrorism and secure all vulnerable nuclear materials in four years. This four-year pledge - a cornerstone of the Obama administration's nuclear security policy - must be achieved.

To realize this goal, however, it will be essential that the summit's agreements break new ground and that the commitments be rapidly, effectively, and sustainably implemented. Most of the rules of the road for nuclear security were written during the Cold War. They are outdated and desperately need to be supplemented with new initiatives. The nuclear summit is the place to root these new standards and initiatives so they can survive and grow. Only commitments made at the top level of government are likely to endure the bureaucratic and technocratic policy grinder that has kept bold new ideas from being adopted up to this point. Allowing the nuclear summit to become an opportunity just to endorse and modestly strengthen the status quo would be extremely disappointing and potentially very dangerous.

To avoid the possibility that the summit could be long on hype and short on action, the event should be viewed as a three-phase process, with objectives clearly defined for each stage. The lead-up to the summit should be used to generate new international commitments to secure nuclear and radiological materials worldwide and to increase the capacity of national governments and international institutions to address these challenges. The summit itself, which will take place April 12-13, should culminate in the approval of specific, time-bound goals and actions by the represented governments. The postsummit period should include regular technical meetings to discuss implementation of the commitments and additional steps that should be taken as circumstances evolve. In addition, there should be an agreement on a schedule of regular public reporting on the progress toward the commitments as well as regular political level follow-up among the summit attendees and with other countries to make the process more inclusive.

The Summit's Scope

In his April 5 Prague speech, Obama outlined his arms control and nuclear nonproliferation objectives. At the top of the list was his assessment that terrorists are "determined to buy, build, or steal" a nuclear weapon. To prevent this danger of nuclear terrorism, the president outlined the following major policy goals:

* Lead a global effort to secure all nuclear weapons materials at vulnerable sites within four years.

* Convene a nuclear security summit hosted by the United States within a year.

* Set new standards and pursue new partnerships to lock down sensitive nuclear materials.

* Turn ad hoc efforts, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, into international institutions.

* Build on efforts to break up black markets, detect and intercept materials in transit, and use financial tools to disrupt dangerous trade.1

Obama's concern with nuclear terrorism is consistent with a number of recent statements by current and former government officials2 and major blue-ribbon commission reports that have been published. The 2004 "9/11 Commission Report" stated that "[preventing the proliferation of these weapons [of mass destruction (WMD)] warrants a maximum effort."3 The 2005 "9/11 Public Discourse Project: Final Report on 9/11 Commission Recommendations" gave a grade of D to the implementation of that recommendation. It further stated that the president should "dramatically accelerate the timetable for securing all nuclear weapons-usable materials around the world and request the necessary resources to complete this task." It said Congress should "provide the resources needed. …

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