Stephen M. Walt

A solid first effort

I’m still digesting the results of the Nuclear Security Summit meeting, but I’ll give the Obama administration a pretty high mark on two grounds.  First, it’s clear that somebody in the administration did a lot of useful pre-summit diplomacy, to make sure that there some tangible results to report at the summit itself. (This is ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

I’m still digesting the results of the Nuclear Security Summit meeting, but I’ll give the Obama administration a pretty high mark on two grounds. 

First, it’s clear that somebody in the administration did a lot of useful pre-summit diplomacy, to make sure that there some tangible results to report at the summit itself. (This is like making sure you have a few major gifts in the bag in advance before you launch a major fundraising campaign). Cases in point: Ukraine’s announcement that it would surrender all of its remaining highly enriched uranium, and the joint Canadian-Mexican project to modify a Mexican research reactor so that it no longer produces weapons-grade material. These and other steps are hardly transformative, of course, but they kept the summit from being solely an exercise in public relations.

Second, Obama acknowledged that the effort to promote greater nuclear security is primarily a political-diplomatic campaign, and one that will require sustained energy and attention.  As he noted in response to one questioner: "If you are asking, ‘Do we have an international, one-world law enforcement,’ we don’t, and we never have." In other words, Obama recognizes that there are no binding legal mechanisms or coercive power to impose greater nuclear security measures on other states, and the only way to make serious progress is to a) convince other governments that this is in their interest, b) use various carrots and sticks to persuade them to make a serious effort, and c) provide resources and technical expertise where needed.

Given the nature of the problem, one can make substantial progress even if the effort to secure all loose nuclear material is less than 100 percent successful, because every kilogram of plutonium or HEU that gets secured makes it harder for bad guys to get their hands on any. As some readers probably know, I’m less concerned about the threat of "nuclear terrorism" than some of my colleagues are. But I don’t dismiss it entirely, and it is one of those (rare?) policy problems that we actually do know how to address. Securing loose nuclear materials is a lot easier and cheaper to do than addressing climate change, for example, and there are hardly any counter-arguments against it. I mean, does anybody really think poorly guarded bombs or inadequately secured weapons-grade uranium is a good thing?

So Obama’s team deserves credit for this initial effort, and for managing to pull off a meeting of 47 presidents, prime ministers, and other world leaders with virtually no visible rifts, fireworks, or gaffes. On a first reading, I’d give ’em an A-.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

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