Did we come away from the nuclear summit empty-handed?
This week’s bad news on nuclear proliferation far outweighed the pleasant production values surrounding the Washington Nuclear Security Summit. But let’s look at the good news first. Representatives of 47 nations declared this week that nuclear terrorism is a bad possibility. They issued a communiqué to that effect and provided a non-binding work plan to ...
This week's bad news on nuclear proliferation far outweighed the pleasant production values surrounding the Washington Nuclear Security Summit. But let's look at the good news first.
This week’s bad news on nuclear proliferation far outweighed the pleasant production values surrounding the Washington Nuclear Security Summit. But let’s look at the good news first.
Representatives of 47 nations declared this week that nuclear terrorism is a bad possibility. They issued a communiqué to that effect and provided a non-binding work plan to counter "one of the most challenging threats to international security," as the communiqué characterized it. The White House blog was stronger, calling nuclear terrorism "the most dire threat of our time." The fact that the administration recognizes this is very welcome.
But such declarations are not new. The United States saw the problem immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union and, under President Clinton, worked with Russia to safeguard nuclear material. The United Nations recognized the danger and in 2005 adopted by consensus the Convention for the Suppression of the Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. That extensive set of measures entered into force in 2007 and, by the end of last year, had been ratified and agreed by 59 nations, more than attended this summit. Both this week’s communiqué and work plan recall that convention and call for its implementation.
Nothing in the work plan is binding beyond agreement to meet again in South Korea in 2012. The tentative wording of the plan often betrays its own ineffectual outcome. For example, it says:
Participating States encourage nuclear operators and architect/engineering firms to take into account and incorporate, where appropriate [emphasis added], effective measures of physical protection and security culture into the planning, construction, and operation of civilian nuclear facilities and provide technical assistance, upon request, to other States in doing so."
Is there somewhere it would be inappropriate to incorporate physical protection and safety culture into nuclear facilities? But at least the participants were able to agree that, for the most part, this is a good idea.
The other outcomes of the summit — reiteration of a 2000 agreement between the United States and Russia on plutonium disposal, a fuzzy but positive step forward on Ukraine’s disposal of nuclear materials, closure of a Russian nuclear facility that ceased production last year — were all useful. They are, however, unlikely to achieve any real reduction in the risk of proliferation and nuclear terrorism.
That is because the real risk today comes from three sources: Pakistan, whose scientists have already contributed to proliferation and with which the United States cooperates on safeguards, North Korea, and Iran.
In his post-summit press conference, President Obama was asked why he was not pursuing sanctions against North Korea, which already has nuclear weapons. North Korea has successfully evaded American efforts to deal with its nuclear program through three administrations. Obama alluded to North Korea’s isolation but had little else to offer. Press reports tied the alleged Syrian nuclear facility attacked by Israel in 2008 to North Korean assistance, so the potential for North Korean proliferation seems clear.
On Iran, whose acquisition of a nuclear weapon might trigger a fearsome proliferation chain in the Middle East, the news during summit week was bad. Russian President Medvedev indicated early in the week that there would be no consensus on energy sanctions or on arms sanctions, ruling out those measures with the best chance of inducing self-restraint in Tehran. He later rejected anything that might amount to "crippling sanctions." A few weeks before the summit, Prime Minister Putin had announced while Secretary of State Clinton was in Moscow that Russia would proceed in aiding Iran on the Bushehr reactor, though the pattern of back-and-forth on that subject may continue. While the Washington summit was underway, Russia announced it would attend the alternative nuclear summit to be held by Iran later this week, perhaps pursing its own version of President Obama’s engagement policy. If Iran’s nose count is correct, 60 countries will show up in Tehran, producing even greater traffic gridlock in Tehran than what prevailed in Washington with fewer nations present.
Despite U.S. efforts to hold up Chinese cooperation on United Nations action as a great success for the summit, the Chinese said clearly they would discuss a U.N. resolution, rather than sanctions. They said that any U.N. resolution must contribute to diplomacy, and that pressure by sanctions or other means would not resolve the problem. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, after insisting just before the summit that the main threat to peace in the Middle East was Israel, continued to oppose sanctions based on his view that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are peaceful. In effect, then, the summit produced little action and no consensus on the actual proliferation threat, much less a firm means to cope with it.
The three prominent papers produced by the administration in recent weeks — the post-START agreement with Russia, which will reduce actual deployed warheads by only a small number; the new nuclear posture; and this week’s communiqué — appear to be aimed at generating momentum for the upcoming Non-Proliferation Treaty review meeting. The danger is that the blizzard of documents and words will be mistaken for action by those who fear nuclear terrorism but seek to avoid the costs of doing something about it. The greater danger is that others will conclude that they face only such words if they continue to develop or acquire nuclear weapons.
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