Foreign Policy Blogs

The Nuclear Security Summit in Context

In order to better understand what the recent Nuclear Security Summit was all about and what will come next, it makes sense to begin by examining the Obama Administration’s strategy for dealing with the global challenges posed by nuclear weapons.  This is clearly an issue upon which President Obama plans to build his legacy as a diplomat, and we can expect to see a good amount of attention to the subject over the course of his presidency.

Setting aside the debates about the practicality, and even the desirability, of the objective for another time, Obama has set a long-term goal (for sure beyond the duration of his presidency even if he is reelected in 2012) of eventually ridding the world of nuclear weapons entirely.  This Nuclear-Free World goal was first announced in Prague of last year, and the strategy for achieving it was largely revealed through the new Nuclear Posture Review.  There are two main fronts to Obama’s approach.

The first front involves reducing the stockpiles of nuclear weapons held by members of the nuclear club.  Obama wants to take the lead in this area to demonstrate that no country – the U.S. included – is going to be exempted from this global nuclear weapons reduction program and to counter the typical double-standard argument (“you have nukes; why can’t we?”) made by aspiring members of the nuclear club.  The successor Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the U.S. and Russia was completed as part of this front, but this is not the main front in the march toward the Nuclear-Free World.

The second front – stopping the spread of nuclear weapons to new countries and terrorists – is really the more important challenge that Obama is trying to address, and it is a much more difficult one as well.  Rogue nuclear states like North Korea continue to vex the international community, and the thought of an A.Q. Khan figure someday selling nuclear technology to terrorists is enough to keep anyone awake at night.  The problem is that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which is supposed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, has failed to do so in the past and presently is doing nothing to stop Iran from making progress towards the development of its own nuclear weapon.  Iran has so little fear of the international community that it actually defiantly timed an announcement that it had entered a new phase of uranium enrichment to coincide with the Nuclear Security Summit.  Ouch.

The NPT will go under review next month, and the Nuclear Security Summit was really about setting the table for that meeting.  The summit took the opportunity to go after the lower-hanging fruit of securing domestic nuclear materials to 1) address that important issue and 2) begin the process of building a diplomatic “coalition of the willing” to beef up NPT enforcement.  This will be much more difficult than persuading countries to take domestic security measures because coercive diplomacy is typically an unpleasant business.  It is also the reason that countries like North Korea and Iran were not invited: they are obviously not interested in joining such a coalition and, in fact, will eventually be two of its targets.

However, it is not at all guaranteed that this strategy will work.  NPT countries are committed to preventing proliferation under the terms of the treaty, but this does not necessarily mean that following through on treaty enforcement obligations is their top international concern.  Sometimes there are competing geopolitical interests that discourage firm NPT enforcement by key countries, like the interest China and others have in Iranian energy.  This lack of strong enforcement is why the NPT has not worked, and the credibility of the global nonproliferation regime has declined accordingly.

The Obama Administration knows this, which is why the main goal of the Nuclear Security Summit was to begin raising the international priority level for actively supporting the NPT and resolving tough proliferation cases.  “We used the summit shamelessly as a forcing event,” the National Security Council’s Gary Samore is quoted in the Washington Post as having said.  In short, it was sort of a kick-off event rather than a stand-alone conference.

Will this strategy work?  It is difficult to say at this point, and there are many potentially insurmountable challenges ahead.  However, the fact that a follow-up meeting to track progress from the summit will occur in six short months indicates that the administration is serious about pursuing this project aggressively.  President Obama has staked much of his diplomatic reputation on this issue, and it will not likely fade far from view over the coming months.



Ryan Haddad

Ryan Haddad is the Senior Blogger for U.S. Foreign Policy at FPA. A foreign affairs and national security analyst based in Washington, D.C., he worked in European and Eurasian affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce during the Bush Administration and is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Providence College. He can be followed on Twitter at @RIHaddad.