Nuclear Security Summit: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Earlier this week, President Obama hosted leaders from 46 nations at a 2-day Nuclear Security Summit to address cooperative efforts to protect weapon-usable nuclear materials and to safeguard against nuclear terrorism.  The summit is being hailed as success because it forced countries that had failed to clean up their nuclear surpluses to formulate detailed plans to deal with them, and it kicked into action nations that had failed to move on previous commitments.  In particular, world leaders endorsed Obama’s call for securing all nuclear materials around the globe within four years to keep them out of the grasp of terrorists.

The Good

The good news is some forward progress towards securing and safeguarding nuclear material.  To the extent that we should be truly worried about the possibility of nuclear terrorism (what Condoleezza Rice once ominously described as "the smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud"), being able to lock up so-called loose nukes and secure plutonium or uranium to make a nuclear weapon are the best ways to alleviate those worries.  For once, the United States seems to be leading by example – agreeing to a deal with Russia to dispose of tons of weapons-grade plutonium (although doing so won’t actually start for another eight years).  And this is on the heels of Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signing a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with both countries agreeing to cut their nuclear stockpiles to 1,550 warheads.

The United States will also work with Canada and Mexico to convert the fuel in Mexico’s research reactor from highly enriched uranium to a lower-enriched fuel that is less suitable for building a nuclear weapon.  And Mexico further agreed that once the fuel is converted, it will get rid of all its highly enriched uranium.  This followed Ukraine’s announcement that it will ship all its highly enriched uranium to protected storage outside its borders – possibly to Russia or United States.

The Bad

If not bad, at least less good is that none of the accomplishments of the summit are binding nor is there any mechanism to enforce them.  So, in many respects, they are more political show than go.

Moreover, none of the actions pledged came from countries that are considered nuclear "problem children."  Indeed, North Korea and Iran were not invited to the summit.  But if they represent the problem, how can you hope to make any progress if they are not part of a discussion of the solution? Not that including Pyongyang or Tehran would have resulted in the desired outcome of them giving up their nukes (or in Iran’s case, nuclear aspirations), but excluding them only further isolates those regimes and probably reinforces their recalcitrance.

And the notion that Iran’s behavior can be modified via sanctions (according to the president, "What sanctions do accomplish is, hopefully, to change the calculus of a country like Iran") is akin to believing that the regime in Tehran is simply a petulant child that can be punished into doing what we want.  (Ironically, President Obama quoted Albert Einstein during the summit – his warning at the dawn of the nuclear age: "We are drifting towards a catastrophe beyond comparison" – yet more talk of sanctions is Einstein’s definition of insanity: continuing to do the same thing but expecting different results.)  And we continue to ignore the fact that Iran might have legitimate (from its perspective) security reasons for wanting nuclear weapons.  I doubt that the newly stated nuclear policy of not to use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states that are in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is of much comfort to Iran since their worry is regime change, not being nuked, and the promise doesn’t say anything about using conventional military force a la Iraq.  (Also, Iran’s uranium enrichment program is technically not a violation of the NPT.)

And the nuclear double standard was more than apparent when Israel decided that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided not to attend the summit (instead sending Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor).  To put it kindly, that was Israel telling the United States and the rest of the world that it was going to do what it wants to do, i.e., not give up its nuclear arsenal.  And the U.S. response – according to U.S. National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer, "Israel is a close ally, and we look forward to continuing to work closely with it on issues related to nuclear security" – was more tail wagging the dog.

The Ugly

But worse is that President Obama perpetuated President Bush’s "smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud" in his remarks at the opening plenary session:

Two decades after the end of the Cold War, we face a cruel irony of history – the risk of a nuclear confrontation between nations has gone down, but the risk of nuclear attack has gone up.

Nuclear materials that could be sold or stolen and fashioned into a nuclear weapon exist in dozens of nations.  Just the smallest amount of plutonium – about the size of an apple – could kill and injure hundreds of thousands of innocent people.  Terrorist networks such as al-Qaeda have tried to acquire the material for a nuclear weapon, and if they ever succeeded, they would surely use it.  Were they to do so, it would be a catastrophe for the world – causing extraordinary loss of life, and striking a major blow to global peace and stability.

In short, it is increasingly clear that the danger of nuclear terrorism is one of the greatest threats to global security – to our collective security.

Nuclear terrorism may be the worst case scenario, but it is also a very low-probability one.  We can ill afford to keep worrying and trying to do something about an event that is highly unlikely to happen when terrorists can wreak plenty of havoc more easily with readily available old-fashioned explosives.  Which is not to say that we shouldn’t do anything about the prospect of nuclear terrorism – but we need to put the threat in proper perspective.

So while the Obama administration may not be engaged in fear mongering the way the Bush administration did as a pretext for invading Iraq, it is making some of the same mistakes.  What was it again that Einstein said about doing the same thing but expecting different results?

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.