President Obama said this morning at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington that “today is an opportunity — not simply to talk, but to act. Not simply to make pledges, but to make real progress on the security of our people. All this, in turn, requires something else, which is something more fundamental. It will require a new mindset — that we summon the will, as nations and as partners, to do what this moment in history demands.”
Securing nuclear weapons and fissile material is an important issue. Successive U.S. presidents have devoted significant time and energy to this effort, and billions of dollars have been spent through programs championed by Sen. Richard Lugar and former senator Sam Nunn. These are worthwhile efforts. But how does this meeting of 47 foreign leaders lessen the likelihood that terrorists will get their hands on nuclear material?
The administration has been quick to claim progress this week as Ukraine announced its intention to give up its highly enriched uranium (HEU) over the next two years. Even Canada joined the party, announcing that it would also transfer HEU from a reactor in Ontario to the United States. But these are not accomplishments that require the time or pressure of an international summit to achieve.
Much of the administration’s nuclear strategy in recent weeks has involved actions at the edges that avoid the real issues lurking in plain view. The president has repeatedly expressed his concern about the state of the nonproliferation regime. If Iran goes nuclear and North Korea is allowed to continue to flout its international obligations, the nonproliferation regime becomes nothing more than a talking shop, meeting from time to time in Geneva, Vienna, and New York, and this president’s nuclear-security summit will just go down in history as another stop on that circuit.
If the president were serious about nonproliferation, he would have made the real threats to the nonproliferation regime — Iran, North Korea, Syria — all countries that have violated their international obligations, the focus of this summit. That would have been “what this moment in history demands.”
– Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.