On March 30, President Barack Obama hosted the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit, where global leaders convene in an effort to secure nuclear materials and prevent nuclear terrorism. Along with Obama’s vision articulated in a 2009 speech in Prague of a world without nuclear weapons, the summits provide an important marker for assessing Obama’s record on reducing the security risks posed by nuclear weapons and material.
Why Obama’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Commitments Fell Short
It appears that with the exception of the Iran nuclear deal, President Barack Obama will leave an arms control legacy that is arguably little better than that of his predecessor, Miles Pomper wrote in February. Obama’s presidency has served as an object lesson in the limits of a U.S. president’s ability to shape a global nuclear order.
In June 2015, Richard Weitz wrote that, as expected, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference was particularly contentious. That’s because U.S.-Russia tension hindered cooperation that would have been central to reaching consensus on the treaty’s so-called pillars—nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
There were numerous roadblocks to a successful NPT Review Conference, Richard Weitz wrote last July, from an increasingly vocal global disarmament movement to poor U.S.-Russia relations. That said, there remain promising areas for collaboration, even between hostile Moscow and Washington, though the Iran deal won’t help overcome their differences on nuclear security. Still, Weitz argued, there are reasons for optimism.
Although the international community has high expectations for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the organization simply isn’t getting the financial support it needs, Jessica C. Varnum wrote in January 2014. Its precarious state could undermine key nonproliferation and security efforts, particularly pertaining to the Iran deal, exposing the need for fundamental changes to the IAEA’s funding procedures.
In July 2014, Miles Pomper called India’s ratification of an additional protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency “the country’s latest step to implement a controversial nuclear cooperation agreement reached with the U.S. in 2008.” But, he added, the pact has yet to produce the promised economic benefits for the two countries. And its strategic benefits have been decidedly mixed, striking a significant blow to nonproliferation.
An Ad Hoc Approach to Nuclear Security
The final Nuclear Security Summit comes at a particularly poignant moment, given what has come to light about the Brussels terrorists’ interest in targeting nuclear facilities, Ellen Laipson wrote on March 29, just days after the attacks. For better or worse, she added, the summits represent a more ad hoc approach to advancing global cooperation on transnational threats.
In November 2014, Richard Weitz argued that Russia’s decision to skip the first planning meeting for the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit was an alarming sign that U.S.-Russia tensions over Ukraine and more could disrupt their nuclear security partnership. The move is extremely counterproductive, potentially sabotaging bilateral cooperation on nonproliferation issues, he added.
Despite challenges to developing international standards on nuclear safety and security, the Nuclear Security Summits have been a major step toward nonproliferation, Richard Weitz wrote in March 2014. The summits, he added, could be one of Obama’s major international security legacies, sustaining global attention on an issue that previously had preoccupied mostly technical experts.
Serious threats require serious action, and there is broad nonpartisan agreement that nuclear terrorism remains one of the most daunting threats of the 21st century, Carl Robichaud wrote in March 2012. But the Nuclear Security Summit process remains limited, because there is no globally agreed-upon standard for securing nuclear material, leaving us reliant on a patchwork of voluntary steps, bilateral agreements and unfunded mandates.
The greatest obstacle to nuclear terrorism is not designing a weapon, concocting a plot or recruiting volunteers willing to suffer martyrdom, Richard Weitz wrote during the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit. Rather, it is acquiring the fissile nuclear material needed for a nuclear explosive device. Accordingly, the international community must work to establish binding legal standards and an enduring global framework to secure nuclear materials.