Nuclear Security Summit in Washington Obama Fights for Ambitious Peace Plans

President Obama has attracted leaders from 47 countries to attend a two-day summit on nuclear security issues. Still, his ambitious plans for keeping nuclear weapons out of some hands and getting them out of others hasn't won over everyone -- including administration insiders.

An Iranian Shahab-3 missile, the longest ranged ballistic missle in its arsenal, rises into the air after being test-fired at an undisclosed location in the Iranian desert on July 9, 2008.
AFP

An Iranian Shahab-3 missile, the longest ranged ballistic missle in its arsenal, rises into the air after being test-fired at an undisclosed location in the Iranian desert on July 9, 2008.

By in Washington


US presidents can develop visions more easily than other politicians. But making them a reality can be just as hard for the world's most powerful man as it is for his less influential colleagues. Barack Obama's aides learned this lesson once again at a press conference prior to the Nuclear Security Summit, which Obama has invited leaders from 46 countries to attend in Washington on Monday and Tuesday.

The aides put great effort into spelling out Obama's glowing vision of a world free of nuclear arms or their theft and a more peaceful future for all mankind. The president even stepped in to make a statement of his own: "We know that organizations like al-Qaida are in the process of trying to secure a nuclear weapon," Obama warned. If they succeed in doing so, he went on to argue, it would present the "single biggest threat to US security" and "change the security landscape of this country and around the world."

Still, journalists attending the press conference were less focused on nuclear terrorism than on the many smaller issues surrounding the major summit. For example, since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opted to skip the conferences, presumably in order to dodge having to answer questions about Israel's nuclear weapons, they wanted to know what it would mean for the Middle East peace process. They were also curious about whether the presence of Chinese President Hu Jintao would have any affect on the ongoing currency-valuation row between Beijing and Washington. And they also asked whether Obama shouldn't be paying more attention to the worsening political situations in Nigeria and Kyrgyzstan.

That's how it is with visions: They start to blur when it comes to the everyday details -- even with American presidents. Yet Obama's Nuclear Security Summit, a kind of super-sized G-20 meeting, is historic even by Washington standards. Never before has the American capital played host to such a gathering of world leaders. Comparisons are already being drawn between it and the conference held in San Francisco in 1945 that led to the creation of the United Nations.

Likewise, the degree of consensus to be found at this meeting seems to be just as strong as it was then. "Most of the world's countries, with the exception of North Korea, have an interest in limiting the threat posed by nuclear smuggling efforts," Steven Pifer, an arms control expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, told reporters.

Eliminating the Risk of Nuclear Terrorism

Along with protecting existing nuclear arsenals, the main item on the summit's agenda is securing plutonium and highly enriched uranium supplies around the world. As Gary Samore, Obama's top adviser on limiting the spread of nuclear weapons, told reporters last week: "Those are the two materials that can be used for nuclear explosives. And if we're able to lock those down and deny them to non-state actors, then we have essentially solved the risk of nuclear terrorism."

Experts estimate that only 55 pounds (25 kilograms) of enriched uranium is needed to produce a small nuclear bomb. But 3.5 million pounds of the material, along with around 1.1 million pounds of plutonium, is spread out in 40 countries around the world. In order to lessen the ambitions of countries without nuclear weapons to acquire them, countries with nuclear capabilities have given much of this amount to them for civilian purposes. The non-governmental organization Fissile Materials Working Group estimates that this material is enough to create 120,000 nuclear bombs. Nuclear experts, such as Harvard University's Graham Allison, even warn that a nuclear bomb explosion in an American city is more than likely by 2014.

As he announced during his election campaign, Obama wants to secure the dangerous material throughout the world within four years' time. The drive fits with his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, which he first articulated in a speech delivered in Prague in 2009.

Last week, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a disarmament treaty in that city, which aims to reduce American and Russian nuclear arsenals by about a third. In a review of US nuclear weapons strategy prior to the meeting, Obama also ruled out a first strike against any country that abides by the conditions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Exerting Pressure on the Sidelines

Even Obama will admit that he won't live to see his vision become a reality. And, despite his pledges to hammer out a "concrete plan" during this week's summit in Washington, no one is expecting it to produce any highly significant decisions.

Likewise, discussions on how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions would also require much more time than this conference has to offer. Nevertheless, by June, Obama still hopes to have the global community implement tougher sanctions on the regime in Tehran. To that end, the president is using the summit as an opportunity to hold one-on-one talks with individual world leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But time is of the essence: As influential Senator Joe Lieberman warns, if there was a military strike against Iran or it gets its hands on nuclear weapons, it would completely undo all of Obama's efforts toward nuclear disarmament.

Opinions regarding the dangers of nuclear smuggling also diverge widely around the globe. But there's no doubt that some progress has been made. When Obama traveled to Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan as a young senator in 2005, he was shocked by the notoriously insecure storage facilities for nuclear weapons he found. Since then, silos in the former Soviet countries have become considerably better secured. The US has also made massive investments in helping its allies, such as Pakistan, implement better security measures for their arsenals. And special American teams have been securing uranium and plutonium at the civilian facilities of other countries for years.

'The Stuff of Hollywood Movies'

Despite all these worries, many countries still don't take the threat of nuclear smuggling particularly seriously. As Gregory Schulte, former US ambassador to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said during a recent lecture, according to Bloomburg: "Many Middle Eastern countries don't see the threat" and regard the American obsession with it as "the stuff of Hollywood movies."

Even Obama's larger vision of a world without nuclear weapons is met with skepticism in many parts of the globe. After all, the skeptics say, even with the recently announced reductions, the vast majority of the world's nuclear weapons will still be found in the US and Russia. And they are also the countries that tried for decades to be the ones who decided who would or wouldn't be allowed to possess nuclear weapons.

What's more, would-be nuclear powers can see just how effective possessing a nuclear weapon is. The world only takes North Korea seriously because of its bomb, they reason, while Iraq almost certainly wouldn't have been attacked had there been solid proof that it already had nuclear weapons. When a regime like Iran or North Korea is trying to guarantee its own existence, developing a nuclear bomb still looks like the best strategy to pursue.

Sharp Words for Sarah Palin

Few can really say just how much support Obama has for his plans at home. Indeed, skepticism about his vision of a nuclear-free world can even be found within his own inner circles, and the internal debate about the US's new nuclear weapons strategy was so fierce that its announcement was delayed by months.

Likewise, it is still not clear whether the US Senate will even ratify the disarmament treaty Obama recently hammered out with Russia. And, regardless of how much Obama fights for it, the Senate will almost certainly shoot down ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Leading Republicans have already announced their opposition to the treaty because they believe it would threaten US security.

Former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has even joked that Obama's new nuclear policy reminds her of a child on a playground inviting others to beat him or her up by saying, "Punch me in the face, and I'm not going to retaliate."

Obama, who usually brushes such criticism off, struck back in an unusually sharp tone, saying: "Last I checked, Sarah Palin's not much of an expert on nuclear issues."

Barack Obama might just be a disarmament dreamer, but he still understands the idea of massive retaliation.

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