21st Century Nuclear Security

March 26, 2012

Today in Seoul ahead of the second Nuclear Security Summit, President Obama outlined his administration’s vision and accomplishments on nuclear security. Keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists – eliminating highly enriched uranium from six countries since 2010 – is one part of a broader agenda to make the U.S. a leader in today’s global environment. Military and nuclear experts, pointing out that we no longer live in a Cold War world, are looking to international partnerships – and a smaller role for nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy. The next president, whoever he is, will have the opportunity to follow the example of Eisenhower and Reagan in their second terms, taking important steps to make the U.S. and the world safer and getting others to pull more weight.

Second Nuclear Security Summit marks reduced threat from loose nukes – looks ahead. The first ever Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) was held in Washington, DC in April 2010 as an initiative by President Obama, bringing 46 heads of state (the largest such grouping outside of the UN since 1945) to put new priority on combating the threat of nuclear terrorism. A recent report by the Arms Control Association and the Partnership for Global Security outlines the achievements to date: “A principal achievement of the 2010 NSS was gaining agreement by all 47 participating nations that nuclear terrorism is among the top global security challenges and that strong nuclear material security measures are the most effective way to prevent it. More than 60 national commitments made by 2010 summit participants are detailed in the White House’s highlights document and U.S. national statement that were released after the summit… Approximately 80 percent of national commitments from the 2010 summit have been completed, based on an assessment of open source documents as of February 2012. Important progress has been made in many areas, including ratifying international conventions, securing and removing highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium stocks, and establishing new training collaboration centers and opportunities.”

“Examples of completed national commitments include development of new nuclear security centers of excellence, conferences, and training activities around the world by Canada, China, France, India, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, and the Republic of Korea; removal of all HEU from Chile; and  new funding support for the IAEA Nuclear Security Fund, HEU reactor conversion and material removals, and anti-smuggling initiatives contributed by Belgium, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The summit process has proven effective at strengthening the existing nuclear material security regime and quickly achieving progress on an unprecedented global scale. It is a unique vehicle with heads-of-state participation that holds great potential for building a stronger nuclear material security regime by breaking down the political barriers and combating bureaucratic inertia.”

New progress was announced today by the White House – “the Governments of Mexico, the United States, and Canada announced the completion of an important joint nuclear security project to convert the fuel in Mexico’s research reactor from highly enriched uranium (HEU) to low enriched uranium (LEU).  The project was initiated at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. in April 2010, and was carried out by the three countries, working closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).” [ACA and PGS, 3/20/12. White House 3/26/12]

Building international consensus for nuclear security builds relationships to help with nuclear challenge posed by North Korea, and Iran. President Obama outlined in his speech at Hankuk University how the international community is coming together against the spread of nuclear weapons: “For the global response to Iran and North Korea’s intransigence, a new international norm is emerging:  Treaties are binding; rules will be enforced; and violations will have consequences.  We refuse to consign ourselves to a future where more and more regimes possess the world’s most deadly weapons.” The trip also produced intense discussions on North Korea, with the President saying, “There will be no rewards for provocations.  Those days are over.  To the leaders of Pyongyang I say, this is the choice before you. This is the decision that you must make. Today we say, Pyongyang, have the courage to pursue peace and give a better life to the people of North Korea.” The President also looked to next month’s talks between Iran and the permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany, and said, “there is a window of time to resolve this question diplomatically, but that window is closing.  And it’s absolutely critical for us to be able to move forward in an effective way, in a serious way, in concert based on negotiations through the P5-plus-1 and other channels, to ensure that Iran abides by its international obligations, which also then assures them the right to engage in peaceful nuclear power.” [Barack Obama 3/26/12. Barack Obama, 3/26/12]

Looking to make safe, strategic cuts in our nuclear arsenal is another path for U.S. global leadership, say experts. As Juliette Kayyem, Boston Globe columnist and former assistant secretary of homeland security wrote last month, “America’s nuclear posture no longer needs to be death by annihilation; there is no ‘winning’ nuclear war, and that hardly seems a radical notion. Instead, almost every review of a post-Cold War deterrence suggests that the numbers should reflect a strategy of proportional deterrence: having enough weapons to threaten our enemies and their strategic interests, and to guarantee nuclear security to our allies. Sadly, a reduction of nuclear weapons would have almost no impact on the most pressing nuclear issues of our time: nuclear proliferation by unsavory nations and nuclear terrorism. Neither can be discouraged by the sheer threat of the massive nuclear arsenal maintained by the United States or Russia. Ironically, fears about Iran acquiring such weaponry are a case study in how just a few bombs (or none at all) can alter the course of foreign policy.”

Lt. Gen. Robert Gard (ret.), further explains: With the end of the cold war, the world has changed, and those who ardently defend massive spending on nuclear weapons are either unaware of, or unwilling to consider, the changed strategic landscape. Our current nuclear force structure is a holdover from an era where the overarching goal was deterring a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States or an invasion of Europe. Every submarine in our fleet today can single-handedly destroy every major city in either China or Russia and completely obliterate smaller nations. If the essence of deterrence is a credible threat, then it’s safe to say we can make significant reductions with no impact whatsoever on our deterrent or security capacity.” [Juliette Kayyem, 2/27/12. Robert Gard, 2/22/12]

What We’re Reading

Turkey and the United States plan to supply aid to opposition groups in Syria and encourage other allies to do the same.

Egypt’s ruling military council criticized the Muslim Brotherhood for trying to undermine the government and casting doubt on the objectives of the military rulers.

The brother of the gunman behind the shooting spree in southwestern France was charged for his alleged role in seven murders and two attempted murders.

The president of Senegal acknowledged defeat after the country’s recent elections.

China’s Premier Wen Jiabao claims the national power structure may be threatened by widespread corruption among its officials.

President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev spoke about continuing talks on European missile defense.

An Afghan soldier shot and killed two British soldiers in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.

The U.S. military decided that no service members will face disciplinary charges for a NATO airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

The Washington Post profiles the chief of the CIA Counterterrorism Center, the main architect of the drone campaign and the leader of the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Cuba today for a three day visit.

Commentary of the Day

An International Crisis Group report recommends more structured political negotiations in Afghanistan under the imprimatur of the UN.

Mehdi Hasan details why bombing Iran will only further its drive to attain a nuclear weapon, drawing on lessons from the 1981 bombing of Iraqi nuclear facilities.

NSN’s Heather Hurlburt explains how Jim Yong Kim’s outsider qualifications would benefit the World Bank.

The Los Angeles Times editorial board says Pope Benedict XVI should use his visit to Cuba to push for more human rights.

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