Seven years ago on a windy spring morning in Prague, recently inaugurated US President Barack Obama announced “a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years.” Describing nuclear terrorism as “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security,” he pledged to prevent nuclear material from falling into dangerous hands by partnering with international stakeholders
to pursue removals of unsecured nuclear material and increased security standards. The effort, Obama offered, should begin by adding a wholly new event to the calendar of international diplomacy: a nuclear security summit.
It is unlikely that the president’s speech was met with great praise at Ukraine’s Kharkiv Institute for Physics and Technology, then home to one of the largest civilian stores of highly enriched uranium (HEU) outside of Russia and the United States. Since the mid-’90s, American nuclear security proponents had pressured Ukraine to give up its HEU, to no avail. Suggestions that the Kharkiv stockpile be removed provoked particular pushback, as some Ukrainian scientists saw Kharkiv as the key to a future civilian nuclear energy program. Indeed, a 2004 study by the Ukrainian government found that the Kharkiv HEU was an important national resource, not to be given up.
Yet only one year after the Prague speech, media cameras were flashing as Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych sat next to a smiling Obama at the first of what would become biennial nuclear security summits. Yanukovych, seeking to overcome the perception that he was a pro-Russian stooge by demonstrating good relations with the Obama administration, paid for his photo op in U-235, arriving at the summit with a commitment to remove all of Ukraine’s HEU, including the Kharkiv stockpile, within two years. Gary Samore, who was White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, and sherpa for the first two summits, said, “There’s no question in my mind that Yanukovych’s decision to get rid of Ukraine’s HEU was connected to the public relations benefits of attending the summit.” The completion of the planned removal in 2012 remains one of the achievements of the Obama administration’s nuclear security efforts and a testament to the value of summit diplomacy. As the 2016 summit kicks off, however, questions are being asked about the legacy of the summit process and the way forward for global partnerships for nuclear security.
“A Forcing Event”
The original vision for the summits, as articulated in a July 2008 Obama campaign policy paper, called for “leaders of Permanent Members of the UN Security Council and other key countries” to meet and agree on efforts to secure all vulnerable nuclear weapons material within Obama’s first term. The meeting was to act as “a forcing event,” bringing global attention to nuclear security and pushing world leaders to produce measurable progress on security measures within their own countries.
Desired outcomes came in two categories: a unanimously endorsed communique underlining the international community’s determination to prevent nuclear terrorism and a set of commitments from each summit attendee to undertake specific, measurable steps toward securing nuclear material.
Presummit talks, however, only underscored to the American negotiating team the impossibility of international consensus on a nuclear security regime. “Nuclear security,” Samore said, “does not lend itself to big multilateral activities.”
Consequently, negotiators adjusted the objectives and for the initial 2012 summit, held in Washington, DC, instead used the multilateral summit process as a basis for progress along bilateral lines. Attending countries were strongly encouraged to arrive at the summit with prearranged “house gifts”: demonstrations of their commitment to promoting nuclear security. At the first summit, 29 attendees made gifts, ranging from major removals like Ukraine’s HEU commitment to smaller offerings like Thailand’s promise to join the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. Taken together, the gifts represented progress toward Obama’s goal of securing nuclear material and, along with the communique reaffirming participants’ concern over nuclear terrorism, established expectations of what could be accomplished in the summit process.
The second summit, in 2012, took place in Seoul, South Korea. It showcased both the value and limitations of the summit format. Attendees went to Seoul with significant house gifts, particularly Kazakhstan’s announcement that it had securely stored its extensive stockpile of spent nuclear fuel. The house gift program also expanded to include what became known as “gift baskets,” groups of countries (as few as three and as many as 24) coming together to offer joint, voluntary contributions toward a particular aspect of nuclear security. Gift baskets allowed for larger coalitions, like the 23 countries that came together to support nuclear training centers, to act on particular topics without upsetting the fragile unanimity of the official summit communique.
Yet by 2012 it was clear that the summit process would not lead to the completion of the president’s goal of securing all nuclear material within his first term. The progress that had been made came largely from what Kenneth Brill, former American ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and others characterized as “low-hanging fruit,” removals that likely would have happened without the summits but happened faster because of the summit process. The hardest cases, particularly the HEU in Belarus and South Africa, remained unresolved. As a result, the summits were producing diminishing returns. With so much low-hanging fruit picked, major steps forward became more difficult at each successive summit.
The 2014 summit, at The Hague, continued this trajectory. The summit scored a headline-winning success when Japan agreed to the removal of 330 kg of plutonium and 170 kg of HEU, the single largest removal the summit process has produced. Yet no movement appeared on the Belarussian or South African cases, and the goal of securing all nuclear material seemed even more remote as Russia’s invasion of Crimea overshadowed the summit.
NSS 2016: What to Expect
In 2015, the Stanley Foundation and the World Institute for Nuclear Security organized the panel discussion “Sustainable Nuclear Security Governance: Beyond the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit” in Vienna during the IAEA’s annual conference there. When the organizers polled their audience of nuclear experts and stakeholders, 91 percent agreed with the statement, “The Nuclear Security Summits have made real progress in securing nuclear material.” Yet 82 percent agreed that “continuing progress and maintaining momentum after the ‘last’ 2016 Nuclear Security Summit will be challenging,” while 5 percent labeled it “impossible.”
Bridging the gap between the accomplishments of the summit process and the uncertainty of the postsummit future will be one of the most important issues on the table at the 2016 summit, March 31–April 1 in Washington, DC.
The summit is likely to generate action plans for continued progress in nuclear security issues under the auspices of five international organizations: the IAEA, the United Nations, Interpol, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. Yet there are concerns about the ability of these organizations to produce the kinds of results brought by the summit process. In addition to the low-hanging fruit problem, Interpol and the United Nations are underresourced when it comes to nuclear security, and the breakdown in relations between Russia and the West has put serious strain on the Global Partnership, the Global Initiative, and nuclear security efforts overall.
Most nuclear security experts agree that the 2016 summit will be the last. The process has run its course, and summit fatigue is a real concern. However the next American presidential administration chooses to attack the challenges of preventing nuclear terrorism, it is unlikely to duplicate the Obama administration’s strategy. Yet even as the summit process fades, the bilateral relationships it fostered will remain, forming a basis for continued American leadership on nuclear security issues. The future of international efforts for nuclear security is cloudy, but the legacy of the summits can be found in the expansion of those relationships and the global awareness of the threat of unsecured nuclear materials.
Sam Ratner is a research assistant at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University as well as a freelance writer and editor.