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Can Seoul summit tackle biggest threat to US security – nuclear terrorism?

What can President Obama and other world leaders meeting in Seoul, South Korea, for the second Nuclear Security Summit today and tomorrow plausibly accomplish? The answer is less than many observers hope – but more than skeptics appreciate. Look at Ukraine.

By Graham Allison / March 26, 2012

President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stand together at the end of a bilateral meeting at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea on March 26. Op-ed contributor Graham Allison urges leaders to do more to ensure that the 'world’s most dangerous materials do not fall into the deadliest hands.'

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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Cambridge, Mass.

Why did President Obama fly halfway around the world to Seoul, South Korea, for the second Nuclear Security Summit? What can the 50 world leaders who meet today and tomorrow plausibly accomplish?

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The answer is less than many observers hope – but more than skeptics appreciate.

Summits are part of the pageantry of international relations – often little more than photo-ops. But strategic leaders can make use of summits to advance serious agendas. Well-managed summits can serve three important functions: focus a spotlight (and rare attention) on specific issues; build international consensus; and provide a process to force governments to take action.

If the organizers of the conference are demanding, summits can produce actual results as well as abstract communiqués.

Thinking in terms of this framework, what is the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit likely to accomplish?

First, among the array of urgent challenges, from risks to the global economy to climate change, this summit will focus the minds of the leaders and governments on a critical issue: nuclear security. This is the effort to prevent what Mr. Obama has identified as the “most immediate and extreme threat to global security”: nuclear terrorism.

Farfetched as it still appears to many, the brute fact is that if terrorists acquire just 100 pounds of highly enriched uranium (or even 35 pounds, using a more advanced weapon design), they could build an elementary nuclear bomb and use it to devastate the heart of a great city. The explosion could produce a yield of 10 kilotons, approximately the size of Hiroshima, engulfing a city in a mushroom cloud. A single event of this kind anywhere in the world would, in Obama’s words, “destabilize our security, our economies, and our very way of life.”

At the world’s first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April 2010, leaders began building an international consensus not only about the priority of this threat, but also about actions their governments can take to prevent it. Specifically, they agreed to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide by the end of 2014.

We are two years along in a race to ensure the world’s most dangerous materials do not fall into the deadliest hands.

The leaders who gather have the power to prevent nuclear terrorism by doing just one thing: denying terrorists the means to achieve their deadliest ambitions by locking up all nuclear weapons and materials as securely as gold in Fort Knox or treasures in the Kremlin Armory. No nuclear materials available to terrorists means no nuclear terrorism.

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