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The Monitor's View

Nuclear summit can't ignore origins of conflicts

The nuclear security summit is a baby step toward total nonproliferation. But that worthy goal can't divert Obama's attention from the prime US role of resolving conflicts that create a desire for nukes.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / April 12, 2010

Ridding the world of nuclear weapons – one of President Obama’s prime goals – is so lofty and difficult that it must come in baby steps.

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That explains why Tuesday’s summit of 47 heads of state in Washington focuses on a relatively easier step: securing the world’s existing nuclear material from being stolen or bought by terrorists and rogue states.

Persuading so many nations to agree on concrete measures in any aspect of nuclear policy would be a victory for Mr. Obama. In fact, his real goal in this two-day summit on preventing “loose nukes” may be simply to build political momentum for a conference in May aimed at renewing and revamping the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

A global approach to the threat of nuclear disasters is still clearly required. This summit, for instance, builds on the UN’s 2005 Nuclear Terrorism Convention, which calls on nations to safeguard any bomb-usable plutonium and highly enriched uranium (the United States has yet to ratify that pact). And since the 1960s, the all-important NPT has persuaded many countries not to go nuclear – but so, too, has America’s agreement to defend 31 other countries with its nuclear weapons under a deterrence “umbrella.”

Obama’s efforts toward a nuclear-free world, however, will falter unless he does much more to deal with underlying motives to obtain atomic weapons – indeed all weapons of mass destruction – in every part of the world.

What are those motives?

In short, they are either fear of a real or perceived enemy (such as with India and Pakistan); aggression to control others (Al Qaeda, North Korea, Iran); a desire for prestige as a “nuclear power” (notably France); and, in the case of North Korea, an easy way to earn money by exporting nuclear technology.