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Can Obama lead the world toward zero nukes?

Obama will chair a UN Security Council summit on nuclear nonproliferation Thursday – the first US president to preside over the body.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 24, 2009

US President Barack Obama leaves the room after his meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in New York on Wednesday.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters


United Nations, N.Y.

President Obama will lead a United Nations Security Council summit on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament Thursday, the first time an American president has chaired a meeting of the Council and an indication of the importance he places on the global nuclear challenge.

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But progress on the dual objectives of nonproliferation and disarmament won't be easy, security experts warn. Even holding a summit on the issue is fraught with risk for Mr. Obama.

Already, some critics say the summit's scope – the prospect of new nuclear powers, the dangers of aging arsenals, and the possibility of "loose" nuclear materials falling into extremists' hands – is too large. It should focus on nonproliferation alone, they say, given the imminent threats posed by the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea.

Others see disarmament as mainly a US-Russia issue, and still others worry that pressure to disarm will be disproportionately directed at the United States.

It's also possible for one leader to hijack the summit by dominating the stage or attacking the nuclear status quo, with its haves and have-nots.

Libya takes its turn on the Security Council this year, meaning the mercurial Muammar Qaddafi will have his five minutes – or perhaps 96 minutes – at the microphone.

If the summit yields only a succession of speeches by leaders of the Council's 15 member countries, it could backfire, trivializing the nuclear threat and setting back nuclear containment goals.

"[Obama] had better have a deliverable coming out of this," says Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, which backs nonproliferation and disarmament efforts. "You don't call a summit like this for a photo op."

What can the summit achieve?

Ideas for a summit outcome are circulating. Among them:

• An internationally administered nuclear fuel bank.

• A ban on any nuclear state using a nuclear weapon to attack a nonnuclear state.

• A new rule that any country acquiring nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and then using it for weapons development would have the technology taken away.

US officials say Obama will deliver more than a morning of speeches. "Our view ... is that this is an event and an occasion and a topic ... worthy of a substantive output," said Susan Rice, US ambassador to the UN, in a recent briefing with reporters.

On the eve of the summit, other administration officials said the Council would almost certainly adopt in a unanimous vote, if China concurs, a resolution that strengthens international principles and regulations in three areas Obama has emphasized since taking office: disarmament, nonproliferation, and security of nuclear materials.

Another objective is to give impetus to the five-year review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) scheduled for May. The 2005 review was widely judged a failure, but many nuclear diplomacy experts are optimistic that the next round will yield major updating and advancement of the NPT regime.

Obama is not the only leader new to the world stage to support a strengthened NPT to address 21st-century challenges, including terrorism. The US and Russia, moreover, are committed to a new round of reductions in their nuclear arsenals.