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.
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.
Cases in point:
1. North Korea was recently caught aiding Syria in building a nuclear reactor. While Israeli war jets took out the Syrian plant, the US has yet to punish North Korea or do much more in thwarting its nuke-export business.
2. Obama could also do more to resolve a historic territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, which has led both countries to recently move toward increasing their production of weapons-grade nuclear material.
3. And Obama officials appear to hint that the US may need to accept Iran as a nation capable of wielding nuclear weapons in the Middle East. That is in sharp contrast to the successful effort of previous presidents to persuade Libya to give up its nuclear program.
Arms control begins with conflict control. And ever since World War I, the US has been the leader in preventing, controlling, or ending conflict.
Its latest challenge, since 9/11, has been to prevent another attack by Al Qaeda or its affiliates, and especially to disrupt those groups in trying to obtain nuclear material and know-how. While this has been successful so far using military and intelligence efforts, the larger task is persuading millions of Muslims to give up any active or tacit support for militant Islam. That effort requires a longer, broader responsibility to promote economic development, human rights, and peaceful democracy in the Middle East and beyond.
How much is Obama willing to commit to these larger tasks? The goal of safeguarding nuclear material in countries from Chile to Russia should not be confused with the need for a greater exercise of America’s “soft power,” or the artful but forceful persuasion to lessen the motives for conflict and to obtain nuclear weapons.
The first US president to propose a nuke-free world was Harry Truman, in 1946. After that, the US had to build up its nuclear arsenal to match and contain the Soviet Union’s. Following the end of the cold war in 1991, the US moved in tandem with Russia to decrease those weapons. But the contest really wasn’t over weapons but which country had the best system of governance. Communism lost – by its own inherent flaws.
That lesson of keeping the focus on deeper issues of ideas, motives, and fundamental truths must not be lost in Obama’s drive to rein in nukes.