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.

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

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.

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.

"The NPT is a critical part of the agenda, but it's not the only issue at stake here. There's also the pressing question of what happens with Iran," says Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association, in Washington. "The summit could set the tone and lay the groundwork for progress in the months ahead."

Convincing the skeptics

To get there, Obama must address the skeptics. That includes those within his own administration who doubt the wisdom of Obama's goal of "getting the world to zero" nukes.

"At the UN, Obama will be addressing three audiences: the international, the domestic, and the internal ­– the last being those in his administration, and particularly in the Pentagon, who do not share his vision," says Mr. Cirincione.

"For the international, the message is disarmament. For the domestic, it's security. And for the internal, the message is transformational," he adds. "He's saying 'I'm serious about this. I'm going to transform US nuclear policy, not just tweak it.' "

The vision of a world with no nuclear arms, which many consider to be pie in the sky, got a boost in 2007 when four preeminent American statesmen ­– Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn, and William Perry ­– declared it realistic and laid out a path to achieve it.

Even so, some say major-power disarmament will be destabilizing – or that Obama might be too eager to downsize the US nuclear stockpile.

"I just don't see that the principal problem in fighting nuclear proliferation is that countries are waiting for the US to reduce its arsenal faster," says Christopher Ford, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. "The weapons of a new possessor like North Korea have nothing to do with the arsenals of weapons states."

An overly enthusiastic US risks giving up too much to achieve a diplomatic success, says Mr. Ford, who led the Bush administration's delegation to the 2007-08 NPT preparatory meetings. "There's a danger of too much focus on disarmament and not on constraining proliferation," he says.

First up: US and Russia

What seems certain is that many nations expect the US and Russia to disarm further – and see little reason to push others to act on disarmament or nonproliferation until then.

Says one European official in Wash­ington: "The US and Russia have 95 percent of the nuclear weapons, so getting an agreement on reduction between them is really the core of the issue. 'Zero' is a fine long-term goal, but it verges on demagoguery to focus on that before you've downsized a lot."

In announcing the summit, Ambassador Rice underscored that it is about widely supported objectives and won't focus on particular countries. In other words, the summit is not about Iran and North Korea.

Some officials and nuclear diplomacy experts say, though, that the summit can't help but be focused on those two countries and the challenges their nuclear programs present.

The US can build the global consensus needed to address Iran and future nuclear wannabes, says Mr. Kimball. But it also must improve its credibility with much of the world, via initiatives such as Obama's summit and by taking further steps toward nuclear-arms reduction.

"Iran may not be on the [summit] agenda, but it will be on everyone's mind," says Kimball. "That focus, and [a US] understanding of the critical effort we have to make, can help build the support we need if it comes down to taking action on Iran."


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