An edited version of this post originally appeared on CFR.org as a First Take.
On his first foreign trip as a U.S. senator in 2005, Barack Obama accompanied Senator Richard Lugar on a week-long tour of WMD facilities in the former Soviet Union. Afterward, Senator Obama often spoke about the trip, in particular the vast amount of poorly secured lethal materials that he witnessed at the sites. As a presidential candidate, Obama declared, “The single most serious threat to American national security is nuclear terrorism.” While President George W. Bush deserves credit for highlighting the seriousness of nuclear terrorism and committing the resources to work with Russia to secure nearly all of its potentially loose nukes, nuclear security has been a top-tier priority for Obama. As early as July 2008, he vowed to “lead a global effort to secure all loose nuclear materials around the world during my first term as president.”
Building on the work of the Bush administration, the potential threat of nuclear terrorism has been markedly reduced due to the high-level focus produced by the initial Nuclear Security Summit in April 2010 and reinforced by the current summit in Seoul, South Korea. The practical effect of both summits is the development of a clearly articulated workplan that prioritizes strategic objectives and specifies national commitments for the forty-seven participating countries. These pledges are voluntary and nonbinding, and there are no enforcement measures to compel compliance.
Yet, approximately 80 percent of national commitments from the first Nuclear Security Summit have been fulfilled. This was not due to diplomatic pressure or economic sanctions, but was instead driven by national leaders’ fear of embarrassment that they could not deliver on their promises, combined with U.S. technical and financial assistance. For example, Ukraine (as a Soviet republic) once maintained a stockpile of five thousand nuclear weapons; last week, it shipped its remaining weapons-grade uranium to Russia, where it will be blended down to low-enriched uranium to fuel civilian research reactors.
Despite the sustained progress of the Nuclear Security Summits, President Obama will not meet his four-year deadline. In December, Obama administration officials backtracked, claiming that the deadline was more of a “forcing function” that would accelerate U.S. nuclear nonproliferation programs and mobilize international support for nuclear material security. Moreover, there is still no comprehensive and coordinated U.S. government plan to secure all nuclear materials. National Security Council officials recently admitted to GAO investigators that “developing a single, integrated cross-agency plan that incorporates all these elements could take years.”
For most, the word “nuclear” immediately brings to mind Iran or North Korea. Yet, Iran does not have enough fissile material to fuel a nuclear weapon; together, Iran and North Korea have less than a fraction of 1 percent of worldwide nuclear material. Today, thirty-two countries possess 1 kilogram or more of weapons-usable nuclear material. Preventing nuclear terrorism requires, in large part, locking down all of that material—at least in accordance with the latest IAEA guidelines. Raising awareness among the forty-seven national leaders attending the Nuclear Security Summit increases the likelihood of achieving the ultimate goal of nuclear material security. However, lasting and effective nuclear security is not a one-time pledge, but rather an ongoing process that will only end with the universal elimination of all weapons-usable material. Since that will not occur anytime soon, world leaders will need sustain the progress of the past two years with the results to be reported at the next Nuclear Security Summit in 2014.