I grew up going to protests and vigils to urge President Kennedy to ban open air testing so I am thrilled that President Obama has taken the first steps to get the world talking about securing bomb-making materials from terrorists and other rogues. And if you click this link, you will see him “dance” as he greets all the leaders. Watch it full screen.
The meeting that Mr. Obama convened, and to a great degree stage-managed, was unlike any negotiations over arms control with the Soviets during the cold war or, more recently, the so-far fruitless talks to get North Korea to disarm. This was a far broader effort to persuade African, Latin American, Asian and European nations to agree on steps to deny terrorist groups the two materials necessary to make a bomb: plutonium and highly enriched uranium.
Mr. Obama began the session arguing that while superpower confrontation was far more remote, the risk of nuclear terrorism had never been greater, and he quoted the warning of Albert Einstein soon after the beginning of the nuclear age: “We are drifting towards a catastrophe beyond comparison.”
Critics contended that this session was all for show.
“The summit’s purported accomplishment is a nonbinding communiqué that largely restates current policy, and makes no meaningful progress in dealing with nuclear terrorism threats or the ticking clock represented by Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” said Senator Jon Kyl, the Arizona Republican who has vowed to oppose nuclear treaties Mr. Obama regards as essential.
Mr. Obama acknowledged that the commitments were voluntary, but he said the situation was nothing new. “If you are asking, ‘Do we have an international, one-world law enforcement,’ we don’t, and we never have,” he said.
Isn’t getting someone to do something voluntarily better than forcing them to do it?
At the end of two days of meetings, Mr. Obama could claim two major accomplishments: The summit meeting forced countries that had failed to clean up their nuclear surpluses to formulate detailed plans to deal with them, and it kicked into action nations that had failed to move on previous commitments.
A second summit meeting will be held in two years in South Korea, Mr. Obama said, to make sure countries are on track.
Some countries arrived with what Gary Samore, Mr. Obama’s nuclear adviser, called “house gifts” that the United States had encouraged as signs of sincerity. For example, Canada, Mexico and Ukraine committed to eliminating their surplus weapons-grade materials or giving them to the United States.
This week, Russia closed a plutonium reactor it had used to make weapons-grade fuel. Other nations agreed to convert research reactors to fuel that could not be used for weapons.
Outside experts were optimistic. Sam Nunn, the former senator who tutored Mr. Obama on proliferation issues, said he thought “we are now closer to cooperation than catastrophe.” Graham Allison, a Harvard expert on nuclear terrorism, made the case that if countries “lock down all nuclear weapons and bomb-usable material as securely as gold in Fort Knox, they can reduce the likelihood of a nuclear 9/11 to nearly zero.”
As I said at the beginning, baby steps are better than taking no steps at all. We have made a start.