The 2014 Nuclear Security Summit and the Shadow of the Future

As the Netherlands prepares to host the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit from March 24-25, the end of the forum itself is also approaching. As with previous summits, the focus of this year’s summit will be on preventing nuclear terrorism. The United States expects the Summit to advance this goal in three key areas: further commitments to dispose of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium, efforts to strengthen the global “nuclear security architecture,” and “assurances,” or voluntary actions that states can take to demonstrate to the international community that they are maintaining high standards for nuclear security without disclosing sensitive information. At the 2014 summit and in the time ahead of the already scheduled 2016 summit, a key goal should also be to lay a foundation for continued summits or analogous processes or frameworks that will keep nuclear security at the forefront of the international agenda. The stated goals of the 2014 summit, which include “reducing the amount of dangerous nuclear material in the world and improving the security of all nuclear material and radioactive sources,” of the 2014 summit are similar to those of previous summits, though this summit will also take stock of commitments set out at previous summits and measure the progress made toward them. There are other important differences as well. Most significantly, Netherlands officials have stated that the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, a focus of earlier summits, likely will not come into force in 2014 and may not do so until 2016 or later. Moreover, the goal to secure all “vulnerable nuclear material” in four years, a goal first espoused by President Obama in 2009 and reiterated at the 2010 summit, will similarly go unfulfilled. Despite these setbacks, the goal of establishing global standards or best practices for nuclear security persists, and progress is being made. It is clear that previous Nuclear Security Summits have been effective in encouraging states to secure nuclear materials—the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Nuclear Materials Security Index offers useful metrics with which to measure thisprogress, and there has indeed been notable improvement in many states.Ukraine, for example, committed to give up about 200 pounds of highly enriched uranium at the 2010 summit, and at the same summit Russia and the United States agreed to turn 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors. The 2016 summit, however, is presumed to be the final installment in this series. Given the progress being made—even if being made in fits and starts—the 2014 summit and the next two years of preparation for the 2016 summit should be used to build consensus for further summits or for a similar multilateral forum through which states continue to advance the cause of securing and eliminating their nuclear and radiological materials. If a global nuclear security architecture is the long-term goal, there needs to be a body pushing states toward it. One big shortcoming is that there is no transnational organization or multilateral forum that can do the job of the Nuclear Security Summit process. While cooperation on nuclear security can certainly continue in the United Nations or through regional bodies like the EU or ASEAN, “there are no formal structures to sustain progress” made through these summits. And while progress has been made, it has been incremental at best, with some steps already being relegated to 2016 and beyond. When the United States initiated the summit process, it set out with a number of goals, many of which will be unattainable if cooperation ceases in 2016. Without a high-level process to keep nuclear security a global priority, the advances that have been made over the past several years will slowly dissipate, and the remaining problems will continue to fester, ultimately making the United States and the world less secure. It would be more productive to continue these summits than to create an entirely new process from scratch, and this will require steadfast US support for future summits. President Obama can initiate this process by securing support for a 2018 summit and initiating the plans for that summit in 2015 or 2016—after all, President Obama announced in mid-2013 that the United States would host the 2016 summit. By making such a commitment while still in office, President Obama would hedge against the possibility that his successor will be less interested in such initiatives, and he would provide assurances to international partners that the United States will remain an active supporter of the process. If, for whatever reason, the summits are to be discontinued, a meaningful replacement must be fashioned. In the mean time, the Nuclear Security Summit will need to encourage voluntary international assurances to provide the international community with confidence in a state’s nuclear security and ease the transition to a new nuclear security program. If the summit is to be replaced, the transition may be accomplished through a variety of existing international bodies, including the IAEA,  the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, or the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. The Nuclear Security Summit has been a valuable tool in placing nuclear security at the front of the international agenda. While the 2014 summit will be used to strengthen commitments and emphasize important goals, the most important goal for states at the summit should be to garner consensus on the future of the process—preferably for the continuance thereof. States will be hard-pressed to craft a sustainable, “comprehensive global nuclear security architecture” by 2016.  Without a multilateral forum or some similar organization specifically dedicated to nuclear security, cooperation on this issue will slowly erode, taking the security of nuclear materials along with it.