After A Decade Of ‘Sleep Walking,’ Obama Focuses World On Combating Nuclear Terror Threat

nuclear-terrorismThe Nuclear Security Summit is the largest gathering of heads of state in Washington since world leaders assembled to create the United Nations more than 60 years ago. While that summit focused on setting up an international system to prevent another catastrophic conflict, this week’s gathering is similarly intended to prevent another even more catastrophic terror attack.

Yet most don’t really seem to get what all the hubbub is about. Much of this is because of over the last decade rarely been put on the American public’s or the international communities’ radar. Despite saying during the 2004 Presidential debate that nuclear terror was the gravest threat, the Bush administration placed little emphasis on these issues and failed to lead an adequate global effort to confront them. As Gareth Evans, former Australian Foreign Minister and co-chair of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation, noted at an NGO conference today on nuclear security, there has been a “decade of international sleepwalking on these issues.”

But this is about combating the most serious national security threat in the post-Cold War: the growing danger of a terrorist blowing up a major global city. Some dismiss the danger, but the fact is that nuclear materials around the world are often poorly guarded and secured. There have been multiple cases of theft and we know that well-funded terror groups like Al Qaeda are after nuclear materials. Once nuclear materials are acquired, these can be easily shipped to the US or Europe in shipping containers –spotty and limited screening makes detection unlikely. And once in the target country a crude device can be constructed to build a nuclear bomb that doesn’t require all that much expertise.

This is why many experts talk about a nuclear terror attack in terms of “when” not “if”. Former Ambassador Robert Gallucci speaking at the NGO summit noted that while its not easy, “It is possible, plausible, and over time probable” that a well funded terrorist could build a useable nuclear device.

But nuclear terrorism has also been called the “ultimate preventable catastrophe,” since a terror group is going to have to either buy or steal existing nuclear materials or a weapon. The way to prevent this then is to make sure all this stuff is locked down.

The fundamental problem for the US is that it cannot tackle these challenges on its own. Instead, it requires getting other countries to do more. The fact is that there are lots of nuclear materials floating around the world in many countries, many of which do not have proper security and safeguards or give securing these materials the adequate level of priority. Why? Well nuclear terrorism is much less of a concern for most countries than it is for the United States – even though it shouldn’t necessarily be.

The Bush administration inexplicably failed to make this a major international priority, as a result they failed to seize on the international good will following 9-11 to fully tackle this threat and in squandering this international support through the invasion of Iraq made it further difficult to confront this challenge. Nuclear terrorism requires robust multi-lateralism, since you cannot solve this challenge or make any progress through unilateral action. Therefore a foreign policy approach, as practiced under the Bush administration, which saw John Bolton as America’s global ambassador, which saw America isolated and disliked – was really really bad for getting countries to take action on issues that the US cared about more than the country we are asking to take action. That is why over the last decade almost all experts fear that the danger of a terrorist being able to acquire dangerous nuclear materials has increased.

The nuclear summit is intended to serve as a wake up call and focus global attention and create an actionable game plan to security loose nuclear material. There have been very positive steps already with Chile and Ukraine importantly agreeing to get rid of their weapons-grade highly enriched uranium. But President Obama has laid out an highly ambitious agenda of securing all loose nuclear material within four years. To make good on this goal this summit will have to be more than a talking shop and actually lead to concrete and verifiable action. But as Thomas Cochran of the National Resources Defense Council noted, that if leaders around the world really understood the dangers, this summit would go even further and would talk about eliminating highly enriched uranium altogether.