The holding of a Nuclear Security Summit on the scale of the gathering that created the United Nations, is an event that should have happened immediately after 9-11, almost a decade ago. Despite claims that such a summit would merely be a talking shop, the fact is that tangible and far-reaching results were achieved.
Bilateral deals were struck with the Ukraine, Chile, Canada, Mexico — all agreeing to give up their stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium. Furthermore, Russia agreed to eliminate 68 tons of weapon grade plutonium, enough for 17,000 nuclear weapons. Other countries agreed to additional steps to improve port security and to address nuclear trafficking.
Additionally, the final communique from the summit achieves a consensus on the dangers of nuclear terrorism and it gets nations to make commitments to secure all their vulnerable nuclear materials within four years. Importantly, it lays out a “work plan” for countries to follow and to ensure countries live up to these pledges, South Korea will hold a follow-up nuclear summit in two years to put pressure on countries to follow through.
This is a monumental first step, a step that should have been taken nine years ago. Graham Allison has called nuclear terrorism the “ultimate preventable catastrophe.” This is because the way Al Qaeda would develop a nuclear bomb is by stealing or buying weapons-grade uranium or plutonium and these materials can be locked down and eliminated if all countries that possessed these materials made the effort. Yet, until this Nuclear Security Summit, a far-reaching effort, despite the devastating terror attacks after 9-11, was not made. The question is why wasn’t it?
The Bush administration inexplicably failed to aggressively prioritize nuclear security. Following the 9-11 attacks, the United States had a unique opportunity where it had the overwhelming support of almost every nation in the world to push for aggressive multilateral action on this front. Yet this moment not only was not seized, but was quickly squandered through the invasion of Iraq. Instead, of focusing on the real and present nuclear danger of a nuclear terrorist attack, the Bush administration manufactured a nuclear threat and took the United States to war to remove nuclear weapons from a regime that had none.
Fundamentally, advancing nuclear security requires a concerted multilateral effort. The US cannot unilaterally eliminate or secure nuclear materials. Instead, it requires US global leadership in order to convince countries to treat this issue as a major global priority. Yet the Bush administration’s approach was built around unilateralism — whether that was the creation of a “coalition of the willing” in Iraq or by sending UN hater John Bolton to be America’s ambassador to the world. Thus nuclear security was an issue that the Bush administration was not ideologically built to tackle.
As a result, years have gone by, more nuclear materials have gone missing, and the dangers of nuclear attack against the United States has grown.