Friday, April 16, 2010

Nuclear Summit endorses US' nuclear objectives

M. Serajul Islam
Published in The Daily Star, April 17, 2010

One of President Obama's election pledges was to secure “loose nukes” in his first term in office. Towards achieving that pledge, he invited to Washington 47 nuclear states to get a plan of action to deal with nuclear threat from non-state actors and terrorist groups in place of “some vague gauzy statements.” In the built up to this Summit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that US intelligence sources have information that Al Qaeda terrorists are seeking to get hold of nuclear weapons while at the same time planning to target nuclear installations for terrorist attacks. Her statement put the Summit in context.

In attendance were all the big players. China was represented by President Hu Jin Tao; India by Manmohan Singh; France by President Sarcozy while Foreign Secretary David Miliband stood in for his Prime Minister. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one surprise absentee, withdrawing at the last moment perhaps apprehending censure. Before embarking on getting all the important nations using nuclear energy and/or possessing nuclear weapons for a Summit, President Obama laid down the new US nuclear policy a week ahead of the Summit. In that policy, President Obama made a substantial departure from his predecessor by putting a halt on the development of any new nuclear weapons. The other important element of the new policy is that it clearly states that the US will not launch a nuclear attack against a non-nuclear state even if such a state would launch a biological or a chemical or a crippling cyber attack. However, US would reconsider nuclear retaliation if the development of chemical or biological weapons reached a stage to subject the US to a devastating attack.

President Obama followed the announcement of his administration's new plan by a meeting with President Medvedev of Russia, a country indispensable for the success of the new nuclear policy of the US President whose main objective is to discourage nations from acquiring nuclear weapons. Together, the US and Russia have 95% of the world's nuclear weapons and that makes it indispensable for the two countries to cooperate to, first, contain the spread of nuclear weapons, and then to eventually eliminate nuclear weapons altogether. President Obama wants success of such a strategy to be the lasting legacy of his presidency.

US-Russian relations had soured over the war in Georgia last year. Russia was also unhappy with the US initiative for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe as a shield against Iran's nuclear ambitions that Russia objected as it is on its backyards. In the end, President Obama and President Medvedev were able to reach an agreement that should be seen as a success for the US President's diplomatic efforts and not very good news for the Iranians who in the past have depended on the Russians for support on the nuclear issue. In the agreement the USA and Russia would voluntarily reduce their nuclear arsenals by a quarter as a first step in the containment policy of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of unstable regions. The treaty will be finalized by December and then it will have to be ratified by the legislature of both the countries. It could then lead to more substantial reductions in further talks between the two countries next year. The US-Russia Summit set the stage for cooperation on the nuclear issue that was firmly in evidence during the Washington Nuclear Summit.

President Obama thus went to the Nuclear Summit with sufficient preparation and a vision on what he expected the Summit to deliver. In opening the Summit, President Obama was emphatic in telling his fellow Summiteers that the risk of nuclear attack is now on the rise despite the end of Cold War. The increased threat according to him comes from international terrorist groups such as the Al Qaeda. He received unanimous endorsement of the Summiteers about the threat from terrorist groups and the need to make all nuclear materials safe in the next four years so that none would fall into the hands of the terrorists. President Obama put the terrorist threat in context by telling Summiteers that plutonium no bigger than an apple would allow the terrorists to detonate a device that could kill hundreds of thousands. Heeding to the need to secure nuclear materials Ukraine, Canada and Mexico voluntarily gave up highly enriched uranium each possessed to make it harder for terrorist groups or criminal gangs to steal a key ingredient for making atomic bombs. The Summiteers agreed to cooperate with the IAEA for sharing information on nuclear materials to prevent trafficking.

On the issue of dealing with Iran that is a key element in the new US nuclear policy, President Obama was able to get China on board when the Chinese agreed to work with USA for a fourth round on sanctions against Iran in order to deter it from possessing nuclear weapons. There was, however, some discrepancy between the US and Chinese statements on sanctions against Iran with the Chinese unwilling to mention Iran in public. Russia that is equally crucial if not more in keeping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons was more firmly with the US following the nuclear deal between President Obama and President Medvedev reached in Moscow shortly before the Washington Summit. Thus a major outcome of the Washington Summit has been the gathering of forces against Iran in its perceived attempt to acquire nuclear weapons. On North Korea, the Summit concluded that although “sanctions are not a magic wand”, there was alternative but to continue with it to force that country to return to nuclear disarmament talks that it had abandoned before President Obama took office.

The Summit has been a success for India as it helped bring US-India relations back on firm track after it had wandered off on the issue of Pakistan's use of US military aid against India. President Obama received the Indian Prime Minister as the first guest in the limited list of bilateral meetings on the sides of the Summit. He assured Manmohan Singh that the US would take up India's concerns seriously. Media reported “relief, satisfaction and renewed confidence” among Indian officials after the 50-minute talks between the two leaders.

The Summit helped raise the stature of President Barak Obama on world stage because he was able to give the leadership and vision needed for handling the apprehensions across many nations, particularly those in the western world, about the terrorists gaining access to nuclear weapons. He also succeeded in raising the level of concern for protecting nuclear installations from terrorist attacks. In fact, the Summit reiterated in its non-binding communiqué the major objectives of the new nuclear policy of the United States that the President had announced shortly before the Summit that has been the largest gathering on US soil since the 1946 conference in San Francisco for establishing the UN. There has also been criticism of the Summit and its achievements. One criticism stated that no concrete mechanism has been designed to deal with nuclear terrorism.

The author is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director at the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

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