March 8, 2012
Graham Allison responds to questions regarding the goals and objectives of the upcoming Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul.
The world's first Nuclear Security Summit was, to paraphrase Vice President Biden, a very big deal.
Two years ago, President Obama invited 46 heads of government to Washington, D.C. for the largest number of world leaders assembled by an American president since FDR initiated the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945. His objective was to focus these leaders' minds like a laser beam on what he identified as the "single biggest threat to international security": nuclear terrorism.
Together, they agreed to secure all vulnerable materials worldwide from the reach of thieves and terrorists within four years.
On the one hand, there can be no question that this pledge, and the concrete actions individual states have taken in pursuit of it, have made the world a safer place. On the other, too many weapons and too much material remain at risk. The pace of preventative actions taken does not yet match the threat.
We are two years along in a race to ensure the world's most dangerous materials do not fall into the deadliest hands. This is the challenge leaders from 53 countries will address when they convene in Seoul for the second Nuclear Security Summit on March 26-27, 2012.
The stated objectives for the second Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul are to assess the progress made since the Washington Summit and propose additional cooperative measures to (1) combat the threat of nuclear terrorism, (2) protect nuclear materials and related facilities, and (3) prevent illicit trafficking of nuclear materials.
As in 2010, the Seoul Summit will serve to raise the consciousness of governments whose actions are increasing or reducing the likelihood of terrorists getting a nuclear bomb. It will also serve as an action-forcing process to motivate leaders to take specific actions in preparation for the Summit or to commit to take actions by specified dates in the near future.
"Nuclear" is an emotive word that triggers many more familiar issues such as nuclear safety (how to prevent nuclear accidents like Fukushima) or nuclear proliferation (stopping countries like North Korea or Iran from getting or selling the bomb). These are both important issues, but neither is the central focus of this Summit.
The big idea that the Seoul Summit, just like the Washington Summit, will focus on is that the leaders assembled have the power to prevent nuclear terrorism — the detonation of an atomic bomb by terrorists. They can prevent the only terrorist attack that would kill hundreds of thousands of individuals in a single blow.
Indeed, they can prevent nuclear terrorism by doing just one thing: denying terrorists the means to achieve their deadliest ambitions. No nuclear materials available to terrorists — no nuclear terrorism.
Imagine that all nuclear weapons and all nuclear weapons-usable materials were locked up as good as gold in Fort Knox or treasures in the Kremlin Armory. We would have reduced the likelihood of a nuclear terrorist attack to nearly zero.
Leaders should take away from this event a vivid, visceral appreciation that nuclear terrorism threatens not just the U.S. or Russia but every great city in the civilized world. Since 9/11, global terrorists have killed double- and triple-digit numbers of individuals in Bali (2002), Madrid (2004), London (2005) and Mumbai (2008). If they had access to nuclear weapons, they would not hesitate to kill hundreds of thousands.
Leaders should also leave with a commitment to lock down all nuclear weapons and materials to a "gold standard" — beyond the reach of thieves or terrorists — and to do so on the fastest technically feasible timetable.
Looking back at recent history:
For additional examples, see Securing the Bomb 2010 at
At the Washington Summit, 60 national commitments were made, more than 80 percent of which have since been completed. At the Seoul Summit, leaders are expected to make fresh unambiguous commitments to take specific, observable actions that will reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism still further.
As with the last Nuclear Security Summit, observers should score this event by the specific actions countries take in preparation for Seoul, and the commitments they then make at the Summit that leave citizens of the world safer from the threat of terrorists exploding a nuclear bomb.
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