At the opening of this morning's special Security Council session on nukes, Barack Obama opened his remarks with this dramatic vision:

As I said yesterday, this very institution was founded at the dawn of the atomic age, in part because man's capacity to kill had to be contained.  And although we averted a nuclear nightmare during the Cold War, we now face proliferation of a scope and complexity that demands new strategies and new approaches.  Just one nuclear weapon exploded in a city -- be it New York or Moscow; Tokyo or Beijing; London or Paris -- could kill hundreds of thousands of people.  And it would badly destabilize our security, our economies, and our very way of life.

That scenario is not nearly as unimaginable as it should be, which is why we're here today.

Thus far, nothing very surprising is happening here. Obama has been sitting patiently through speeches by leaders from non-permanent Security Council member countries like Austria, Vietnam, Uganda and Burkina Faso (most of whom are running over their 5-minute time limits--though not quite in Qaddafi-esque fashion, thankfully. The King of Kings of Africa is not here this morning, by the way.) Clearly, that's not how Rahm Emanuel, who's looking a little antsy, would like to schedule the president's time. But that's exactly why today's session is so important, if only in a symbolic sense. I suspect many Americans, and even media commentators, underestimate the importance to Obama of nuclear nonproliferation. A speech in Prague certainly isn't as sexy or attention-grabbing as a debate over troop increases. And the hard work of nonproliferation involves a lot of dull meetings and treaties. But Obama really seems to mean it.

Today's session is not about containing Iran and North Korea. It's about moving ahead on a set of global norms that discourage the production of fissile nuclear material, locks down loose nuclear material vulnerable to terrorist theft, and reward nations who play along with this imperatives. Before I get out of my depth, however, I'll outsource the analysis from here to Matthew Bunn of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, one of the country's top experts on nuclear proliferation and terrorism, and whom I asked for a comment on this morning's proceedings:

President Obama has taken a terrific step by focusing this meeting of Security Council heads of state solely on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.  He has effectively forced the Security Council leaders and their senior staffs to think hard about what needs to be done to keep these terrible weapons under control, and gotten their support for a broad agenda of important steps. The resolution puts the Security Council squarely behind an agenda that includes tougher responses to violations of nonproliferation treaties, stronger inspections, a ban on nuclear testing, an end to all production of nuclear materials for nuclear weapons worldwide, and steps toward the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons.  The resolution also focuses on supporting the steps that need to be taken to prevent nuclear terrorism, from effective security for nuclear materials to better measures to stop nuclear smuggling.  While the resolution does not legally require any countries to take any particular actions, it provides a big political boost to the preparation for the nuclear security summit Obama will host next spring, and the global conference to review and strengthen the nonproliferation treaty that will happen shortly thereafter.  Ultimately, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating — whether the resolution and the political boost from these Security Council leaders will in fact lead to changes on the ground, from improved nuclear security to strengthened export controls, and whether it will contribute to new agreements in the months to come.

With China signed up to this resolution calling for all states to join the CTB [Comprehensive Test Ban treatey] and bring it into force, if Obama succeeds in getting the U.S. Senate to ratify, the probability of getting China to ratify will be high, I think.  India (and because of India, Pakistan) and North Korea will be harder nuts to crack, I think — all of these have to ratify before the CTB can enter into force, as its currently written.

One reason the resolution did not create new binding obligations is that there is substantial push-back from the developing world over the Security Council, on which many of them are not represented, legislating for the whole planet.  The resolution was intended to increase global political support for nonproliferation in the lead-up to the NPT review, not create new political disputes between North and South.


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