Call it the Obama doctrine. The central theme of Barack Obama’s foreign policy to date has been simple: He wants to lower the risk that a nuclear weapon will be exploded inside the United States. Think back. Obama’s first foreign policy address, delivered in Prague last April, called for a nuclear-free world—not a short-term practical goal, of course, but an ideal meant to shape our thinking and discourse. His top strategic priorities are stopping Iran from developing a nuclear bomb and stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan; Obama is investing billions of dollars and tens of thousands of U.S. troops in that region largely to ensure that Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal remains secure and out of the hands of jihadists. He convened a special meeting of the U.N. Security Council last fall to discuss the nuclear threat. He recently invested considerable prestige in the START treaty that mandates arms reductions with Russia. And he invited demagogic attacks from critics like Sarah Palin when he added new limitations to America’s nuclear-weapons doctrine.
Obama’s cool response to the Detroit underwear bomber showed that he doesn’t want America overreacting to the threat of conventional terrorism. But nuclear terror—that’s another matter. “It would be a catastrophe for the world,” Obama explained at the 47-nation nuclear summit he hosted in Washington this week. Groups like Al Qaeda are trying to acquire nukes, he warned, and would surely use a bomb if they got one. “The risk of a nuclear attack has gone up,” Obama said. Coming from Dick Cheney, words like that had a way of sounding like a scare tactic. Coming from Obama, they are genuinely scary.
Unfortunately, one summit won’t be enough to put our fears to rest. The Obama administration is billing this event as a huge leap forward for global nuclear security. Conservatives are sneering that it is a symbolic sideshow which sidesteps crucial issues like Iran’s nuclear program. Neither argument is quite right. The nuclear security summit will help to advance Obama’s new doctrine by focusing world attention on the nuclear threat, as well as achieving some tangible security steps. But some of the hardest work still lies ahead. And much of it does, in fact, have quite a lot to do with Iran.
Critics may complain that the nuclear summit was a glorified photo-op. But even merely gathering world leaders to discuss nuclear terrorism is an achievement. As Harvard’s Matt Bunn has noted, some top foreign officials are surprisingly sanguine about the possibility that terrorists could acquire a bomb. In 2002, Anatoliy Kotelnikov, the man in charge of Russia’s nuclear complex, called it “absolutely impossible” for terrorists to create a nuclear bomb even if they were to get their hands on nuclear material. That’s simply wrong, but the dangerous misimpression persists. Bunn argues that convincing foreign leaders to take this threat seriously—getting them to understand that it is something more than the stuff of “24”—is an essential first step to getting their countries to beef up security around their nuclear production, storage, and research sites. “[T]he effort to overcome complacency [is] a fundamental element of a global nuclear security campaign,” Bunn writes in the latest iteration of his annual Securing the Bomb report. In that sense, merely getting people to focus on nuclear terrorism in this way is a step forward.
Of course, Obama’s summit wasn’t simply about symbolism. Ukraine agreed to surrender 90 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU)—enough for terrorists with moderate skills and funding to build several crude nukes; Canada will return a supply of spent nuclear fuel to the United States; Malaysia will tighten its nuclear controls; and Russia agreed to shut down a plutonium factory. Looking ahead, the summit concluded with a communiqué in which the participating nations agreed to a raft of new measures to step up nuclear security and interdiction.
All well and good. But the international community is forever making pledges to act that sputter out when confronted with the realities of global politics. And indeed, the summit’s communiqué was filled with words like “will promote,” “will strive to,” and “are encouraged to.” Unfortunately, fully securing nuclear material around the world will require an almost unprecedented level of international cooperation and transparency—especially in the military and security realms where nation-states most prize their sovereignty and secrecy. The most promising ideas involve the creation of global standards, ideally set by the United Nations, that would dictate minimum security conditions for all nuclear materials worldwide—complete with verification measures and possibly even international inspections. (Various existing agreements are vague and lack enforcement mechanisms.
That is easier said than done. Some countries don’t give a whit about such high-minded calls to action. Belarus, for instance, has a substantial stockpile of bomb-usable HEU that it has refused to surrender—and its international standing is poor enough that the nation’s dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, wasn’t even invited to this week’s summit. And you can forget about any help from North Korea.
What’s more, even some close U.S. allies aren’t overjoyed with such gauzy talk about international nuclear security regimes. India, for instance, has long refused nuclear security cooperation with America, and Pakistan’s paranoia about outsiders nosing around its complex is even more intense; U.S. officials admit they’re not even sure where all of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are stored, and Pakistan is not about to tell us.
There was one huge problem this week’s summit couldn’t adequately grapple with: Iran. While worthwhile, Obama’s confab was not focused on building international pressure against Tehran’s nuclear program. Yet stopping Ahmadinejad’s path to the bomb remains a vital component of the fight to prevent nuclear terrorism. Never mind the frightening question of what controls Iran may or may not maintain over its own nuclear material. The even greater concern is whether an Iranian nuclear capability would lead several of its neighbors—including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt—to begin their own nuclear programs, ostensibly for peaceful purposes but in reality aimed at balancing Iran’s new strategic power. Few things would increase the threat of nuclear terror than the initiation of several new nuclear programs in the Middle East.
To be sure, stopping Iran’s path to the bomb won’t be easy; it may even be too late now. But the fact remains that an Iranian nuclear capability could push us to the edge of a new nuclear tipping point, at which several more nations begin seeking admission to the nuclear club, with or without American approval. That, unfortunately, would be a development immensely more consequential than this week’s latest iteration of the Obama doctrine.
Michael Crowley is a senior editor of The New Republic.