Monday: World Leaders Gather for Talks on Nuclear Threat

BY jbreslow  April 12, 2010 at 9:14 AM EST

President Barack Obama; Getty Images

President Barack Obama is set to meet with world leaders at the two-day nuclear security summit. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images.)

World leaders from 47 nations begin meeting in Washington, D.C., on Monday for a two-day summit focused on keeping nuclear material out of the hands of terrorists.

The threat of nuclear terrorism is “the single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short-term, medium-term and long-term,” President Barack Obama said on Sunday after greeting the India and Pakistan delegations. The president has set as a goal for the summit to secure all loose nuclear material within four years.

The Nuclear Security Summit — the largest assembly of world leaders called by an American president since the 1945 conference establishing the United Nations — marks a shift in thinking about nuclear security since the days of the Cold War.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told an audience at the University of Louisville on Friday:

“We no longer live in constant fear of a global nuclear war, where we’re in a standoff against the Russians with all of our nuclear arsenal on the ready. But as President Obama has said, the risk of a nuclear attack has actually increased. And the potential consequences of mishandling this challenge are deadly.”

Much of the summit’s first day will consist of one-on-one meetings between President Obama and other world leaders, including a highly-anticipated session with Chinese President Hu Jintao. The bulk of the work will take place Tuesday, when President Obama leads two plenary sessions focusing on steps nations can take to secure nuclear material inside their borders, and strengthening international cooperation toward that effort.

“Personally, I hope Obama starts the talks off with a bang, such as by announcing some sort of striking cutback in our arsenal,” writes Peter Singer on the Brookings Institution’s Up Front blog. “Some old Cold Warriors might question the need for any nuclear cutbacks, especially in the wake of the most recent START agreement, but I would ask them to name any threat or combination of threats, in this galaxy, that 3,000, 2,000, or even 1,000 nuclear weapons wouldn’t be able to deter that 4,000 could?”

There’s only one problem with President Obama’s goal of locking down all loose nuclear materials, says Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations: “It’s impossible.” Which is why, he says, the president should make sure “the promise of a silver bullet doesn’t sap enthusiasm for more modest but still critical complementary steps, like improving port and border security, monitoring procurement networks, and training law enforcement personnel to recognize telltale signs of nuclear plots. The allure of an impermeable defense can lead planners to reject these plainly less-than-perfect tools.”

“Even the most idealistic internationalists know that the number of nuclear-armed states is likely to grow rather than shrink in coming years, weakening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and increasing the production of dangerous materials around the globe,” says Time magazine’s Massimo Calabresi. “So, a more accurate definition of the summit’s purpose may be that it is, at best, a small step toward slowing the decline of international cooperation on nuclear issues.”

The New York Times wants to see real results: “Feel-good communiqués will not be enough. The meeting needs to produce concrete deadlines, working groups and future meetings to measure progress. … The only way to prevent nuclear terrorism is to keep all nuclear materials under strict control. That will take strong and consistent leadership by Mr. Obama and like-minded leaders, beginning with strong commitments at this week’s summit meeting.”

Day of Mourning in Poland

Poland is holding a day of mourning Monday in honor of President Lech Kaczynski, who along with 95 top officials in the Polish government, died when his plane crashed Saturday en route to a war memorial service in Russia. Kaczynski’s body is set to lie in state in the Polish capital of Warsaw as the investigation continues into the crash.