INTER PRESS SERVICE. APRIL 12, 2010. By Matthew Berger and Eli Clifton
WASHINGTON, Apr 12, 2010 (IPS) - One of the largest gatherings of world leaders ever on U.S. soil began Monday with representatives of 47 countries gathering here for the Nuclear Security Summit.
The two-day event is organised around the goal of keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists. Representatives of NGOs, along with experts from academia, held a parallel summit on the same topic several blocks away.
Most NGOs have traditionally focused on the much broader goal of nuclear nonproliferation and reduction of nuclear stockpiles - topics that have been addressed by U.S. President Barack Obama and other leaders in recent weeks but which are not directly being addressed at this week's talks.
But many of the NGO and academic experts meeting at the parallel summit felt there was a connection to be made between securing vulnerable nuclear materials and reducing the existence of those materials.
They may have a case. The first concrete accomplishment to come out of the 47-country summit came when Ukraine agreed Monday morning to give up its bomb-grade uranium and have its civil nuclear programme operate instead on low-enriched uranium. Ukraine is reported as having enough such nuclear material for several weapons.
Obama laid out the goal of the summit - and parallel summit - in a speech in Prague one year ago: "To secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years."
In that speech, he also laid out a strategy for meeting that goal. The U.S., he said, would "set new standards, expand our cooperation with Russia, [and] pursue new partnerships to lock down these sensitive materials." These past two weeks have seen a flurry of progress toward those actions.
Returning to Prague a year later last Thursday, Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev signed a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The treaty commits the U.S. and Russia to reduce their nuclear stockpiles by one-third - bringing the total number of warheads possessed by each country down to 1,550.
The day before, the White House released the new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which forbids the use of nuclear weapons against signatories in good standing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), forswears the testing of nuclear weapons and development of new nuclear warheads, and commits the administration to seeking Senate ratification and the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
"Securing 'loose nukes' is one part of a nuclear security agenda," said Alexandra Toma, co-chair of the Fissile Materials Working Group, told IPS. "The second part is the strengthening the nonproliferation regime and that's going to be happening next month. The third part is disarmament which is what we're seeing in the new START treaty and hopefully the CTBT if that happens next year."
"It's a very, very heavy agenda. When you look at the Obama administration four years from now, changing the debate on nuclear nonproliferation will be one of its major accomplishments," contended Nancy Soderberg, president of the Connect U.S. Fund.
She said the Obama administration's approach has been welcome. "It's a huge shift from the Bush administration which pretty much objected to these types of international efforts and felt they could go their own way," she told IPS. "There's a growing recognition that you need American leadership to drive the debate and that it's hard and so it's not going to happen overnight and it's all linked in together."
On the first day of the summit Monday, Obama held one-on-one meetings with many of the world leaders gathered in downtown Washington. The most significant of these meetings was likely with Chinese Premier Hu Jintao, in which the two leaders reportedly discussed the possibility of sanctions on Iran, which is thought to have a nuclear programme and which has important economic ties with China.
In May, the 2010 review conference for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) will be held at U.N. headquarters in New York. Monday, NGO leaders were not afraid to set expectations high for both that and the current conference, particularly in light of Obama apparent commitment to nuclear issues.
"Obama has really breathed a breath of fresh air into multilateral participation and he's raised the bar for all countries. By having a summit here in Washington DC he's forcing many countries all over the world to really focus on this issue and make a personal commitment on behalf of their country to follow through," Paul F. Walker, director of Global Green USA's security & sustainability programme, told IPS.
"This will be a big feather in Obama's cap and a big feather in other countries' caps as they begin to renew their commitment to article six [of the NPT], in which all the nuclear countries commit to full nuclear disarmament," he said.
"In the nuclear posture review last week we saw not a huge shift but a good solid step in changing U.S. nuclear policy towards the rest of the world. We saw the START signing and this week we're seeing the nuclear security summit. So I think this is all part of the momentum going into the NPT review conference," said Toma.