At this week’s nuclear-security summit in Seoul, remarkably little attention seemed to be focused on the issue at hand: preventing terrorists from stealing nuclear materials or threatening nuclear facilities. This was no fault of the South Korean hosts, who operated the summit with military-like efficiency for the fifty-plus governments in attendance. The hosts even provided a theme song, catchy logo and endless banners proclaiming “beyond security, towards peace,” all while making significant new technical and political contributions to improving nuclear security. And it must be admitted the bad boys north of the border did their part to shift their attention elsewhere by threatening a missile test cloaked as a satellite launch. But the summit itself was so uninspiring that even President Obama seemed to focus more on future arms control talks with Russia—even in his now infamous off-mic remarks to Dimitri Mevedev.
This uninspiring picture is not a surprise: the real world of preventing nuclear terrorism is a far cry from movie thrillers or spy novels. It involves the drudgery of locking up or removing dangerous materials from sites scattered around the globe, haggling with bureaucrats, sitting through tortuous international negotiations, and convincing reluctant lawmakers to pass the right legislation and provide appropriate funding.
But the summit also seemed to lack a compelling rationale—something more than simply continuing a process that began two years ago. At that 2010 meeting, President Obama succeeded in raising the profile of a once-obscure issue, getting global leaders and their subordinates to give greater priority to a concern that they have too often seen as a U.S. responsibility and to bring some long-stalled efforts to completion. That summit also benefited from the excitement accompanying Obama’s emergence on the world stage after the global tensions generated by the George W. Bush administration.
By this week’s summit, Obama and his national-security team could no longer count on those advantages to lift public interest in the issue—and his approach to it—above the level of technical discussions. Obama’s presidency long ago lost its novelty, and continuing challenges from Iran and North Korea make clear that his dream of “a world free of nuclear weapons” still looms as far away as ever. Even his signal foreign-policy successes—cracking down on al-Qaeda and killing Osama bin Laden—only seemed to make the summit’s subject matter appear more abstract and irrelevant.
But the White House also bore considerable responsibility for the lack of interest in the summit deliberations. Fearful that a more ambitious agenda would be blocked by resistance from states such as Russia, Pakistan and some developing countries inclined to dismiss the threat of nuclear terrorism, they instead focused on chalking up dozens of small victories. These included actions and promises to remove potential nuclear-bomb materials of highly enriched uranium and plutonium from several Western European states (where they had been used for nonmilitary purposes) and several “gift baskets” of promises from various subgroups to take new actions in areas such as preventing nuclear smuggling or blocking cyberattacks on nuclear facilities.
All of these steps are welcome and deserve to be commended. But they merely added new swathes to the already vast and yet inadequate patchwork of international nuclear-security efforts, where nuclear standards on the ground and adherence to various treaties, guidelines and regulations vary greatly from country to country. The result is a nuclear-security regime with enough loopholes to drive a truck through (one hopes not literally).
What was lacking was a broader vision to tie together these disparate parts, leaving the struggling Korean hosts and the international press to guess at why these measures mattered. Nor did it help that one of the president’s chief spokesmen to the summit was Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, whose Nobel Prize-winning intellect appeared to be an impediment to crafting the relatively simple message required.