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Obama’s high-wire act to prevent nuclear terror
Leaders of 44 nations, including India, at summit
Raj Chengappa

Sunday, April 11
America’s capital is experiencing an unusually fickle spring with temperatures soaring on one day and the next day a chill setting in. Few Americans are complaining though - the air is crisp, the cherry trees that line Independence Avenue are still in full blossom and birds chatter away joyously. President Barack Obama too seems to be in his element. The Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) that begins Monday is his brainchild and he is intent on making it a resounding success.

It is being regarded by experts as the most important gathering of leaders on the subject of securing nuclear materials worldwide in recent times. Obama had convened the summit to get key nations to work out a blueprint to prevent terrorists from laying their hands on nuclear material and holding the world to ransom. Obama regards nuclear terror as, “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.” As he warned, “One terrorist with one nuclear weapon could unleash massive destruction.”

The 44 countries, including India, invited have been carefully chosen by Obama - they include the major, minor and wannabe nuclear powers and also a geographical spread that represents the world. Notable exclusions are Iran and North Korea because both these countries are in violation of their NPT obligations and global efforts are on to force them to comply. Though unstated, much of the focus is also on Pakistan and the worry that political instability may lead to its nuclear arsenal falling into extremists hands.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh landed late Saturday night at the Andrews Air Force Base to be on time for the one-on-one bilateral meet with Obama on Sunday and participate in the NSS later. India has always raised the issue of clandestine trade in nuclear material especially by Pakistan and is a keen supporter of the summit. The Prime Minister said while emplaning for the summit that, “India is an important stakeholder in this global endeavour.”

Nuclear non-proliferation experts pin plenty of hope on the outcome of the summit. Michael Krepon, Founder President of the Stimson Center , a Washington DC based think tank, says: “Obama is doing a high wire act that would give a new positive momentum to non proliferation efforts.” That is important because in May the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference is to take place.

Having a “mini-NPT”, as Krepon terms it, before the big meet would ensure that more nations would buy in with a greater sense of urgency. India though is not a member of the NPT since its inception because of its discriminatory approach. But ever since the Indo-US nuclear agreement it has gained worldwide acceptance as an advanced and responsible nuclear weapons power and is a vital player.

So is Obama bringing something new to the table by convening the NSS? Not really. Securing nukes from falling into the wrong hands has been an objective ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union in the nineties. But it was the shock of the 9/11 terror attack that brought a new sense of urgency to global efforts to prevent nuclear terror.

Since then the existing Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material was beefed up with a more stringent 2005 amendment. Then in 2006, the US and Russia kicked off the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism that brought in a series of national regulatory and legal framework to secure materials and prevent them from falling into the wrong hands.

However, global efforts to secure nuclear material have been flagging since then and the subject has gone off the headlines. Obama is cleverly knitting together the disparate efforts and giving it a fresh impetus and urgency while projecting a vision, however distant, of a nuclear-free world. A senior Indian official described the summit as “a logical and positive step.”

In April last year, when Obama delivered his famous Prague speech in which waxed eloquent about working towards a world free of nuclear weapons, he was quick to add that: “I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly -- perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, "Yes, we can."

He announced a series of initiatives to work towards that goal of reducing the threat from nuclear weapons including convening the current security summit to secure nuclear materials.

The US President comes to Monday's security summit with a high degree of credibility of having kept many of his Prague promises. On April 8, Obama along with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met appropriately at Prague to sign the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty or New START that saw both countries reduce their existing nuclear arsenal by as much as 30 per cent. They still had enough weapons between them to bomb the world to kingdom come but 1500 weapons each is a far cry from the total of 40,000 that they had between them at the height of the Cold War.

Two days earlier on April 6, the Pentagon released America ’s Nuclear Posture Review 2010 that made concrete Obama’s promise to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in the US national security strategy. Among other things, the Review announced that the Department of Energy would spend $ 2.7 billion for accelerating nuclear non-proliferation programmes - a 30 per cent increase - that would include his Prague spring initiative to secure vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide in four years.

Obama is clearly on a high and smells like the roses that are in bloom in DC. But he must also be aware that spring is one of nature’s shortest seasons and a long hot summer awaits him and the world after the summit. Hard work would be required to make its laudable goals a reality.




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