Obama Heads To The Hague For Nuclear Summit

President Obama goes to The Hague for a nuclear security summit Monday. Although the crisis in Ukraine is overshadowing the event, there is a packed agenda independent of the tensions with Russia. This is the third time world leaders have met to discuss how to keep nuclear materials out of terrorists' hands.

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Now, this growing tension between the United States and Russia has the potential to spread beyond Ukraine to other issues. And one question is whether it will disrupt President Obama's effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Russia does play a key role in that effort. On Sunday evening, President Obama flies to Europe to begin a four-country visit. The crisis in Ukraine is hanging over the whole agenda, including at a nuclear summit in Netherlands. NPR's Ari Shapiro will be covering that meeting at The Hague. He has this preview.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: During President Obama's first year in office, he gave a speech in Prague about what he called the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.

SHAPIRO: As he put it, terrorists are determined to buy, build, or steal a nuclear weapon. And one nuclear bomb could kill hundreds of thousands of people. So, in that speech five years ago, he launched an ambitious global effort to get rid of nuclear material.

OBAMA: The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons.

SHAPIRO: Soon after, the U.S. hosted a global nuclear summit in Washington. Two years later, world leaders met again for a nuclear summit in Seoul, South Korea. Now, on the eve of this third summit at The Hague, former Senator Sam Nunn has a report card. He's head of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

SAM NUNN: In the past two years since the last summit, seven countries have removed all or most of these dangerous nuclear materials from their territories. In addition, more than a dozen countries have taken steps to reduce their quantities and to better secure what they have.

SHAPIRO: There's still a long way to go. President Obama's top advisor on these issues is Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall. At a recent summit hosted by the National Journal, she said countries are far more coordinated than they used to be.

ELIZABETH SHERWOOD-RANDALL: I wake up in the morning and I have emails from china, from Pakistan, from India, from all over Europe, from Africa, from Latin America, working to advance this effort.

SHAPIRO: But there are also new global tensions. Russia has been a key player in nuclear disarmament. And the West is now in a standoff with Russia over its actions in Crimea. Sherwood-Randall says she hopes the nuclear disarmament process can stay on a separate track from the crisis in Ukraine.

SHERWOOD-RANDALL: And we see no reason that the tensions that exist over Ukraine should in any way obstruct the path toward fulfilling the commitments that we have made with the Russians to reduce nuclear weapons on both sides.

SHAPIRO: But others believe the Ukraine issue will suck all the air out of the room. Matthew Cottee is a nuclear security expert at King's College, London.

MATTHEW COTTEE: I think that is possibly trying to put a very positive spin on the fact that this is such a big issue that it rises above any other geopolitical issue or event taking place.

SHAPIRO: Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons some 20 years ago. And now that Russia is pushing it around, some Ukrainians wish they hadn't. This is possibly Europe's greatest crisis since the end of the Cold War. At the sidelines of Monday's nuclear summit, the U.S. will lead a meeting of the Group of 7 to discuss the situation in Ukraine. Cottee says it's hard to predict what the Russians will do, and it's even harder to achieve the goals of this nuclear summit without the Russians' help.

COTTEE: The sheer quantity of material that it possesses and the number of facilities that exist in Russia means that it needs to play a role in these efforts.

SHAPIRO: There's also a long-term question about this initiative. President Obama has been the man driving the train, and he leaves office in 2016. Kenneth Luongo is the president of the Partnership for Global Security.

KENNETH LUONGO: If this fades from the global agenda and becomes just a technical level discussion again, you're not going to see hardly any more progress.

SHAPIRO: A new president may decide not to keep pursuing an agenda so strongly associated with the Obama administration. And even the biggest optimists say there's no chance this project will be finished by the time President Obama leaves office. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London.

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