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New Nuclear Threat Tops Summit's Agenda
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New Nuclear Threat Tops Summit's Agenda

National Security

New Nuclear Threat Tops Summit's Agenda

New Nuclear Threat Tops Summit's Agenda
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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/125797686/125837351" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in Prague. Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images i

In Prague on Thursday, President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed an arms reduction treaty. But fears of an attack by a nuclear-armed superpower have given way to concerns about a nuclear-armed terrorist. Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in Prague. Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

In Prague on Thursday, President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed an arms reduction treaty. But fears of an attack by a nuclear-armed superpower have given way to concerns about a nuclear-armed terrorist.

Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama spent last week at home and in Prague concentrating on nuclear strategy, and nearly 50 world leaders will gather in Washington this week for a nuclear summit. The focus of these events shows that the global nuclear threat has shifted — from fears of an attack by a nuclear-armed superpower, to concerns about a nuclear-armed terrorist.

"I've been through this field beginning to end," says nuclear historian Richard Rhodes, "and I think I'm done."

Rhodes won a Pulitzer for his work tracing the history of nuclear weapons. He studied the subject for more than 30 years, and while he does not believe the nuclear threat is over, the story he has chronicled seems to be wrapping up.

"President Obama is moving in the direction of eliminating nuclear weapons," he says. "It's clear that's going to be an immensely complex business, but one has to begin somewhere, and these are early steps along the way."

In Prague on Thursday, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed an arms reduction treaty in an effort to resolve a problem that emerged in the last century.

"The United States and Russia are prepared to once again take leadership in moving in the direction of reducing reliance on nuclear weapons," Obama said.

A Nuclear Sequel

As the story of nuclear standoff between superpowers moves toward a conclusion, another nuclear story is still in its early chapters.

"I think it is much more difficult to deal with a nuclear terrorist than with a nuclear-armed state," says Frank Miller, who oversaw U.S. nuclear weapons policy at the Pentagon.

The knowledge that everyone would lose in traditional nuclear war has historically prevented countries from firing on each other, Miller says. That calculus doesn't apply with suicide bombers. "At the very minimum, they're probably not living in their own country. They're living on somebody else's soil. And how are you going to attack that host country's soil with nuclear weapons? It doesn't compute."

So America's primary nuclear focus has moved to securing loose material around the world.

That was reflected in the Nuclear Posture Review that Obama issued just before his Prague visit.

"The nuclear gears have shifted, in a way," nuclear weapons expert Bruce MacDonald of the U.S. Institute of Peace says. "We're now looking at these new threats, and it's interesting that in the Nuclear Posture Review, the nuclear terrorism threat and proliferation are identified as the most important concern."

This Time, Nations Share The Threat

On Monday, Obama will host leaders from more than 40 countries at the nuclear summit in Washington. Instead of focusing on arms reduction, they will discuss ways to keep nuclear material away from terrorists.

"A nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist is a danger to people everywhere — from Moscow to New York, from the cities of Europe to South Asia," Obama said in Prague.

That shared threat makes it easier for countries to cooperate, says Stephen Hadley, who was national security adviser to President George W. Bush.

"All the major nuclear weapons states — Russia, China, U.K., France and the United States — have been victims of terror and know what it would be like if terrorists had access to nuclear materials," Hadley says.

But Wendy Sherman of the Albright-Stonebridge Group, who served on a congressional commission on nuclear weapons, fears some countries may be reluctant to make the commitments the U.S. wants.

"Those decisions require transparency, which is often difficult to achieve because of domestic interests," she says. "Gaining that kind of transparency so that we can all assure each other that materials are secure, unfortunately has some significant political dimensions."

The nuclear events over these two weeks are part of a process that has been going on for decades.

Hadley says it has followed a consistent path through four presidents — two Republicans and two Democrats.

"The objective that President Obama is pursuing started out under President Bush 41, was continued by President Clinton and President Bush 43," Hadley says, "which is to reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in our security posture."

Monday's summit is one more step.

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