Nuke-Free World Must Wait; Short-Term Comes First

Leaders from dozens of nations around the world will gather in Washington this week to talk about nuclear security. President Obama has made that a priority, saying he's taking steps toward a world free of nuclear weapons. That's his long-term vision. This summit will deal with more immediate issues, like how to keep nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Many of the streets around the convention center here in Washington will close tonight. This is to accommodate the leaders from dozens of nations around the world who will meet there tomorrow and Tuesday to talk about nuclear security. President Barack Obama has made the issue a priority. His long-term vision sees a world free of nuclear weapons.

This week's summit deals with more immediate issues. One is to keep nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists. NPR's Michele Kelemen has the story.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Kings, presidents, prime ministers and heads of several international organizations will dine together Monday evening and talk Tuesday about what they're doing to secure plutonium and highly enriched uranium. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls it an unprecedented gathering on a crucial issue in the post-Cold War era.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): We are trying to make this summit the beginning of sustained international effort to lock down the world's vulnerable nuclear materials within four years and reduce the possibility that these materials will find their way into the hands of terrorists.

KELEMEN: That's an issue that the major nuclear weapon states can agree on, and European diplomats aren't expecting any controversies. But nuclear arms expert Joseph Cirincione, who runs the Ploughshares Fund, says it's not so easy to convince everyone in the room to do their part.

Mr. JOSEPH CIRINCIONE (Ploughshares Fund): We just had the prime minister of Israel, a nuclear arms state, decide not to come, even though Israels got an excellent track record on stopping any of their technology from getting into the hands of other countries. India and Pakistan don't really agree that the number one task is to secure their nuclear materials. They're part of the crowd you want to convince.

KELEMEN: Israel, which likes to maintain ambiguity about its nuclear program and doesn't want its program brought up at the summit, will be represented by the deputy prime minister. The Obama administration didn't invite Syria, Iran and North Korea, but their cases will surely be discussed by the president during his many bilateral meetings on the sidelines. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the administration is hoping to reap some diplomatic benefits from the newly signed arms control agreement with Russia.

Sec. CLINTON: This boosts our credibility as we ask other countries to help shore up the nonproliferation regime. It's becoming increasingly fragile and we need a stronger hand as we push for action against nuclear proliferators.

KELEMEN: Cirincione says the Obama administration is playing a kind of three-dimensional chess match with its nuclear policy.

Mr. CIRINCIONE: So, in order to convince countries that they have to undertake new obligations to stop proliferation, to stop nuclear terrorism, you've got to show them that you are also undertaking your own obligations. It won't work if they think this is part of a double standard - that we get to keep our nuclear weapons forever, make new, improved weapons, but were asking them never to acquire them and to stop other people from acquiring it. It just won't work. Historically, it hasn't worked that way.

KELEMEN: But whether this new approach will work is another question for Robert Gallucci, a nonproliferation expert who runs the Macarthur Foundation. He has his doubts that the U.S. can persuade Russia and China to agree to really effective sanctions on Iran, for instance.

Mr. ROBERT GALLUCCI (Macarthur Foundation): We have not been making great progress in resolving the issues of the North Korean nuclear weapons program and the Iranian nuclear weapons program. And what theyve done, I think, is, as they have let both of them simmer, they've put it in this context, and it's pretty good diplomatic context, I just don't know that there's reason at this point to have enormous confidence that it's going to work.

KELEMEN: As for this week's summit on preventing nuclear terrorism, Gallucci said that's long overdue, and he's hoping the Obama administration will get some concrete commitments from countries to do more to safeguard fissile material. He says that meeting, along with the administration's new nuclear policy, puts the U.S. in a stronger position for the next major conference, the five-year review of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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