Obama's End Goal: World Without Nuclear Weapons

President Obama is seeking commitments from the dozens of world leaders he's assembled in Washington D.C. to secure or eliminate nuclear weapons material. He has won some pledges of support. This week's nuclear security summit is just one step on a long path toward Obama's eventual goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Maybe the tight security for world leaders here in Washington this week sends a subtle message. Police blocked off streets, put up temporary fences, even parked trucks in roadways around the scene of a nuclear summit.

MONTAGNE: All of which may serve as a reminder that it's a dangerous world. President Obama is trying to organize a global response to the possibility of nuclear terrorism, and he's won some pledges of support.

INSKEEP: China promised to join negotiations on a new package of new sanctions against Iran.

MONTAGNE: And then Malaysia adopted stricter import and export controls to curb the spread of nuclear weapons or material.

INSKEEP: This conference is one step toward the president's goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: The Obama administration says the threat of a nuclear-armed terrorist group is not so farfetched. Counterterrorism advisor John Brennan says dozens of groups have tried to obtain what he calls weapons of mass effect. He says al-Qaida, in particular, has been trying to get its hands on the makings of a nuclear bomb for more than 15 years.

Mr. JOHN BRENNAN (Deputy National Security Adviser, Homeland Security and Counterterrorism): The threat of nuclear terrorism is real. It is serious. It is growing, and it constitutes one of the greatest threats to our national security and indeed to global security.

HORSLEY: The president is trying to organize a global response. Countries taking part in this week's summit are being asked what they can do individually and collectively to secure nuclear materials. Ukraine got the ball rolling yesterday. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says Ukraine promised to get rid of all its highly enriched uranium by 2012.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): This is something that the United States has tried to make happen more than 10 years. The material is enough to construct several nuclear weapons.

HORSLEY: Counterterrorism advisor Brennan says the U.S. is willing to assist other countries with money and technical advice to secure their nuclear material. Gibbs says, in some cases, that material may be brought to the U.S. for safekeeping.

Mr. GIBBS: Our goal is to make sure that secure - if the most secure place is to have that here, that's certainly our goal.

HORSLEY: Hosting this summit is one of several goals that President Obama set a year ago when he outlined a roadmap towards a world without nuclear weapons. The summit builds on another goal he achieved last week when he signed a new arms control treaty with Russia.

President BARACK OBAMA: Nuclear weapons are not simply an issue for the United States and Russia. They threaten the common security of all nations. 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.

HORSLEY: A draft communiqu� for this summit calls for securing all nuclear material within four years. Arms control expert Steven Pfeiffer of the Brookings Institution says that's an ambitious timetable.

Mr. STEVEN PFEIFFER (Brookings Institution): Nobody wants to see nuclear materials leak out. The question is: Can they come up with a plan of action that allows them in perhaps, as short as four years, to reach a point where we can have confidence that all these nuclear materials are under safe and effective control?

HORSLEY: Another step on the president's nuclear roadmap calls for strengthening the 40-year-old nonproliferation treaty. Pfeiffer says Mr. Obama will get a chance to do that next month when the treaty comes up for its regular review.

Mr. PFEIFFER: The nonproliferation treaty embodies a basic bargain: the nuclear weapons states say that they'll move towards disarmament, while the non-nuclear weapons agree not to acquire nuclear weapons.

HORSLEY: The administration tried to sweeten that bargain last week when it released a revised policy on the United States' own use of nuclear weapons. The policy offers a carrot to countries that abide by the nonproliferation treaty, saying they won't be targeted for nuclear attack by the U.S. Countries that violate the treaty get no such guarantee.

Pres. OBAMA: Those nations that follow the rules will find greater security and opportunity. Those nations that refuse to meet their obligations will be isolated.

HORSLEY: The administration's been trying to isolate Iran over its nuclear program, but it can't press U.N. sanctions against Iran unless China is willing to go along. Yesterday, Mr. Obama met one-on-one with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Afterwards, officials said China had agreed to work with the U.S. and other countries on a sanctions resolution.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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