Below follows an edited version of remarks Dr. Ford delivered to a conference on “The Nuclear Security Summits: Impact and Assessment,” held on September 13, 2011, at Hudson Institute. The event was organized by Hudson Institute and the Partnership for a Secure America, and sponsored by the Stanley Foundation. (Streaming video of the event, which also featured panelists Laura Holgate of the U.S. National Security Council staff and Kenneth Luongo of the Partnership for Global Security, is available on the Hudson Institute website.)
Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be able to take part in another nuclear security event here at Hudson, so let me thank the Partnership for a Secure America and the Stanley Foundation for making this possible.
Last year, quite a few heads of state came together here in Washington for a “Nuclear Security Summit” (NSS), where they emphasized the importance of securing nuclear materials in order to prevent their use by terrorists, agreed on a non-binding work plan, and made a number of specific progress commitments. Next year, another group of them will meet in South Korea to discuss how things have been going and where to go next. Let me offer you my own thoughts.
I. Some Progress
Some real progress on nuclear security does seem to have been made in the last year or so. Russia finally ended plutonium production at Zheleznogorsk, for example, and signed a plutonium disposition protocol with the United States. For its part, Kazakhstan secured more of its highly-enriched uranium (HEU), and Chile removed its last HEU supplies to the United States. Ukraine also removed a big batch of HEU, Mexico committed to converting its research reactor to low-enriched uranium (LEU), and China agreed with U.S. authorities to established a “center of excellence” to study and promote “best practices” in nuclear security.
This is all good, of course, though one should be cautious in not over-selling the degree to which the 2010 Summit deserves the credit. HEU removal has been a major U.S. policy priority, with numerous successes, for many years – with 22 research reactors being converted under the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) program created in May 2004 by President Bush.
Chile’s HEU removal, for instance, occurred before the NSS, and Russia’s plutonium shutdown and disposition agreement took years of planning and negotiation, merely being announced after the summit in order to help create a burst of favorable publicity.
It’s also quite a leap from the mere fact of something occurring after the Summit to the conclusion that it would not have happened but for the event. Nevertheless, I’d imagine the NSS did encourage progress. Except for things that may have been deliberately delayed until after the Summit in order to create the appearance of responsiveness, the 2010 convocation – and the prospect of next year’s follow-up – probably did help move things forward more rapidly.
II. Some Concerns
But all is not entirely rosy. The most dramatic recent setback has been in Belarus, which amidst some fanfare in December 2010 signed an agreement with the United States whereby it would transfer its HEU back to Russia in return for supplies of LEU. Since Belarus is apparently now the only country from the Former Soviet Union still with a sizeable HEU stockpile – nearly 500 pounds worth – this was touted as important progress, both by the Obama Administration and by its friends in the arms control community.
U.S. officials announced the Belarus deal at a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and in a formal communiqué with the Belarussian foreign minister, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “commended this decision by Belarus as a sign of progress in efforts to advance nuclear security and nonproliferation.” Clinton also said that she “would like to publicly thank Belarus for its decision. … It is a very important step made by Belarus.” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called the agreement “a significant step forward … for President Obama’s worldwide effort to secure nuclear material.” The message was clear: as Bill Potter of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies put it, “[t]he Obama administration scored a major success … when Belarus announced its plan.”
Unfortunately, however, the Belarussian dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko is fond of cracking down ruthlessly on domestic political opponents both real and imagined, and this has led the United States to impose sanctions on his regime. Thinking that how he brutalizes his own people is nobody’s business but his own, Lukashenko did not take kindly to this – and promptly suspended the HEU agreement. Belarus now says that it will resume HEU relinquishment only if Washington lifts the human rights sanctions.
This is obviously a setback for the NSS agenda, but it really points to a bigger issue than just the misbehavior of one particular dictator: the potential moral hazard problems that can arise when showy multilateral public diplomacy initiatives get entangled with the acquisitive politics of a wayward few.
Belarus had long resisted giving up its HEU stockpile, seeing it as a bargaining chip with which to extort more of what the New York Times has described as “the loans and handouts it needs to sustain its Soviet-style command economy.” I was initially concerned at reports that the Obama Administration had coupled Belarus’ signature on the HEU deal not merely with technical “advice” on how best to use the replacement LEU, but also with an “undisclosed amount” of financial assistance. Because it was not entirely clear that there was much of a “loose nuclear material” problem in Belarus to start with – and here one should recall that according to nuclear security expert Matt Bunn, Belarus’ HEU was already stored in a secure facility – I worried that Lukashenko’s regime may simply have been paid to provide the Nuclear Security Summit with a public “success.”
I am pleased, however, at [White House staffer] Laura Holgate’s assurances [at this conference] that there was nothing special about the Belarus HEU deal, and that this was an entirely normal sort of GTRI arrangement that did not involve special sweeteners. I’m glad to hear this. I would also agree with her that even if Belarus’ HEU was indeed in no danger of getting “loose,” it’s certainly better to return the HEU to Russia for downblending into LEU, and that the general principle of HEU return is an important one. (I’ve been a supporter of GTRI for years.) It would thus be too much to argue – as I was initially wont to do – that the December 2010 Belarus deal was as much about the political atmospherics of demonstrating an NSS “success” as it was about actually securing anything that might otherwise have been stolen by terrorists.
Nevertheless, I still worry, as a general matter, that the Obama Administration’s eagerness to show progress in such deals may be having the effect of commoditizing the retention of dangerous nuclear materials – giving strongmen like Lukashenko reasons to hang onto them in search of the highest price, even while giving such rulers potent tools for counter-leverage against U.S. policy.
This moral hazard problem is to some degree inherent, of course, in any effort to reach solutions in an issue-landscape involving tradeoffs and competing priorities. I worry, however, that such gamesmanship is a particular vulnerability for the kind of multilateralist showmanship that characterized the 2010 Summit, precisely because such efforts raise the public diplomatic stakes so high for summit organizers.
By comparison, consider the long-running and successful Nunn-Lugar effort – a.k.a. the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program – through which U.S. officials have secured vast quantities of material in the Former Soviet Union. The details of this program were developed and adapted over time through comparatively quiet, ongoing technical diplomacy as part of an effort not tied to dramatic public benchmarks such as the need to demonstrate grand successes in time for each successive multilateral summit. Moreover, while we certainly paid a great deal of money to accomplish Nunn-Lugar goals, this consisted of the expenses of the program. Money being by its nature fungible, this was of course of great benefit to Russia. But it was at least related to the project, and was not the same thing as tossing general financial assistance in as a sweetener for a nuclear deal.
Unfortunately, it looks a bit like Lukashenko was trying to work more from the North Korean nuclear negotiation playbook than from any position of seriousness about nuclear security. To his credit, President Obama has spoken out against diplomatic approaches in which although a dictatorship behaves badly, “if it waits long enough” it ends up being “rewarded with foodstuffs and fuel and concessionary loans and a whole range of benefits.” Perhaps the president needs to be more careful that the politics of his own NSS initiative don’t create analogous problems elsewhere.
And of course, North Korea (a.k.a. the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) is itself trying to take advantage of the general eagerness to demonstrate “successes” for the 2012 Summit. Some in this room have argued that the Seoul summit presents an opportunity to reach out to the DPRK in search of progress on the nuclear issue, and Pyongyang evidently agrees. To be sure, it does not seem particularly interested in promoting nuclear security, nor in making nuclear terrorism less likely. (After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the North Koreans built a plutonium production reactor in Syria!) The DPRK is, however, very interested in garnering political legitimacy, obtaining economic assistance, and (especially) securing recognition as a legitimate nuclear weapons possessor. After last year’s Summit in Washington, North Korea proclaimed itself willing “to join the international efforts for nuclear nonproliferation and on nuclear material security.” Its condition for such participation, however, was that the DPRK participate “on an equal footing with other nuclear weapons states.”
The Nuclear Security Summit process is designed to leverage the political pressures of high-intensity media and diplomatic exposure – including the personal involvement of heads of state – in order to entice countries to take sensible security steps of which they can boast at the next meeting, or at least to do enough that they can avoid being seen as embarrassed by not having done anything. And there is some virtue in this as a motivator.
The Belarus and would-be North Korean examples, however, suggest that this kind of high-stakes, multilateral showboat diplomacy can cut the other way too. It also creates pressures on those who have staked their diplomatic reputation on the success of the process: pressures to game the diplomacy of demonstrating progress by over-selling stage-managed displays of “success,” or by purchasing cooperative steps in ways that create moral hazard problems not conducive to long-term progress.
President Obama may, in other words, be asking for trouble by tying so much of his political and diplomatic fortunes to a recurring cycle in which in order to show that his signature initiative has not “failed,” he must point to what senior White House staffers such as Gary Samore already openly call “house gifts” announced at high-profile convocations of heads of state – that is to say, showy proclamations issued by attendees about some new nuclear security regulation they have issued, law they have enacted, agreement they have signed, or facility they have secured. The substance of most such “house gifts” is presumably welcome, of course, but these tokens of progress may increasingly come at a high price, especially as pressure grows to demonstrate “success” in achieving the unrealistic – and indeed, arguably incoherent – sound-bite objective of securing “all” nuclear materials worldwide “within four years” President Obama offered in April 2009, and which everyone endorsed in a fit of feel-good enthusiasm at the 2010 Summit. One suspects that a more conventional approach, involving quieter and more informal negotiations on multiple fronts with various partners, might have produced no less nuclear security “payoff,” yet without such externalities.
III. Moving Ahead
As I understand it, the Obama Administration intends that the upcoming Summit in Seoul will help deepen cooperation on nuclear security issues, add political momentum to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) efforts to keep tabs on the uses to which materials and technology are put, and lead to additional actions to secure materials and prevent illicit trafficking. I wish it success, for these are worthy goals.
There is some discussion, however, about whether we should aim to do more with the next Summit than simply replicate and update last year’s event. Some, for instance, have suggested taking the Fukushima disaster as our cue, and adding nuclear safety to the agenda of the Seoul NSS – or even adding nonproliferation issues. My instinct is that such expansions would probably distract from the core work the Summit process is intended to accomplish. Adding nonproliferation, in particular, might open a Pandora’s box of issues over which the world already has plenty of opportunities to disagree elsewhere.
If one were to expand the NSS agenda, however – and as I indicated, there’s a good case for not doing so – a better bet might be to try to secure radioactive sources such as the isotopes used in hospitals and laboratories around the world. There are, by various estimates, between 100,000 and one million radioactive sources distributed worldwide, some of which are potentially useful in a “dirty bomb” (i.e., radiological dispersal device, or RDD).
As I argued on this very spot in April of last year, it was one of the defects of the 2010 Summit that the Obama Administration failed to try address the threat of such a terrorist “dirty bomb.” Now that there is talk of possibly trying to deal with radioactive sources in 2012, we can perhaps rectify that failure.
[Editor’s note: At this same September 13 conference, NSC staffer Laura Holgate revealed that the issue of radiological sources "is absolutely going to be on the agenda in Seoul”– though she conceded that the Obama Administration had actually opposed this.]
It may also finally be time to seek real funding commitments from countries that claim to support the nuclear security agenda. In addressing our earlier event on this subject here at Hudson, I expressed disappointment that the Obama Administration had made no effort to obtain such commitments in 2010. But why not use the opportunity of the next massive gathering of heads of state to pass the hat in support of the measures that will likely be needed if we are to secure nuclear materials worldwide?
The Nunn-Lugar program is an example of the kind of progress that can be made in cooperative threat reduction – especially in helping countries that have a limited capacity to do such work on their own – but it was expensive, and it was funded entirely by the U.S. taxpayer. Already, however, we are having trouble securing funding for our own nonproliferation programs, and this is likely to get worse on account of our current budget and public debt problems.
Nunn-Lugar may thus be a good model for the kind of work that will need to be done in many countries, but it cannot be a model for funding it. This is a terrible time to ask the U.S. taxpayer to pay for fixing everyone else’s nuclear security problems, so we need to make nuclear security a truly collective effort. President George W. Bush and his fellow G-8 leaders started the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction in 2002 in order to help do just this sort of thing. Today’s G-8 leaders, however, seem to have dangerously bobbled the ball, for not long after President Obama’s much-heralded 2010 Summit in 2010, the G-8 declined to renew the Global Partnership, leaving it set to expire in 2012 – ironically, not long after the second Nuclear Security Summit in South Korea. This spring, they finally managed to rally, extending the Partnership past its original expiration date, but no one has missed the point that enthusiasm for this effort seems not to be what it once was. If we are serious about nuclear security, it is time for some real hat-passing in Seoul.
Let me, as a final note, express disappointment that there seems to be no prospect of world leaders addressing another problem that I raised here in April 2010 in discussing the NSS. As far as I know, no official involved in the Summit process has yet to say anything about the challenge of ongoing nuclear material production – and, in particular, the proliferation of fuel-cycle technologies that allow the production of ever more material that will, of course, also need to be kept out of the wrong hands. Here, I’ll put my own spin on Laura[ Holgate]’s comment [earlier at this conference] about the importance of the “human component.” We need to think about nuclear security in terms of knowledge and technology in addition to just materials: if we miss these aspects of the problem – which are, at the end of the day, probably more important over the long run – we will fail. Sadly, however, on that front there seems to have been essentially no progress at all.
Anyway, thanks for listening. I look forward to our discussions.
-- Christopher Ford