Obama’s Bold Bid to Ease Nuclear Threat

WASHINGTON

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama next week makes his boldest effort yet to exercise global leadership, at a 47-nation summit designed to avert the nightmare scenario of extremists with nuclear bombs.

Obama will host one of the biggest international gatherings in decades in Washington, hoping to secure commitments from world powers for a crackdown on the theft, trade and smuggling of unsecured weapons grade nuclear materials.

The summit, coming as Obama reframes America’s own nuclear policy, and with his political clout enhanced by several recent successes, will have an added subtext – the drive for biting new UN nuclear sanctions on Iran.

In meetings with foreign leaders on the sidelines of the summit, Obama will also press other foreign policy goals, including lobbying for a change in Chinese currency strategy when he sits down with President Hu Jintao.

After spending months in a bitter fight to enact health care reform, the summit represents a substantial investment of presidential time and political capital in a key foreign policy goal.

It will not be the first time Obama has hosted a major summit – he led the G20 economic crisis talks in Pittsburgh last year – but the event represents the most important diplomatic showpiece under US auspices since he took office.

The meeting is the fruition of a long-term effort by Obama to deprive terrorist groups of the means to build nuclear or radioactive “dirty” weapons.
Upon becoming a senator in 2005, Obama joined Republican Senator Richard Lugar’s efforts to secure global nuclear stocks, and on an early foreign trip as president, he vowed to work to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely.

In addition to Hu, Obama will host such leaders as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

On Monday and Tuesday in the cavernous Washington Convention Center, Obama will target more than the kind of vague commitments to combat nuclear proliferation that are a feature of global summits.

“Our nuclear security summit next week will be an opportunity for 47 nations to commit to specific steps to pursue the goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world within four years,” Obama said in a statement Tuesday.

Hosting such a large-scale summit is a show of confidence from Obama, but also a political risk, should the event fall short of expectations.

It will take place in the week after Obama laid out a landmark refashioning of security policy, imposing new limits on the possible use of the US nuclear arsenal, and after Thursday’s signing of a new disarmament treaty with Russia in Prague.

Next week’s meetings are also seen as a precursor to the United Nations Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference next month.

“President Obama needs a big win,” said Sharon Squassoni of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I think the nuclear security summit was designed with that in mind, to have something that would be splashy, that would have style but also have substance just one month before this important review conference.”

Non-nuclear states typically complain nuclear powers are not taking sufficient steps toward disarmament.

So the new US Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia may be seen as an attempt to meet those concerns, and jump-start the review conference.

The summit will seek commitments from nations on securing nuclear material in their own backyards, and to help less developed countries follow suit.

“The White House hopes for four things: that countries will be engaged, they will be more aware, they will pledge to do something about this, they will adopt best practices and they will provide assistance to other countries,” said Squassoni.

James Miller, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters Wednesday that Obama would seek specific commitments, such as efforts to “prevent theft or seizure of nuclear materials and prevent transit, smuggling of nuclear materials through their territories.”

A draft summit communiqué includes calls for tougher prosecutions of traffickers and better accounting of weapons grade nuclear material, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Defiant Iran and North Korea, will not be present – but their nuclear aspirations will cast a shadow.

The administration hopes to use the conference to quicken the drive towards toughened sanctions on Tehran, boosted by China’s agreement to join talks on the measures aimed at one of its big energy suppliers.

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