April 12, 2010 -- World leaders from 47 nations convene this week in Washington, D.C., for the Nuclear Security Summit, a gathering that the Obama administration hopes will raise awareness about the threats of nuclear arms getting into the hands of terrorists or "rogue" nations.
President Obama said Sunday the goal of the nuclear summit is to discuss the terrorist threat and getting countries to lock down their nuclear weapons in a specific time frame. The Obama administration itself has pledged to try to "secure all vulnerable materials" within four years and is hoping the summit will spark a case for preventive action among others.
"If there was ever a detonation in New York City or London or Johannesburg, the ramifications economically, politically, and from a security perspective would be devastating," Obama said on the eve of the summit. "And we know that organizations like al Qaeda are in the process of trying to secure a nuclear weapon -- a weapon of mass destruction that they have no compunction of using."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week that the nuclear summit would be the largest of its kind hosted by a U.S. president since the U.N. conference in 1945.
But even as Obama brings the issue of nuclear security and disarmament into the spotlight -- first with the release of the new U.S. nuclear policy, and then the U.S.-Russia arms reduction agreement -- he faces significant challenges from two fronts.
Internationally, U.S. allies such as India, Pakistan and Israel have been resistant to signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, citing national security concerns. The view in many countries is that this week's treaty signing aside, if the United States and Russia -- which together account for 95 percent of the world's nuclear arsenal and material -- cannot cut their nuclear stockpile, why should they be forced to?
"No one is willing to step up and say, 'Yea, I'm part of the problem here," said former national security official Ivan Oelrich, now vice president of the Strategic Security Program at the Federation of American Scientists. The "U.S. and Russia have to lead the way in major reductions."
Participant countries will also likely be looking to the United States for accountability. Henry Sokolsi, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, argues that if the United States is going to try to persuade other countries, it needs to shift its own policy at home too.
"I just think it's disrespectful to these countries," he said. "Each country has its own problems. If we're not helping them on that, how can we expect them to not rely on them [nuclear weapons] to feel secure? We rely on them. Why should they be any different?"
Domestically, the partisan rift on Capitol Hill means possibly a tough fight ahead for Obama's nuclear agenda. Critics of the new nuclear policy released last week complain that it gives a free pass to countries such as Iran and North Korea, and Republican senators are already taking aim at the U.S.-Russia arms treaty that was signed last week, saying it hurts U.S. security interests.
The general consensus is that the treaty will eventually be ratified by the end of the year, but the issue is likely to be the subject of a heated political debate for much longer.
"He has a political opposition that's willing to use these reasonable but actually quite modest steps forward as political ammunition, and they widely misconstrue them to make cheap political shots," Sokolsi said. "If your political opposition is willing to exploit that, it's a tough battle to fight."
World Leaders Gather for Nuclear Summit
Even before the summit got off the ground, tensions were evident. On Thursday, Israel said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not be attending, reportedly because of suggestions that some attendees would use the summit to criticize its nuclear program.
The fact that one of the United States' closest allies will not be in attendance is likely to put pressure on the United States.
"In practical terms, it may not have a lot of significance," said Christopher Ford, director for the Center for Technology and Global Security at the Hudson Institute, and a former special representative for nuclear nonproliferation in the Bush administration. But, "politically, it's not a good thing to call a giant international conference to show world unanimity and have that unanimity be so chopped away before the opening gavel."
Ford said the summit is a good way to bring together different world leaders to discuss a common threat, but what it means to achieve remains blurry.
"It seems to be in a large part a consciousness-raising exercise. Those are not bad, but they are not things that haven't been worked on in the past either," he said. "It strikes me as a lot of effort for a not of lot of payoff. ... People will have to get a whole lot more serious than saying nice things at a summit."
Iran will likely to be at the top of the president's agenda during the summit. The country's president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, only mocked Obama after the U.S.-Russia treaty, despite warnings of sanctions against it. Just on Friday, Iran unveiled what it called its third generation of centrifuges for nuclear enrichment.
"If Iran decides to acquire and deploy a nuclear weapon then you're likely to see a cascade effect where other countries will think they might have to exercise a nuclear option, including perhaps Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and others in the region," said former ambassador Richard Burt, who was the negotiator for the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. "That would be in my view ... be a show stopper."
Others said the summit should avoid focusing solely on Iran but emphasize more how countries can come together to establish global standards.
"I don't think this should be turned into an Iran-bashing situation," said Oelrich, who believes Iran is a long way from becoming a nuclear power. "One of the things that we'll try to do is ... establish new international norms -- what is acceptable behavior, should nuclear weapons be legitimate instruments of national power."
Obama is bringing up the nuclear agenda at a time when very few Americans tend to think about it as a global threat. Barely half of Americans see nuclear terrorism as a top-level threat and most doubt a two-day summit of world leaders in Washington will do much to address it. Just 12 percent of Americans in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll called the chance that terrorists could obtain nuclear weapons "the single biggest threat the world faces."
"Young people in college were not even born when the Berlin Wall fell, and so they are not really cognizant of the Cold War and what that meant," said Valerie Plame, former CIA covert agent best known for being the subject of an identity leak.
Plame, who is included in a documentary called "Countdown to Zero" about the dangers of a nuclear world, said her work showed there is a real danger of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands.
"Now, truly, the genie is out of the bottle and you have the possibility that terrorists ... could be stealing a bomb or buying a bomb," she said. "The nexus of terrorism and nuclear weapons, it's absolutely terrifying."
But not everyone is convinced nuclear terrorism is as important a threat.
"Though the president keeps saying the most severe threat is nuclear terrorism, with all due respect it is not the most imminent threat," Sokolski said. "There is no specific intelligence that someone is going to steal a nuclear weapon. There is a general concern and anxiety about this, and probably it's warranted, but as to what you can do about it it's not clear."
It remains to be seen what the summit will yield. Obama met with several world leaders on Sunday, including India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and today will host a dinner for world leaders. By Tuesday, the administration hopes to have a working plan for each country on what they can do to make their nuclear stockpile more secure, a plan for four years from now. There will be a joint statement at the end and the president and Vice President Joe Biden will hold individual meetings and dinners with the attendees.
Obama said the summit is only the beginning of many more talks on this subject, one that he promised to tackle when he won the Nobel Peace Prize last year.