THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS -- World leaders gathering here on Monday and Tuesday are expected to discuss alternative ways of putting the prevention of nuclear terrorism on a permanent footing, amid fears that the effort could lose steam.
Apart from the usual flurry of proclamations by individual countries on the importance of affording greater security to nuclear materials, issue experts hope the confab will take substantive steps toward turning the momentum of an informal community of devotees in governments around the world into a formal governance architecture.
U.S. officials so far have banked on the power of peer pressure among global leaders -- a desire to "look good," as Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the White House coordinator for defense policy and countering weapons of mass destruction, said earlier this month -- as a mechanism for extracting nuclear-security commitments from partner countries at past summits.
President Obama made countering the threat of nuclear terrorism a key goal in his international-security agenda early in his presidency. According to White House officials, Obama's call to focus high-level attention on the issue follows the logic that preventing terrorists from detonating a nuclear device is most easily achieved by denying them access to atomic materials in the first place.
Past Nuclear Security Summits, held in Washington in 2010 and in Seoul in 2012, were seen in large part as a product of U.S. leadership on the issue. What follows when global leaders return home after the final summit under the Obama presidency in 2016, however, is an open question, experts say.
"Previous [summit] meetings have usefully focused high-level attention on the need to improve nuclear security and have made some modest progress in that regard," said Kenneth Brill, who was a director of the U.S. National Counterproliferation Center and a former ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
But the summits have largely harvested "low-hanging fruit" by urging voluntary measures, leaving the issue of the mission's longevity untouched, he argued in response to questions from Global Security Newswire.
"If governance is not addressed in 2014 and 2016, the global nuclear security regime will be left somewhat improved, but still with significant gaps; it will not be a regime commensurate with the risk and consequences of nuclear terrorism," Brill said.
White House officials have alluded to one potential strategy for achieving broader buy-in from countries toward that end. Speaking via teleconference at a Council on Foreign Relations event on March 17, Sherwood-Randall said the goal is to identify a "core group of countries" following agreed-upon nuclear-security practices that would "optimally" incentivize others to follow suit.
Experts think that approach likely will play out in the form of a tri-national commitment to be offered at the summit by the United States, the Netherlands and South Korea. Called a "gift basket" in diplomatic lingo, this multilateral statement is expected to be called "Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation," Deepti Choubey, an expert with the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, wrote in a Feb. 25 analysis.
Each of the three countries comes to the 53-nation Hague summit with unfinished business of its own.
In the United States, ratification of two key international agreements -- the 2005 Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism -- remain stuck in the Senate.
Nuclear-security related legislation also is held up in South Korea's parliament, risking embarrassment for the country at this week's summit, the Yonhap news agency reported.
As for the Dutch, the country is unlikely to meet a pledge at the 2012 Seoul summit to quit using highly enriched uranium for medical isotope production by 2015, with officials citing earlier unforeseen delays.
In addition, the U.S. delegation could well face questions from their international colleagues about domestic budget cuts and the implication for Washington's leadership in the nuclear-security arena. Obama administration officials maintain that the overall mission remains sufficiently funded, attributing most of the projected fiscal 2015 cuts to a decision to mothball an unfinished mixed-oxide reactor-fuel facility because of skyrocketing costs.
One aspect to watch at the summit, according to experts, will be the degree to which a prospective international nuclear-security framework will lean on the International Atomic Energy Agency to produce measurable, enforceable progress.
The organization is slated to play a key role in the White House plan for strengthening existing institutions. Sherwood-Randall said that countries committed to upping their nuclear-security commitments should commensurately increase their contributions to the agency.
"In our view . . . the nuclear security mission has to become something that the IAEA does more of, and that means that the countries that care about the mission are going to have to support it [in] doing it," she said at the recent event.
Kelsey Davenport, a nonproliferation analyst with the Washington-based Arms Control Association, pointed to the agency's International Physical Protection Advisory Service as evidence that the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog already is equipped to make important contributions.
"The IAEA has played a critical role in creating guidelines for best practice in a series of nuclear security guidance documents and making suggestions and recommendations for improvements through its review missions, which, thanks in part to the summit process, more and more countries are taking advantage of," Davenport said in an email last week.
The U.N. agency's advisory service can dispatch teams of experts to help improve nuclear-facility security in countries that volunteer to participate.
For the agency to function as a key player in the nuclear-security arena, however, changes are needed in its funding structure, Davenport argued. Because this type of work is financed with funds outside the base budget, there is little of the financial predictability required for long-term planning, she said.
Some experts also see political limitations in the agency's adoption of a greater leadership role in nuclear security, particularly if a U.S. push at this year's summit succeeds in bringing a greater focus on safeguarding worldwide military stocks.
"The agency’s willingness to take on a greater role in nuclear security is a positive development, but it is not clear that all of its member states are willing to give nuclear security the priority, broader mandate, and resources needed to really drive the agenda," said Michelle Cann, a senior budget and policy analyst at the nonprofit Partnership for Global Security.
"Frankly, it’s hard to imagine nuclear security being elevated beyond third fiddle" amid other agency priorities, "so I’m not confident that [it] is an appropriate successor to the [Nuclear Security Summit] process," Cann said via email.
Leaders are slated to convene on Tuesday, without staff, for an Obama-moderated discussion about "the future of the summit process," Sherwood-Randall said.
According to Brill, for "real progress" to take place after The Hague, Obama must "kick his administration into a higher gear" toward a legally binding global nuclear security regime sometime by 2020. "Without that, the [Nuclear Security Summit] process will end with a whimper, which may be followed somewhere down the road by a very large, terrorist-produced bang," he said.
Meanwhile, some experts say that too strong a focus on an overall framework for securing nuclear material is misplaced, because such substances should best be set aside or destroyed in the first place.
"I think a ton of energy is going into a global architecture that will assure that Country X will apply Standard Y to Material Z, even though most countries don’t have Material Z, and in fact should not be encouraged to acquire Material Z," Alan Kuperman, an associate professor at University of Texas-Austin and coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, told GSN last week.
"Preventing acquisition of nuclear bombs by countries and terrorists is best accomplished by halting all use" of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, he argued. "Everything else is a distraction, or even worse, facilitates the use of such dangerous materials," Kuperman said.
Editor's Note: The Nuclear Threat Initiative is sole sponsor of Global Security Newswire, which is published independently by the National Journal Group.