Leaders from more than 50 countries have arrived in Washington to pay their respects. Mourners include presidents, prime ministers, a chancellor, and several foreign ministers. President Obama, father of the deceased, will lead the two-day service at the Washington Convention Center. “Gift baskets” are encouraged.
The occasion, rare in international diplomacy, is the passing of a summit—the Nuclear Security Summit. The progeny of Obama, it was conceived by the president in 2009 in a landmark speech in Prague, was born in a Washington summit in 2010, matured in 2012 in Seoul and 2014 in the Netherlands, and expires Friday when the gavel comes down in Washington. Closely identified with this president, there appears to be little chance of it being brought back to life by his successor.
That life already is being memorialized at the White House and the State Department as moving closer to the goal set by Obama in his address to 20,000 gathered outside Prague Castle “to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world.” No one disputes, though, that much remains to be done to reach the goal and that the president’s original timetable of four years was unrealistic.
This year’s summit, while focused primarily on keeping nuclear material from terrorists, also gives the president the opportunity to host a meeting Thursday evening with the leaders of Japan and South Korea, two key U.S. allies whose squabbling has concerned the administration. Obama also will meet separately with Chinese President Xi Jinping and will oversee a review of the strategy being followed to defeat terrorists across the globe.
One possible meeting has been scratched with Wednesday’s announcement that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has had to cancel because of the terrorist attack in Lahore. In a statement, Obama indicated that he understood the decision and condemned “this callous and appalling attack against innocent civilians.”
Because he sees the end of his presidency looming, Obama opens the summit with a sense of urgency, with this as his last chance to bring the other leaders to his view that much more must be done to move beyond the reach of terrorists the fissile material they would need to make small nuclear devices or dirty bombs, either plutonium or highly enriched uranium. He wants to build on the clear progress achieved in the earlier summits, with several countries already having surrendered all their bomb-grade fuel.
The White House is encouraging many of the participating leaders to voluntarily commit to the agenda, stating there will be at least 17 joint statements—or as they are known in this summit, “gift baskets”—outlining progress in securing or ridding themselves of the fissile material.
But the summit opens with one major chair empty. At the earlier summits in 2010 and 2012, then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev attended. In 2014, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov attended. But Vladimir Putin, who returned to the Russian presidency in 2012, takes a dim view of the Obama-sponsored summit process and is sending only “observers” to Washington this week.
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, called Putin’s decision “a missed opportunity for Russia,” contending that the country has “benefited enormously from cooperation on nuclear security and non-proliferation in the past.” He praised Russia’s role in forcing Iran to sign a deal to control its nuclear program. “Frankly, all they are doing is isolating themselves in not participating as they have in the past.”
Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the current tensions between Washington and Moscow are partly to blame. But she said Putin also is chafing at participating in a summit “that is so clearly a U.S. baby.” She said Putin is trying to send signals “that they’re important, that they’re a great power and that … they don’t follow the U.S. lead, that they chart their own course.”
Russia prefers what will replace the Nuclear Security Summits. According to Sharon Squassoni, who has worked on nonproliferation issues both in Congress and at the State Department in the Clinton administration, the onus now shifts to five international organizations, including the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations.
She credits the Obama initiative and the summits with “sustained progress in nuclear security” and cast this week’s summit as “a bit of a victory lap for the Obama administration.” Even with its successes, though, it would have been difficult to resuscitate the summits even if Obama remained in office.
“There is a bit of what we would call summit fatigue,” she said. “This is the fourth one in six years and these take a lot of effort. It’s not just the summit, but there are Sherpa meetings and sous-Sherpa meetings and a lot of negotiating over summit communiques and work plans and the like.”
Additionally, world leaders are dealing with an explosion of summitry. Almost every overseas trip by a U.S. president is linked to a summit. Before 1975, there was only one regular summit, NATO. In 1975, what became the G-8 summit began. Then, APEC and U.S.-EU in 1993; G-20 in 2008, East Asia in 2011. When the nuclear-security gathering was added, a U.S. president faced the prospect of seven summits in a single year—eight if you include the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly.
This diplomatic overload explains why there will be no tears among the plaudits at the convention center when this particular summit is laid to rest.
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