A Fatal Case of “Summit Fatigue”

Why the Nuclear Security Summit will likely end when Obama’s presidency does.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
March 30, 2016, 8 p.m.

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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