World leaders declared on Friday that progress has been achieved in keeping nuclear materials away from terrorists and wayward nations; however, U.S. President Barack Obama said the task was far from finished.
Obama urged world leaders to do more to safeguard vulnerable nuclear facilities to prevent “madmen” from groups like ISIS from getting their hands on an atomic weapon or a radioactive “dirty bomb.”
Closing out a nuclear security summit in Washington on Friday, Obama said the world faced a persistent and evolving threat of nuclear terrorism despite progress in reducing such risks. “We cannot be complacent,” he said, stressing that an attack by ISIS or a similar group using nuclear weapons would be catastrophic to the entire world.
Obama said no group had succeeded in obtaining bomb materials but that al Qaeda had long sought them. ISIS has deployed chemical weapons and extremists linked to the Brussels and Paris attacks were found to have spied on a top Belgian nuclear official, he added.
“There is no doubt that if these madmen ever got their hands on a nuclear bomb or nuclear material, they would certainly use it to kill as many innocent people as possible,” he said. “It would change our world.”
Obama hosted more than 50 world leaders for his fourth and final summit focused on efforts to lock down atomic materials to guard against nuclear terrorism, which he called “one of the greatest threats to global security” in the 21st century.
Despite their calls for further action, the roughly 50 leaders assembled announced that this year’s gathering would be the last of this kind.
“This summit is not the end of our quest to make the world safe from nuclear terrorism,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands said. He said the assembled leaders were passing the baton to international organizations. “Should the need arise, I know that everybody here will be ready to return.”
With less than 10 months in office, Obama can briefly follow up on one of his signature foreign policy initiatives. Yet, despite the gains made in that area, arms-control advocates say the diplomatic process – which Obama conceived and championed – has lost momentum and could slow further once he leaves the White House in January.
A boycott by Russian President Vladimir Putin, refusing to join in a U.S.-dominated gathering at a time of escalated tensions between Washington and Moscow over Ukraine and Syria, may have contributed to summit results marked by mostly technical measures instead of policy breakthroughs.
Throughout the two-day summit, the participants discussed the implementation of a sweeping nuclear deal with Iran held as a model for preventing nuclear proliferation.
Obama also spent part of the summit conversing with the leaders of South Korea and Japan about deterring nuclear-tinged provocations from North Korea, in a powerful show of diplomatic unity with two U.S. treaty allies.
Similarly, Obama’s sit-down with Chinese President Xi Jinping offered the two strategic rivals a chance to demonstrate mutual concern about the North, a traditional Chinese ally.
However only hours later, undeterred, North Korea fired a short-range missile into the sea and tried to jam GPS navigation signals in South Korea — precisely the kind of act that South Korean President Park Geun-hye had warned would trigger even tougher sanctions and more isolation.
At the closing news conference, Obama, a Democrat, clearly conveyed that the raucous Republican presidential race, particularly controversial comments by party front-runner Donald Trump, weighed on leaders’ discussions on the summit sidelines.
Obama severely dismissed as proof of foreign-policy ignorance Trump’s recent suggestion that Japan and South Korea should be allowed to build their own nuclear arsenals, putting him at odds with decades of U.S. policy.
“The person who made the statements doesn’t know much about foreign policy or nuclear policy or the Korean peninsula, or the world generally,” Obama said, adding that Americans don’t want anyone with such views to occupy the White House.
Obama said the required 102 countries have now ratified an amendment to a nuclear security treaty that would tighten protections against nuclear theft and smuggling. “We have measurably reduced the risks,” he said.
But he acknowledged that with roughly 2,000 tons of nuclear material stored around the world, “not all of this is properly secured.”
Obama, wrapping up the summit, said leaders had agreed to strengthen their nuclear facilities against cyber attacks, something that outside experts see as a major weak point.
The United States and Japan also announced they had completed the long-promised task of removing all highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium fuels from a Japanese research reactor. Japan is an avowedly anti-nuclear-weapons state as the only country to have ever suffered a nuclear attack.
Despite significant strides by Obama in persuading dozens of countries to rid themselves of bomb-making materials or reduce and safeguard stockpiles, much of the world’s plutonium and enriched uranium remain vulnerable to theft.
Obama convened a separate meeting of world powers to take stock of the landmark nuclear pact they negotiated with Iran last July. It is a critical component of his nuclear disarmament agenda and a major piece of his foreign policy legacy.
Obama inaugurated the first Nuclear Security Summit nearly six years ago, after a 2009 speech in Prague laying out the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. There is no guarantee that Obama’s successor will keep the issue a high priority.
Obama made no public mention of Putin as a summit no-show. But he did say that because of the Russian’s leader’s emphasis on building up his military, there was unlikely to be any further deals for reducing the two countries’ vast nuclear weapons stockpiles during what is left of the Obama presidency.
For now, U.S. experts are less concerned about militants obtaining nuclear weapons than about thefts of ingredients for a low-tech dirty bomb that would use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material and sow panic.
U.S. officials said they had no doubt that ISIS, which controls swaths of Syria and Iraq, was interested in obtaining such materials, but authorities had no explicit evidence that the group had tried to do so.
Obama convened a special summit session to coordinate the overall fight against ISIS. He touted gains against the group in Iraq and Syria, which he said were forcing it to lash out elsewhere, and called for stepped-up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters to and from the battlefield.