Nuclear Summit: What Success Will Look Like

For two days, the Washington press corps has been inundated with news of all the big names in town and the staged photo ops that are customary between visiting leaders and their host. Usually, the conversation is a cursory exchange of issues important in the relationship of both leaders. Rarely do bilateral handshakes get terribly deep.

But the reason for everyone in town this week is a fairly deep topic: keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists. In what is the biggest collection of world leaders since the 1945 conference that founded the United Nations, top officials from 47 countries—all with nuclear arsenals or some sort of access to fissile material—will sit around tables late Monday and Tuesday to discuss securing their stocks. On that point, there’s general agreement. Most world leaders understand the imperative of preventing terrorist groups like Al Qaeda from obtaining weapons. But there are still some rifts, like who will monitor the international effort, and what should happen to any country that allows its system to be breached.

The conference is broken into two days. Monday will be devoted to identifying the threat, then on Tuesday, leaders will discuss methods for ramping up security.

When it’s over, what will success look like? In a general sense, a series of high-level commitments that nuclear terrorism is a serious threat. But the real test won’t be immediately apparent. “We won’t know the evening the summit ends if it’s a success or not,” says Matthew Bunn, a Harvard public-policy professor and nuclear-weapons expert. It'll be a factor of both leadership and resources; if both line up, "there is a real chance to get major improvements in security in the short term."

To that end, there remain two major obstacles. One is complacency, especially for countries that have relatively little fissile material and aren’t terribly concerned about a nuclear attack on their soil. The other is transparency. Most parties can get behind nuclear security, but things get dicey when discussing how countries will monitor each other, and the consequences for countries that don’t comply.

“Getting the big players involved in transparency is exceptionally important,” says Bruce MacDonald of the U.S. Institute of Peace. But, several experts warn, there may be ways to pursue transparency without forcing reticent countries to compromise their sovereignty by granting admission to international inspectors. Countries agreeing to ramp up their security—and documenting it—could get around that problem. Peer reviews from trusted international partners could also help.

It's politically advantageous to host a summit, like this one, with little chance of obvious failure. However, says Bunn, seeing how much security has changed in four years will be the more accurate way to measure what got done.