The Nuclear Security Summit in Washington featured, among other things, a forbidding, impregnable three-day display of security for the 50 world leaders who attended. No one without thoroughly checked security credentials could get within a Beltway of the VIPs. Anything less would have been unthinkable, of course.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for vulnerable nuclear materials in various parts of the world. But then, that was why they came.
President Obama, who established these summits, noted that the world faces a persistent and evolving threat of nuclear terrorism despite progress in reducing such risks. “We cannot be complacent,” he said. The nuclear dangers in North Korea, Pakistan and, yes, Iran, are well known.
But Obama furnished the assemblage with fresh reasons for not being complacent: Islamic State operatives were found to have videotaped the daily routine of a senior manager of a Belgian nuclear plant. There is no doubt that these “madmen,” as he called them, are eager to get their hands on the most terrible of all weapons.
It’s hard to be complacent when you know that Islamic State is watching you.
Hard, but not impossible. If anybody can do it, the Belgians can. The disastrous failure to prevent the Brussels airport bombing was by no means an isolated problem. It is symptomatic of a complacency in the center of European civilization that predates the threat of ISIS and has yet to be fixed.
Take, for example, the case of Kleine Brogel, a Belgian air base near Brussels where the U.S. deploys some of its 180 B-61 nuclear bombs on the continent.
In 2010, a group of protesters calling themselves “Bombspotters” twice sneaked into Kleine Brogel unopposed. The second time, they found their way into the shelters where the nuclear weapons are stored and used a cell phone to publish a picture of the vaults that house the bombs themselves. The base commander did not even know about this appalling breach of security until they published a video of their achievement a day later.
Yes, we cannot be complacent. The trouble is, vigilance costs money. American military officials were quoted this week by Foreign Policy magazine as saying that security at such bases in Europe is deplorably weak, and that the necessary upgrades would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. To date, the Belgians have made no moves to their pocket to pay for vigilance.
Diplomacy at the 50-world-leader level demands the proper accent on success. Obama duly noted that 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.
On paper, at least. The security challenges at Kleine Brogel are also well in hand — on paper. The reality, it seems, is altogether different.
But the Washington summit itself betrayed a certain complacency. Despite calls for further action, it was announced that this fourth in the series would be the last. Obama initiated the summits, and they cease as his second term in office nears its end. It will be up to his successor to decide whether the price of vigilance is worth it.
Some went so far as to write the summit off as a failure because of the absence of Russian President Vladimir Putin. His country is still in possession of the second-biggest nuclear arsenal in the world, and without his cooperation, multinational efforts at tying down loose nukes are seriously undermined.
Putin’s attitude toward nuclear non-proliferation came to light about a year ago when, asked if Russia was prepared to bring nuclear weapons into play in the Crimean crisis, he replied, “We were ready.”
And in May 2015, the NATO and Ukrainian foreign ministers criticized statements by Russian leaders about “possible future stationing of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems in Crimea.”
Yet, the securing of nuclear weapons in post-Soviet Russia has been one of the most significant achievements of the non-proliferation movement. The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program shows what can be done when America takes nuclear security seriously. Under its aegis, weapons were removed from the former Soviet republics, nuclear missile silos were dismantled, bombers and submarines disarmed, and technology installed to detect nuclear smuggling.
Furthermore, Russia and the United States continue to lead the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, a voluntary partnership of 86 nations and five international organizations that have reached accords to reduce strategic nuclear forces.
None of the above has been officially abrogated. But Putin’s statements about Crimea and his boycott of the Washington summit clearly indicate that, in his view, Russia’s national interest takes precedence over nuclear cooperation.
It took something like panic at the prospect of out-of-control Russian nukes after the disintegration of the USSR to bring about Nunn-Lugar. Nothing so cataslymic has happened in Europe to really wake up world leaders to the “persistent and evolving” danger.
We do not, of course, wish for any such thing; but we fear that something scarier than we’ve yet seen will be necessary before the responsible powers will take action to make sure that the likes of Islamic State will not get anywhere near such places as Kleine Brogel.ter