Nuclear security will be on the marquee as world leaders gather Thursday and Friday for a summit in Washington. But other concerns such as the Islamic State, U.S.-China relations and Middle East refugees could steal the show.
President Barack Obama, who wrote as a Columbia University senior of a “nuclear free world,” has made securing the world’s most deadly weapons and related materials a major focus of his administration. The thrust of the latest global gathering on the issue at the Washington Convention Center will be getting the leaders on record with a joint vow to continue the work.
Laura Holgate, who directs weapons of mass destruction and arms control policy for the National Security Council, said this statement — known in diplomatic circles as a “communique” — will be “political and high-level” in tone.
“It will essentially highlight the progress … the summits have made, point to the future for more work to do, identify that even though this is the last summit in this format, leaders will continue to pay personal attention to this issue,” she said on a call with reporters Tuesday. “And it will launch the action plans” each participating country will promise to enact in coming years, she added.
There will be meetings on how to prevent a standoff between two nuclear-armed rivals on the Korean peninsula, should South Korea get “the bomb” and the North’s claims of already having it are confirmed. And there will be talks about the implementation of a deal Iran struck with the United States and other global powers over its nuclear program.
“I think the goals of this summit are a little modest,” said Sharon Squassoni of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“There have been successes in this process since 2010, [and] on the overall objective of securing the most vulnerable nuclear materials in four years I think we can safely say a lot of progress has happened, but that goal I don’t think has been achieved,” Squassoni said. “There is still material out there.
“When it comes down to it, there are no legally binding obligations for countries to implement the kinds of security measures that, say, for example, the United States has on its nuclear material and nuclear facilities,” she added.
But with the nuclear summit series coming to a close, the leaders of some of the world’s most powerful countries will have a rare opportunity to discuss other pressing matters. And for Obama, it gives him audiences with counterparts he will have few remaining chances to press face-to-face on a range of issues.
What’s more, the terror attacks in Belgium will give gathering a different feel, with an emphasis on preventing the Islamic State or its sympathizers from obtaining nuclear or chemical arms.
“This year's summit will include a special summit that will focus leaders on the threat of groups like ISIL, who have targeted urban areas across the globe,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, said on the Tuesday call.
“Having this many leaders together at once provides us an important opportunity, in the wake of the recent attacks in Brussels and other countries, to address how we can enhance our capabilities to work together to confront the threat posed by ISIL,” Rhodes said, “both in the context of preventing the spread of nuclear materials and also with respect to enhancing our own counterterrorism activities.”
Disclosure that two of the Brussels bombers were linked to a plot to target a Belgian nuclear research facility will place a greater focus on safeguarding such sites around the globe, experts say.
Olga Oliker, a Eurasia expert at CSIS, told reporters this week that “you probably wouldn’t have even gotten a news story out of that” had it come up at the summit without confirmation the bombers videotaped a nuclear researcher and hoped to use him to access facilities.
“But suddenly now ... people are paying attention,” Oliker said. “And that’s what we really need to do is pay attention to these risks.”
On Thursday, Obama will meet one-on-one with Chinese President President Xi Jinping. White House officials have been tight-lipped about what the two superpower leaders will discuss.
“The presidents will talk about, again, the range of issues on which we cooperate. They'll talk about common challenges, including North Korea,” according to Dan Kritenbrink, National Security Council director for Asian affairs. “And I think they'll have a candid exchange on areas where we continue to have significant differences, including things such as human rights, cyber, maritime issues, as well.”
Obama also is expected to have informal talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, White House officials say.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Wednesday dismissed reports that Obama declined to meet privately with Erdogan. Obama will "make some time" for a chat, and Vice President Joe Biden, will huddle one-on-one with Erdogan.
Rhodes described the state of U.S.-Turkish relations as “a complicated picture,” saying Obama administration officials “understand their concerns” about some Kurdish groups fighting in Syria that have ties to the terrorist group PKK that seeks independence for Turkish Kurds.
Obama’s message to Erdogan should be, as Rhodes put it: “We'll work with [Turkey] very carefully so that we're able to partner with some Kurdish fighters who are working alongside Syrian Arab fighters who have proven to be effective in taking back territory from ISIL.”
One human rights group wants Obama to deliver a blunt message to his Turkish counterpart about what it calls his “onslaught on primarily Kurdish towns and neighborhoods.”
“While the president plays host to these leaders, he must seize the opportunity to press upon them to uphold human rights in their own countries,” T. Kumar, Amnesty International USA’s advocacy director for Europe, said in a statement. “So far Turkey has faced very little global criticism on this issue, as the international community has focused more on enlisting Turkey’s help in the refugee crisis. While that remains a critical issue, these continued human rights violations cannot be overshadowed.”