Lessons from the Nuclear Security Summit

Two years have passed since the last NSS. What lessons can we draw for future nuclear security endeavors from the structural choices of the summit?

FacebookTwitterLinkedInEmailCopy Link

In 2009, President Obama committed the United States to hosting a summit-level meeting on nuclear security. Hailed by experts who had struggled to bring attention to the issue, the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) brought together world leaders biannually from 2010 to 2016. Subsequent analysis has focused on the steps that still need to be taken on nuclear security, but little work has been done to draw broader lessons from the structural choices in the NSS.

The meeting of world leaders helped raise international awareness about nuclear security but also exposed it to the crosswinds of international nuclear politics, particularly a renewed push for disarmament. Further, controversies over summit invitations have created new barriers to further progress on nuclear security. These two factors—issue linkages and attendance politics—continue to impact debates in the nuclear community.

Consequences of Summit Negotiation: Issue Linkages

Historically, negotiations at the summit level benefited from the wide-ranging authority of chief executives. Yet negotiating across a broad front can also complicate discussions through negative issue linkages, particularly at the state executive level.

In the case of nuclear security, summit-level negotiations meant that the personal popularity of President Obama during the early years of his presidency became tied to international interest in nuclear security. States with little previous interest in the issue lined up for photos with the president bearing gifts: centers of excellence on nuclear security, the elimination of highly enriched uranium (HEU), or new laws on the safety of nuclear and radioactive material.

But as positive bilateral ties led to an increased interest in nuclear security, the summit format meant that broader problems in bilateral relationships became easily linked to progress on nuclear security. The case of Russia is illustrative. After the deterioration in U.S. relations over the Ukraine crisis in 2014, Russia cut off all nuclear security cooperation with the United States, and openly criticized the last summit.1 Other countries like Cuba and Iran, which have longstanding disputes with the United States, have also been vocal critics of the initiative.

The summit also suffered from linkage to other nuclear issues. When it was primarily a technical and low-level initiative, nuclear security was largely safe from the growing international dispute over stalled progress on nuclear disarmament. This changed at the summit. The relationship between disarmament, nonproliferation, and nuclear security was a repeated obstacle in communiqué negotiations.2

U.S. officials leading the summit process were not always successful in separating nuclear security from these other issues. Significant diplomatic capital was expended outlining the difference between the 2010 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Review Conference and the NSS. Despite this, during NSS negotiations several states pushed for stronger language on disarmament, preventing consensus on the 2012 NSS communiqué until the final days before the summit.

The NSS did not cause the recent push for disarmament, but it was instrumental in linking nuclear security to this debate.

Who’s on the list: The impact of invitations

One of the untold stories of the NSS remains the politics behind its guest list. The NSS marked the largest gathering of heads of state on U.S. soil in more than 50 years, but invitations were still restricted. In building a summit, U.S. policymakers pushed consciously for a small gathering of the most important states, which they felt would result in more substantive discussions. Indeed, only a handful of states have radioactive material, and even fewer have fissile material.

Initially, U.S. policymakers pushed for a summit of around 20 countries, but this expanded to 47 by the first summit. Many countries who wanted to attend, like Bulgaria, were not invited. Some of those originally excluded, including Hungary, Denmark, Lithuania, Romania, and Gabon, were invited to the second summit of 52 states.

These numbers satisfied few. Some states pointed out that a group this large precluded the substantive discussions U.S. leaders sought, while others noted that the exclusion of so many developing countries led to resentment of the initiative among excluded states.

This can be seen in the difficulties of extending the gains of the summit to other countries. Of the information circulars developed from the NSS, signatories have been limited to those states who attended. The December 2016 ministerial statement on nuclear security was similarly weak, as states not present at the summit rejected building upon summit conclusions in a broader international forum. Interviews with diplomats involved in IAEA negotiations report that summit states are cautious to avoid mention of the summits directly in subsequent proposals.

Moving forward: Lessons for future efforts

These structural problems in the NSS have been widely overlooked by U.S. analysts and officials. By reexamining the politics within and around the summits, it is possible to draw two lessons to inform future efforts. These lessons are drawn from wide ranging interview-based research currently in progress by the author.3

First, issues of attendance and institution size should be tackled explicitly, with clear justification.

By aiming for a small summit and excluding states without key legitimizing reasons, the NSS faced charges of exclusivity. However, once the summit ballooned from 25 to 50 countries, it was too big to have intimate policy discussions. Not to mention, such a large gathering contradicted reasons given for initially limited invitations.

As interviews with Gary Samore, Will Tobey, and others have shown, a major reason for the summit format was to put nuclear security on world leaders’ agendas, in the hopes that this would impact their domestic bureaucracies. However, it is unlikely that having more states attend would have done anything but expand this mechanism. Further, as many attendees suggested, the most substantive commitments at the summits took place not in the consensus-based communiqués, but in the voluntary gift basket mechanism.4 The addition of more states, therefore, could have had little negative effect on the commitments from the NSS, but may have reduced resentment among states not invited.

Secondly, increased diversity of summit leadership would encourage a broader and more sustainable agenda.

The NSS was widely perceived as a U.S.-led initiative. Although this resulted in positive issue linkages, sharing the leadership of the summit could increase global buy-in and prevent negative issue linkages from poor bilateral relationships. The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), where the United States and Russia are co-chairs and Russia remains involved, is a clear example of this approach.5

Further, U.S. diplomats seemed aware of the danger of a U.S.-centric summit. They initially offered Russia the opportunity to host the second summit, but this never materialized. If more effort had been made to encourage summit leadership among countries not traditionally seen as U.S. allies, or if the United States had allowed leaders of the 2012 and 2014 summits more autonomy in developing the events they hosted, it may have reduced perceptions of exclusion.

These observations are not to suggest that the NSS was not a worthwhile or valuable exercise. The NSS has led to significant progress in nuclear security among those states with the most fissile and radioactive material. I offer these recommendations more as an international and contextualized perspective that differs from much of the U.S. analysis. By learning from the imperfections of this process, leaders can continue to move toward making the world, and nuclear material, safer.


    1. William Tobey ‘ Peering down from the Summit: The Path to Nuclear Security 2010-2016 an beyond’ Global Summitry Advanced Access. 2016. P. 11
    3. Where reference is made, either by name or by ‘diplomats involved’, the subsequent claims stem directly from discussions with relevant parties. Quotes and deeper analysis of these interviews is contained in a forthcoming Masters Dissertation. Any queries should be directed at the author.
    4. Tobey (2016) Calls these voluntary commitments “the most important innovation of the Summits”. P. 7
    5. http://www.gicnt.org/10th-anniversary.html
FacebookTwitterLinkedInEmailCopy Link