31 March 2015

Keeping tabs on nuclear security commitments

Michell CannKelsey DavenportJenna Parker

Michell Cann

Michelle Cann is the senior budget and policy analyst at the Partnership for Global Security.

Kelsey Davenport

Kelsey Davenport is the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association.

Jenna Parker

Jenna Parker is the nuclear security analyst at the Partnership for Global Security.

Major multilateral summits typically end with a communiqué reflecting grand ideas and big-picture goals that all participants can agree on. Lately, however, a new trend has emerged: “gift-basket diplomacy.” This approach focuses less on members’ ideals and overarching aims than on how states can work together on issues of mutual concern. It is a form of multilateral, voluntary commitment-making that supplements broad statements with practical, near-term objectives.

Gift-basket diplomacy has already achieved results, and this approach gained momentum after the success of national commitment-making at the first summit. In April 2010, 29 of the 47 nations that attended the Washington Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) made unilateral voluntary commitments—and these were more than just promises inked on paper. Within a year, approximately 60 percent of those commitments had been fulfilled, with notable progress on another 30 percent: Chile eliminated all highly-enriched uranium (HEU) from its territory;  Kazakhstan secured its stockpiles of HEU and plutonium (large enough to make 775 nuclear weapons); and Ukraine repatriated more than half of its HEU to Russia, which put it on track to achieve a full clean-out of its HEU in time for the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit. More than 90 percent of the Washington summit’s national commitments had been completed by the 2012 summit.

This approach to diplomacy has been responsible for many such achievements at NSS meetings, and could accomplish even more at the next summit in 2016—and leave an enduring legacy. When world leaders convene in the United States for the fourth summit, participants could use the voluntary commitment-making model to establish a broader, more durable approach to securing vulnerable fissile material and preventing nuclear terrorism.  

Unlike treaty-based conferences organized by permanent institutions, the summits are part of an ad hoc biennial process initiated in 2010, under the leadership of US President Barack Obama. NSS participants have avoided labeling 2016 the “last” summit in order to leave open the possibility for the process to be reconstituted in the future, but it will be the last one in its current form. Its results will be critical in setting the global nuclear security regime on a trajectory that preserves successes and encourages country officials and other stakeholders to continue advancing.

A successful NSS legacy must ensure that the innovations of these summits—such as regular reviews, national progress reports, and time-bound commitment-making and implementation—continue in the absence of future summits. Gift-basket diplomacy offers an opportunity for states to reinforce these key features in domestic processes, while simultaneously contributing to a strengthened global nuclear security regime. 

Voluntary commitment-making has grown organically since the Obama administration launched the first NSS in 2010. The practice began with states pledging to take specific actions that reflected, but went beyond, the consensus communiqué. It further evolved in 2012 and 2014, with groups of states issuing joint statements describing how they would work together on issues of mutual concern. Joint statements, or gift baskets, have since been offered by groups of as few as three and as many as 35 states. These multilateral political commitments cover a wide range of technical, educational, and legislative issues. They emphasize the importance of regional and international cooperation and provide a mechanism for collaboration that encourages creativity, dynamism, and new leadership.

At the Seoul conference in 2012, countries issued 13 joint statements, and 42 countries signed at least one. In March 2014, when states gathered in The Hague for the third summit, the gift basket model grew in importance and scope, with 46 participants signing at least one of 14 joint statements. Of those, six targeted new areas—nuclear forensics, maritime security, HEU removals, a comprehensive approach to civil and military nuclear materials, the strengthening of nuclear security implementation, and reaffirming UN Security Council Resolution 1540. The other eight updated joint statements from 2012, including ones on information security, a kit to aid in the implementation of national legislation, and efforts to counter smuggling of nuclear weapons, parts, and fissile material.   

The gift basket model also gave new political momentum to long-standing initiatives, such as a 10-year effort to lock down Soviet-era weapons-usable material at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan. The model has also encouraged information-sharing on national best practices, and helped minimize the civilian use of HEU by such means as developing low-enriched uranium fuel production capabilities.

By their nature, most of the joint statements have been narrowly conceived, in order to address a specific issue before the next summit. An exception is the Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation initiative, signed by 35 states and designed to improve security by implementing key IAEA nuclear and radiological security recommendations on standardizing national rules; encourage regular peer reviews; and ensure that nuclear security personnel are competent.The Dutch introduced the initiative to the IAEA in October 2014 to encourage broader subscription to its goals and increase implementation outside of the NSS process. Wide enactment would ensure that the global nuclear security regime becomes increasingly cohesive and standardized.

The success of gift-basket diplomacy at the NSS meetings has not gone un-noticed. The approach is becoming a more common tool, used by multilateral organizations dealing with many transnational issues, including climate change. At the Climate Conference in Paris later this year, voluntary commitment-making will be an important element of producing meaningful outcomes.

Unfortunately, unlike the United Nations climate change conferences, which are convened annually, the NSS process will come to a conclusion in 2016. With no future summits or plans for a political successor, an important driver of progress and accountability is at risk of being lost.

NSS members must ensure that there is a political framework in which states can commit to joint action and convene regularly to determine objectives and ensure continuous improvement. It may be that gift-basket diplomacy itself offers the answer. The format could be used at the 2016 summit to clarify how states should carry on. At least one joint statement should be formulated to look beyond narrow incremental improvements. Such a gift basket could pledge to preserve NSS innovations like regular reviews, national progress reports, and time-bound commitment-making and implementation. The Nuclear Security Governance Experts Group, a non-governmental organization, recommends creating an International Convention on Nuclear Security as a way to do this. A gift basket that builds on the Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation initiative from 2014 could be used to initiate discussion of this approach.

Whether members take one of these avenues or another one, a system must be created that makes sure the processes initiated by the NSS continue. Nuclear security is too important to do otherwise.

For more, see “The Nuclear Security Summit: Progress Report on Joint Statements.”