The controversial legacy of the Nuclear Security Summit

By Leah Matchett | October 4, 2018

US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on the sidelines of the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC, on March 31, 2016.US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on the sidelines of the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC, on March 31, 2016. Credit: State Department

Although it has been only two years since the conclusion of the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit, it feels as though nuclear politics have been on fast-forward. China, Russia, and the United States are modernizing their nuclear arsenals; North Korea has openly tested intercontinental ballistic missiles; and the pressure for disarmament has found a humanitarian face with the negotiation and signature of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. By contrast, the Nuclear Security Summit—an international forum aimed at securing nuclear materials and preventing nuclear terrorism—seems tame, uncontroversial, and distant from the pressing concerns of the day. But in reality, the aftermath of the summits continues to reverberate in Vienna—home to the International Atomic Energy Agency and other organizations concerned with nuclear security—in all the wrong ways.

Rather than empowering other international organizations working toward nuclear security, the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) against its best intentions politicized what was previously a predominantly technical discussion. Although states included in the NSS undeniably made significant progress on nuclear security, the invitation process made the summits a flash point in Vienna, hampering attempts to extend summit follow-on initiatives beyond the 53 nations in attendance. While NSS achievements are remarkable for many states present, the controversy over exclusion—like the push for more action on disarmament—reflects a growing impatience among the majority of states for more diverse representation in the nuclear space.

Achievements and missed opportunities. For those states involved, the NSS was an important vehicle to advance nuclear security. Executive-level attention accelerated initiatives within many states and led to new breakthroughs, including the removal of more than 1,500 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and plutonium from civilian use. Centers of Excellence on nuclear security sprang up around the world, and many national leaders had their first briefings on nuclear security. These are no small feats: According to their own estimates, the states at the NSS control almost 98 percent of nuclear material in the world.

The most problematic feature of the NSS was the missed opportunity to extend its reach beyond 2016. An attempt to keep the summits small meant invitations were restricted to those states the United States deemed most relevant. This grew out of a concern among US policy makers expressed by Gary Samore, who worked directly on the NSS in the Obama administration, when I interviewed him in 2017 and 2018, as a desire to focus “on the countries that really count,” since in nuclear security “there are only a few states that would be relevant.” Policy makers also had a perception that large-scale multilateralism was what Samore called “a less efficient way to do business” and could lead to spoilers, the incorporation of tangential topics into the agenda, or an inability to produce meaningful content.

It should be noted that officials—including Ambassador Laura Holgate, who served as US Representative to the Vienna Office of the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency and worked directly on the summit process in the Obama administration—were aware of the potential problems posed by an exclusive summit, and drew specific attention to “the intentional diversity of the [invitation] list,” which included diversity in region, nuclear weapons status, nuclear power status, and what Holgate called “ideological diversity.” This push for diversity was, in her words, explicitly due to a “recognition that [it] would be a better way to explain the non-universality.” However, subsequent developments suggest that exclusion has continued to be an issue, despite efforts to increase in-summit diversity. This has important repercussions for policymakers designing future international organizations. As Mariah A. V. Hays and Hannah E. Haegeland noted in an April 2016 article in The Diplomat, “[t]he impact of the NSS, like that of the NPT today, is limited as a platform for global initiatives by its exclusivity.”

While US decision makers issuing invitations did their best with what they saw as a trade-off between efficacy and broader participation, the light of hindsight suggests that the effects of the summits’ exclusiveness may outweigh the benefits officials sought to gain from the summit.

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From the early days of the NSS, the United States was aware of the potential problem of exclusion and attempted to head off criticism, expanding significantly the number of invitations from an early target of 25 states to more than 50, according to both Samore and Holgate. The last NSS, in 2016, was explicit in its attempt to expand the legacy of the process to excluded states. In addition to a communiqué, the 2016 summit produced Action Plans encouraging states to support nuclear security in five existing multilateral institutions: the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations, Interpol, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction.

When several of the group commitments or “gift baskets” that came out of the summits were put forward as International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Information Circulars to give excluded states a chance to sign on, however, they received a cool reception. Of the three major circulars introduced at the IAEA from the NSS, only one has gained the signatures of any states excluded from the NSS. Moreover, the gift basket most closely associated with the NSS, and the one that experienced the most well-documented recruitment drive, has also been the least successful in gaining support from countries outside the NSS. A report from officials involved with this circular notes that “there clearly has been hesitation by some countries to support the [circular] as a result of its origin.” When the government of Norway held a conference in June 2018 on the minimization of highly enriched uranium, the subject of another circular, it was deliberately framed as separate from the NSS, in part to avoid negative criticism. A letter from the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs to potential participants participation specifically notes that “Participation… should not be linked to committing to all the principles of the [Information Circular].” While gift baskets became a nexus for cooperation within the summit, the lack of interest in the broader community raises questions about the negative impact of exclusion.

The summit that must not be named. An even clearer sign of pushback against the NSS is the resistance to mentioning it in Vienna. As Argentine Ambassador Rafael Mariano Grossi, former chief of cabinet in the Office of the Director General and Assistant Director General for Policy of the IAEA, said in a speech at the 2016 NGO Side Summit: “It is curious to see that in Vienna we cannot mention the Nuclear Security Summit. It sounds comical, but you cannot. If you mention the Nuclear Security Summit, you will have one or the other delegation that is not invited to the club object of course, because they are not invited. And why are they going to receive instructions from a club of 53 nations that get together? It’s a problem.”

Even where other countries may agree with the substance of an issue, several states have successfully blocked mention of the summits in IAEA statements. This has obvious repercussions for any attempts to broaden the application of summit achievements. Policy makers, including Holgate and two other non-American diplomats with experience in Vienna, have indicated that exclusion backlash toward the NSS in Vienna has complicated their work.

Moreover, the presence and effectiveness of backlash against the summits demonstrates the underappreciated costs of exclusive international organizing. The rise of “minilateral” negotiation forums, which include only the most relevant states, has been suggested as a panacea for the problems of multilateral diplomacy. However, the example of the NSS suggests that the costs of exclusion may be greater than the costs of inclusion. A comparison of the responses of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) states included and excluded from the NSS shows a sharp divide: Included NAM states like Egypt and Brazil have avoided strong criticism of the summits, while excluded states have led the criticism.

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Controversy over the exclusiveness of the NSS has become deeply linked to feelings of international disenfranchisement in disarmament negotiations. Concern that the summits did not do enough to address disarmament concerns was prominent within the summits, resulting in a separate gift basket on these issues sponsored by states including Brazil and Egypt. In many ways, the choice to exclude most states from the NSS mirrors the exclusion of non-nuclear weapon states from disarmament discussions, a similarity not lost on the excluded. A similar pattern of controversy in which membership is tied to questions of legitimacy can be observed in a variety of organizations including the G20, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the Conference on Disarmament.

Avoiding backlash. While it is often not possible or practical that every state be present at every negotiation, if states issuing invitations are more aware of the impacts of exclusion, they have an opportunity to seek alternate means of limiting attendance. By pursuing limited but nonexclusive invitation models, it is possible to achieve similar results without exclusion-driven backlash. Initiatives like the Global Health Security Initiative, which allow willing states to subscribe to a series of principles, leave membership doors open—removing the gatekeeper and accusations of exclusion.

In the end, Holgate estimated that only around 10 additional states would have joined the NSS had invitations been entirely open. Would their inclusion have radically reduced outcomes? While the exclusion of states like Iran or Cuba, which have starkly different preferences from the United States, may be justifiable from a functional standpoint, the justification for the exclusion of Portugal, Belarus, and Bulgaria is less solid, particularly when you consider that consensus commitments at the summits were already highly general. While the pressure to keep organizations small is understandable, it seems to be applied unevenly at the margins. The larger an organization gets, the more difficult it is to justify to the next state that it would make the organization too big. After all, what is the difference between 53 and 54 states?

This question only becomes more pertinent when you consider that the most substantive outcomes of the NSS did not require consensus. Indeed, the NSS is an excellent example of how flexible agreement arrangements such as gift baskets can reduce the influence of spoilers by allowing willing states to move forward with commitments even when others are unwilling. This reduces the potential costs of including states that wish to join, and undermines the United States’ justification for exclusion as a means to facilitate progress. Furthermore, excluding states made them less likely to sign on to gift baskets after the summits, when NSS states introduced several of them as IAEA Information Circulars. This suggests that exclusion at the margins may have reduced overall cooperation while not increasing in-summit outcomes.

In short, despite the best intentions of NSS planners, the summits’ exclusiveness was neither as necessary nor as useful as its proponents thought it to be. While the improvements made by states at the summits are commendable, the politicization of nuclear security in Vienna represents a real obstacle to further progress. Future action on nuclear security will require decoupling it from the procedural issues of the disarmament debate by moving toward non-exclusive forms of international governance. Opt-in initiatives, like the Global Health Security Initiative, offer an alternative way to limit state attendance while reducing the chance that this will be seen as exclusion. A broader organizational membership can be paired with institutional innovations, like the gift basket mechanism, to reduce the impact of any potential spoilers.

Furthermore, it may be that consensus-based membership organizations see less backlash because of a reduced perception of prejudice, opening up other avenues for collaboration. What is clear is that as policy makers design future nuclear security institutions, they should take the experience of the NSS into account in determining the relative utility of exclusion. Smaller is not always better.

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