The 2016 summit is done: Now what?

By Nilsu Goren, April 21, 2016

For people who follow Turkish politics, the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit was notable for a public spectacle at Washington's Brookings Institution, where security guards for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tried to prevent some journalists from covering a speech by the president. Meanwhile, outside the building, Erdogan's guards got into fistfights with protestors who called him a terrorist. 

For people not invested in Turkish politics, the summit offered many meetings on nuclear security—plus a chance for reflection on what the summit process has accomplished and what remains to be done.

In this roundtable, participants broadly agree that security for nuclear materials still needs improvement, but they disagree on how the international community should seek to maintain progress now that the summits are finished. In particular, how much attention from heads of state is required going forward? Will the international community continue to care about nuclear security if heads of state pose for no "family photo" every other year? My roundtable colleague Michael H. Fuchs has his doubts. But I argue that the international community will care—thanks above all to the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) ability to coordinate global nuclear security efforts and convene meetings at the ministerial level.

Action! But the IAEA is not the only institution that will carry the summit process forward. Indeed, organizers of the 2016 summit must have read Hubert Foy's Round One piece in which he proposed that the IAEA and Interpol should continue the work of the summits. In Washington, organizers announced action plans for those two entities, but also for the United Nations, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction.

The action plans, as Fuchs has already observed, set clear goals for each agency. Moreover, they establish a division of labor for nuclear security based on each agency's area of expertise. For instance Interpol, through its Radiological and Nuclear Terrorism Prevention Unit, will take the lead on certain tasks related to radiological and nuclear terrorism. The Global Partnership will, among other things, help implement the "gift baskets"—mechanisms through which many summit participants have committed to specific actions in nuclear security.

But again, who exactly will meet to discuss nuclear security now that the summits are done, and where will meetings take place?

The communiqué for the 2016 summit announced that the main venue for future meetings among summit participants would be the IAEA International Conferences on Nuclear Security. And though Fuchs has argued in both rounds that meetings without heads of state might not be adequate to preserve nuclear security momentum, the IAEA and its conferences are in fact the correct vehicles both for sustaining summit progress and for following up on commitments that states have already made.

The 2016 conference will bring together the key agencies relevant to nuclear security—and will include ministerial meetings leading to a declaration of political commitments. It will also include a scientific and technological segment that focuses on the technical, legal, and regulatory aspects of nuclear security. This two-track approach is a clever way to separate high-level political discussions, involving ministers and other senior government officials, from the detailed assessments and work plans that are properly discussed among technical and legal experts.

The summits were designed to bring high-level attention to nuclear security. But the process has reached the end of its life cycle. Additional summits would only create fatigue. Now is the time for implementation of summit commitments, including the gift baskets.

But nuclear security is a field that suffers from a proliferation of initiatives and meetings. So a division of labor among institutions according to their expertise—as established in the action plans—is key to ensuring that commitments turn into actual progress.

Summit states have reached political agreement that nuclear terrorism is an urgent concern. But institutions will monitor whether states comply with their commitments. Day-to-day implementation of the gift baskets will speak louder than the negotiated language of consensus communiqués.