As they prepared for a summit on nuclear security starting Monday in Washington, Obama administration officials were quietly crafting a common position for world powers that remain sharply divided on the best way to safeguard bomb-making materials.
The two-day summit is being billed by the White House as the biggest conference of its type in the U.S. since the 1945 conference to create the United Nations. The arrival of leaders of more than 40 countries, including President Hu Jintao of China and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, is expected to snarl traffic and attract demonstrations.
The meeting is a matter of personal prestige for President Obama, who campaigned on a promise to secure “loose nukes” within four years. He pledged last week that this meeting would yield a concrete plan and not just “some vague, gauzy statement.”
On Sunday, Obama conferred with several arriving leaders, adamantly underscoring the stakes he saw. Going into a meeting with South African President Jacob Zuma, Obama said terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda could one day obtain unsecured nuclear material.
“If there was ever a detonation in New York City or London or Johannesburg, the ramifications economically, politically and from a security perspective would be devastating,” Obama said. “And we know that organizations like Al Qaeda are in the process of trying to secure a nuclear weapon, a weapon of mass destruction that they have no compunction at using.”
Yet foreign diplomats involved in the discussions said U.S. officials had focused on areas of common ground and airbrushed differences while they wrote a joint communique that was mostly completed days before the summit even began. The statement was to be released Tuesday afternoon.
The meeting “is going to give a new visibility to an issue that hasn’t gotten enough attention. It will push people to do more,” said one diplomat close to the talks. But in an attempt to persuade countries to take new steps, such as developing standards for physical security, he said, the administration has sidestepped many touchy issues.
Many countries are highly sensitive to foreign powers’ intrusions in their nuclear programs, and they would resist international efforts to force them to give up closely held information or allow inspectors to monitor their facilities. India, China and Russia, for example, have been wary of attempts to learn about their nuclear programs.
There is even disagreement about the extent of the threat. Some countries, such as the United States and Russia, believe the danger of militant groups acquiring nuclear weapons should be the priority. But some European leaders are more concerned about so-called dirty-bomb radiological materials, which would be much more easily acquired, said Sharon Squassoni, a former U.S. official at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Many nonnuclear states, she said, see the “loose nukes” agenda as the Americans “asking [them] to do more, and spend more, to make [Americans] feel safe.”
And there are other sensitivities that complicate deal-making.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled plans to attend, aides said, because he feared Egypt and Turkey were going to embarrass Israel with complaints about the unacknowledged nuclear program the Jewish state is widely assumed to have.
A senior Arab official involved in summit planning insisted Friday that the Arab countries had no such plans. “There was no intention to politicize the outcome of the summit,” said the official, who declined to be identified.
Nevertheless, the issue is expected to come up. On the agenda for Obama’s meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan on Monday, for example, is a discussion of Middle East peace.
Also high on the list at the president’s series of meetings is how to impose sanctions on Iran to curb its nuclear program.
Deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes predicted Sunday that individual nations would make specific commitments, similar to a recent decision by Chile to ship highly enriched uranium out of the country.
“The consequences of an act of nuclear terrorism are so significant that we cannot afford to delay action,” Rhodes said.
Christi Parsons in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.