Barack Obama at Nuclear Summit: ‘Madmen” Threatens Global Security
Barack Obama used his finalnuclear security summiton Friday to deliver the stark warning that “madmen” could kill and injure hundreds of thousands of innocent people using only plutonium the size of an apple. “The danger of a terrorist group obtaining and using a nuclear weapon is one of the greatest threats to global security,”said Obama, convening the meeting of more than 50 world leaders in Washington.
Obama argued that since the first such summit six years ago, the world has measurably reduced the risk of nuclear terrorism by taking “concrete, tangible steps”. Enough material for more than 150 nuclear weapons has been secured or removed, he said. But while no terrorist has yet gained possession of a “dirty bomb” made of radioactive materials, Obama said, such terrorists pose a persistent and evolving threat. Al-Qaida has long sought nuclear materials, he said, while individuals involved in the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, both claimed byIslamic State, videotaped a senior manager who works at Belgian nuclear facility.
Isis hasused chemical weapons, including mustard gas, in Syria and Iraq, and was discussed in a special session at the summit. “There is no doubt that if these madmen ever got their hands on a nuclear bomb or nuclear material they most certainly would use it to kill as many innocent people as possible,” Obama said. “And that’s why our work here remains so critical. The single most effective defence against nuclear terrorism is fully securing this material so it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands in the first place.” Roughly 2,000 tons of nuclear materials are held at military and civilian facilities around the world, the president said – and not all such materials are properly secured. “Just the smallest amount of plutonium – about the size of an apple – could kill and injure hundreds of thousands of innocent people,” Obama said. “It would be a humanitarian, political, economic and environmental catastrophe with global ramifications for decades. It would change our world. So we cannot be complacent. We have to build on our progress.”
Although this will be the last summit of its kind, Obama expressed hope that the next president would build on his record. But at a press conference he was asked about Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s suggestion that it may be time for Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear arsenals so the US can pull back from Asia. Trump also did not rule out potentially using nuclear weapons on Europe. “The person who made the statements doesn’t know much about foreign policy or nuclear policy or the Korean peninsula, or the world generally,” Obama said.
“It has prevented the possibilities of a nuclear escalation and conflict. You don’t mess with that. It is an investment that rests on the sacrifices that our men and women made back in World War II when they were fighting throughout the Pacific. We don’t want somebody in the oval office who doesn’t recognise how important that is.”
It was 2009 when, in a landmark speech in Prague, Obama set out an optimistic vision of a planet without nuclear weapons. But what he hopedwould be a legacy issuehas been buffeted by the terrorist threat, rogue behaviour by North Korea, the slow pace of reducing nuclear stockpiles and worsening relations with America’s chief nuclear rival. Russia boycotted the present summit. The US president also faces criticism over plans to modernize America’s nuclear weapons, at a cost of nearly $1tn over three decades. There are more than 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world, with over 90% of them in the US and Russia.
As the summit drew to a close, Obama said the whole of South America is now free of nuclear weapons and central Europe and Southeast Asia will be free of them later this year. He noted that his Prague speech made clear nuclear weapons might not disappear in his lifetime. “I’m the first to acknowledge the great deal of work that remains,” he said. “But we’ve begun.”
Obama admitted that the US and Russia were unlikely to further reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons during the remainder of his presidency. Obama remarked that his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin has emphasized “military might” instead of economic development.
During the press conference Obama was also asked about an increase in the number of people targeted in drone strikes against extremists in Libya, Syria, Somalia and elsewhere. “In the past, there was legitimate criticism that the legal architecture around the use of drone strikes wasn’t as precise as it should have been,” Obama said. “There’s no doubt that civilians were killed that shouldn’t have been.” He added that over the last several years, the administration has worked to prevent civilian deaths. “In situations of war, you know, we have to take responsibility when we’re not acting appropriately,” he added.
Recent drone and other airstrikes against extremist targets have killed large numbers of people. A strike on an Isis training camp in western Libya in February killed more than 40 people; a drone strike in Somalia against al-Shabaab in March killed 150 people. Another drone strike, in Yemen in February, killed dozens.
Obama insisted that the US uses “vigorous criteria” for getting intelligence on targeting, and that intelligence is “checked, double-checked, triple-checked before kinetic actions are taken”. On the sidelines of the summit, Obama held a meeting to review the progress of one his most tangible achievements,the Iran nuclear deal. He pronounced it a “substantial success”.
Joined by Britain’s David Cameron, François Hollande of France and other leaders who backed the accord, Obama said Iran had dismantled two-thirds of its installed centrifuges, shipped 98% of its enriched uranium stockpile out of the country and removed the Arak reactor core and filled it with concrete. “If Iran were to cheat,” he said, “the breakout time to build a nuclear weapon has gone from two to three months to about a year.”
But while Iran has observed the letter of the agreement, he said, it has flouted its spirit with provocative actions such as testing ballistic missiles marked with slogans calling for the destruction of Israel, which shakes the confidence of international companies that might otherwise want to do business with the nation. Noting that key differences with Iran remain, and a trade embargo is still in place, the president added: “Our nations have lifted nuclear-related sanctions and it will take time for Iran to reintegrate into the global economy, but Iran is already beginning to see the benefits of this deal.”
Last month, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused Washington offailing to respect the terms of the agreement. The US has lifted sanctions “on paper”, he said, “but they are using roundabout paths to prevent the Islamic Republic from achieving its targets”.
Less hopeful is the situation in North Korea,which continues to act provocatively. Obama and his Chinese counterpart,Xi Jinping, have agreed to fully implement sanctions. The White House said on Friday that during a meeting on Thursday, Obama and Xi agreed to “narrow differences” and “strengthen coordination”. During the conference, Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands, struck an optimistic note.
“The amount of nuclear material in circulation continues to decline,” he said. “More and more excess nuclear material is being stored and handled in a sustainable manner, like the recent shipment of excess plutonium and highly enriched uranium from Japan to the United States. And the use of low-enriched uranium for the production of medical isotopes and other purposes is on the rise.”