The Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) process—to prevent non-state actors, particularly terrorists, from acquiring nuclear material—was launched with fanfare in 2010 by US President Barack Obama with the ambitious objective “to secure all vulnerable nuclear material in four years". Six years and four summits later—the last of which concluded on 1 April—this aim has not been reached, despite substantial progress being made.

Since the NSS process began, more than 175 tonnes of highly enriched uranium (HEU)—enough for nearly 7,000 nuclear weapons—has been removed or down-blended (mostly from Russia); 30 countries have eliminated all HEU from their territory; and radiation detection equipment has been installed at 329 international border crossings, airports and seaports to prevent, detect and respond to trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive material. Additionally, the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM), with the 2005 amendment, is now only eight signatures shy of entering into force and the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT) has been signed by 103 of the 193 United Nations members.

However, an estimated 1,400 tonnes of HEU and nearly 500 tonnes of plutonium—enough for about 200,000 simple fission-type nuclear bombs—is still held by more than 30 countries. Moreover, the absence of Russian President Vladimir Putin (over strategic differences with the US) indicates that progress towards this cause is susceptible to the overall state of bilateral relations. Similarly, the failure to invite Iran (despite the nuclear deal) was a missed opportunity to engage Tehran on a crucial issue of global importance. Finally, as reports emanating from Brussels before the summit indicate, despite the NSS’ efforts, the possibility of terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities has not been eliminated even in nations such as Belgium.

These achievements and challenges underline several key lessons from the NSS process. First, because the NSS is narrowly focused on the threat of non-state actors acquiring nuclear material, it took great initiative on the part of the US to get it going; it is unlikely that any other world leader could have led a similar project. This indicates, as Obama boasted, that even in the multi-polar era, the world is dependent on US leadership.

However, as the absence of Putin and the inability of the process in securing all nuclear material in four years reflect, there are limits to even what the US leadership can achieve. Besides, the fact that the 2012 and 2014 summits were held in South Korea and the Netherlands respectively—both US allies from the developed world—indicates that Washington is still not able to find willing partners for its initiatives in the global South.

Second, some experts argue that the NSS process only deals with nuclear material in civilian facilities and not the military nuclear facilities, which account for about 83% of all nuclear material. This is disputed by others who assert that the NSS communiqués along with the CPPNM, the ICSANT and UN Security Council resolution 1540 deal with all nuclear material—civilian and military. What is not in dispute, however, is that the danger posed by forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons, particularly by Pakistan, Russia and the US, has not been addressed and needs to be remedied.

Finally, the relative success of the NSS process also underlines the failure of the international community to address similar dangers emanating from biological weapons. As there is no international regime or institution to deal with biological weapons, they remain largely unregulated. Indeed, non-state actors and individuals are increasingly conducting research in biotechnology, especially, synthetic biology.

For India, while its contribution to the success of the NSS process is useful to highlight its credentials as a responsible nuclear state, any initiative on similar threats from biological weapons and its ability to rally others to the cause would enhance its credibility as a global leader.

W.P.S. Sidhu is a senior fellow at the New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and non-resident senior fellow at Brookings Institution

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