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Grand summit an Obama PR victory

Analysis Well-attended security summit gives US president platform to warn that securing nuclear technology is in the interest of all nations.

A month after emerging triumphant from a battle with Congress to get his healthcare bill passed, and a week after the signature of a much-awaited arms reduction treaty with Russia, the US president Barack Obama managed to score another public relations victory with his well-attended Nuclear Security Summit. The summit in Washington, the grandest hosted by a US president in seven decades, was an opportunity for Mr Obama to display his internationalist credentials and also to assert American global leadership at a time when critics at home are berating him for an alleged lack of assertiveness and allies abroad seek reassurance about the trajectory of US policy.

All the major powers were represented at the summit and at the highest level, most notably the Chinese president Hu Jintao, who attended after a months-long chill in US-China relations. Visiting heads of state and other top officials competed for a slot on Mr Obama's tight schedule. Many of the bilateral meetings Mr Obama and his team conducted during the two days were also in preparation for the review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty next month, during which ideas to strengthen the nuclear order will be discussed.

Indeed the Washington summit was part of a global campaign by the Obama administration to focus attention and urgency on nuclear proliferation, a major theme of Mr Obama's presidential campaign and the subject of a speech he gave in Prague last year. This week's conference had a narrower focus: How to prevent the high-risk scenario of radioactive materials making it into the hands of criminal and terrorist networks.

The existence of significant batches of unsecured fissile material, the essential ingredient to build a nuclear bomb or a radiological device, is a chilling though hardly new prospect. For almost two decades, the US has conducted programmes in the former Soviet Union to secure unguarded fissile materials. But the growing interest in nuclear energy - which will inevitably generate more nuclear fuel - and the concern over the safety of nuclear installations worldwide, require the kind of international co-operation that has been lacking so far.

The overriding challenge for Mr Obama at the summit was to impress upon his guests that his top concern - the threat of nuclear terrorism - should also be theirs. The US worries that the perception of al Qa'eda-type terrorist groups as primarily a threat to the US betrays a complacency among other powers and fosters blindness with regard to the devastating impact a terrorist nuclear attack in any location would have on global politics.

So Mr Obama welcomed the decision by Ukraine to relinquish its existing stock of highly-enriched uranium by 2012 and the commitment by Malaysia to tighten its export controls regime and prevent the diversion of its technology, while hoping that more countries would follow suit. Securing nuclear fuel and technology will indeed demand a mix of regulatory and technical solutions, as the summit's final communique made clear. The summit may well fail to meet Mr Obama's goal of securing all loose material in four years, but it has certainly raised the profile of an issue too long ignored.

There were other topics on Mr Obama's menu. With Mr Hu, he discussed Iran, to which an invitation was not extended on account of its controversial nuclear programme (North Korea was the other nuclear power that did not receive an invitation). Afterwards, US officials rushed to the press to announce that China had at long last agreed to discuss the imposition of more sanctions on Tehran at the UN Security Council, but the Chinese, as always, were non-committal in public.

Of course, there were a few mishaps. The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to attend, allegedly fearing that his country's suspected nuclear arsenal would come under scrutiny, but probably still reeling from his bruising fight with Mr Obama over his settlement policy. Ignoring the Israeli obstacle, however, does little to create goodwill and trust among other Middle Eastern nations nervous about the prospects of a nuclear arms race if Iran too accedes to nuclear status.

And while Pakistan was on everyone's mind due to the combustible mix of Islamist militancy, nuclear weapons and state weakness, world leaders politely stayed away from the issue, no doubt to the satisfaction of its attending prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani. ehokayem@thenational.ae

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