Alphen, Netherlands. 24 March. The Netherlands is shut today for a bit of nuclear grandstanding. The reason for all the chaos is Nuclear Security Summit 2014 which is taking place today in The Hague (as well as a bit of Russia-less G7). In 1917 US President Woodrow Wilson said that the world must be made safe for democracy. Implicit in this summit is the need to make the world safe for power.
On the face of it the Summit is one of those strategic photo-ops/jamborees/champagne bun-fights for politicians that promise so much and deliver so little. However, this one takes place just when the balance between might and right, power and law upon which nuclear restraint rests is again being tested.
To underline the challenge Russia’s President Putin pulled out of the Summit in the wake of his invasion of Ukraine-Crimea demonstrating the extent to which the world now hovers between might and right. It could go either way.
The ‘Nuclear Top’, as the Dutch rather disarmingly call the Summit, focuses on the very real danger of nuclear terrorism. It should have focused on President Obama’s 2009 vision of a “Global Zero”, a world free of nuclear weapons. However, that has about as much chance of happening as I have of being NATO’s next Secretary-General (I am still available and at very reasonable rates).
The Summit will address the danger that nuclear material might fall into the wrong hands, which of course implied it was always in the ‘right’ hands. The specific concern is that terrorists could gain access to sufficient radiological material to make a “dirty bomb”.
Sister Summits in Washington and Seoul produced a Framework to combat nuclear terrorism that is being discussed as I write. The Framework has three elements: reduce the amount of dangerous nuclear material in the world; improve the security of existing material; and increase international co-operation.
Such grandiose great power démarches have a chequered history, particularly when the great powers are at geopolitical odds. Be it efforts to ban chemical weapons a century ago to the many and varied attempts at conventional and nuclear arms control and disarmament efforts to constrain and restrain massive destruction within laws and regimes has been constant and not always successful. Indeed, The European Union was born out of just such an effort; to constrain state action by legal precept thus rendering the ability of Europeans to wage war on each other impossible.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine-Crimea confirms all too eloquently that the twenty-first century could well be little different than the twentieth. Good old-fashioned Realpolitik is back with a bang and along with it hierarchies of prestige, spheres of influence and balances of bunker-busting power in which how big is one’s arsenal again matters.
The paradox of this Summit is that it also implies one of the struggles that could well come to define the twenty-first century – the state versus the anti-state. The presence of China’s President Xi attests to the concern of leaders that mass destructive nuclear power could fall into the hands of terrorists. After all, nuclear technology is now some eighty years old and in the anarchic world of globalisation terrorists could conceivably get their hands on anything with the right contacts, money and time.
And it is the latter threat that so exercises Presidents Obama and Xi, and in the absence of Putin that other titan of geopolitics, President Herman Van Rompuy of Europe (excuse the giggles). Moreover, it is not just the idea that nuclear-armed terrorists could inflict real damage on societies, but that such groups could also be instrumentalised as proxies by third states and in so doing neutralise great power.
Hard truths abound. First, hyper-immigration has also made open societies ever more vulnerable to the hatreds that drive catastrophic terrorists with nuclear ambitions. Second, the weakening of many states in the face of anti-state actors such as Al Qaeda has promoted the ‘anarchisation/democratisation’ of mass destruction as ever smaller groups now seriously seek to gain access to radiological and nuclear capabilities. Third, leaders of the Western powers in particular feel ever more uncomfortable using force for fear of the retribution it could trigger from enemies within.
In other words, states and groups that are on the face of it far weaker than some of those represented around the table in The Hague could negate the very influence upon which great power is established if they can successfully obtain such technologies.
Paradoxically, the vulnerable states include Russia if only Moscow could see it. Russia may be an autocracy and be far less open than the rest of Europe. However, in the wake of the disastrous war Russia fought in the 1990s to prevent Chechen independence Moscow now faces the worst of all worlds – Islamists threats along its southern border in the very lawless places where leaking nuclear technology, catastrophic terrorism and criminality co-exist.
In other words, this summit matters. However, because once again might and right are again at odds terrorists will seek to exploit the seams between them. As Machiavelli once said, “A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise”.