As discussions of terrorism and foreign fighters come to a close this week at the United Nations, President Obama can be sure of one thing: his opportunity to add the single greatest safeguard to global security is slipping away. If he wants to cement his legacy as the president who faced what he himself identified as “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security,” he needs to double down on his vision for a world without nuclear weapons in order to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on them.
Today – the first-ever International Day for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons – is as good a day as any to get rolling.
Achieving the elimination of nuclear weapons is one of the U.N.’s longstanding objectives, one it has failed to prioritize. It’s no surprise that the security discussions this year were overshadowed by the plans of 10 member states to dismantle and defeat the Islamic State group, especially as their assault on radical Sunni resistance and aggression toward U.S. and British journalists continues to grow.
Yet this mounting violence and instability pales in comparison to what could be wrought by nuclear-armed terrorists. We know that the Islamic State group has the means and motive to attain weapons of mass destruction. They have an appetite for shocking demonstrations and indiscriminate killing, and have already seized low-grade nuclear material from a facility in Mosul. They are acquiring the ability to build radioactive dirty bombs that could cause major health and economic damage. With reports of escalating funding and recruitment of citizens from every continent, and ties to radicals in nuclear weapons-states such as Pakistan, it is increasingly conceivable that weapons-grade materials – or even a ready-made nuclear device – could fall into their hands. If that happens, they would not hesitate to use them – possibly at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.
There are more than 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world and enough highly-enriched uranium and plutonium to make hundreds of thousands more. We can do our best to prevent isolated incidents in which terrorists buy, build or steal them – but those efforts are stop-gap at best, and we won’t know if we missed something until it’s too late. Nuclear terrorism is all but inevitable unless we work quickly and urgently to secure all nuclear materials and eradicate all nuclear weapons. To eliminate the risk we have to drain the swamp.
This will not be easy. The world faces many dangerous and evolving challenges, and tensions between Russian and the West cannot be ignored. But we must not allow the crisis of the day to overshadow the enormity of the nuclear threat. With plans to defeat the Islamic State group that may take years and the next U.S. presidential election on the horizon, President Obama is running short of time to set us on the path to Global Zero.
Let’s hope he beats the clock.