Can 72 kings, presidents and prime ministers and their polyglot throngs of aides, analysts, deputies, security men and coat-holders, now settling into Washington for the nuclear security summit, really protect us from nuclear terrorism?
That they can is the premise of this week's gathering, and the optimism and drive
behind the goal is to be saluted. The aim, as President Obama reiterated Sunday, is winning global adherence to a "lockdown'' of loose nuclear material so that it doesn't fall into the hands of terrorists.
It's noteworthy that an American president can snap his fingers and have virtually the entire world's elected and unelected leadership (less Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who declined, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and ailing Kim Jong-Il of North Korea, who weren't invited) show up.
On the other hand, do they know how hard this is going to be?
For a gut check, I went back and reread the once-secret papers detailing the negotiations of a simpler time, almost a quarter century ago. On Oct. 11 and 12, 1986, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet boss Mikhail Gorbachev came close to agreeing to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.
How close? One word. But more on that later.
First, let's tee up the nuclear security summit: The goal is to lock down all "loose'' nuclear material -- measured in the tons -- within four years.
That's a tall order, given that the world's been fooling around with the idea since, let's say, the Soviet Union dissolved
two decades ago, leaving significant piles of enriched nuclear material relatively unsecured.
The United States has moved out smartly, removing all highly enriched uranium from more than 50 facilities around the world and helping secure weapons-grade material at 210 of roughly 250 storage sites in Russia and Eurasia.
But a significant threat remains. According to the nonpartisan think tank Nuclear Threat Initiative
, "Terrorists are seeking nuclear weapons, and the materials needed to make them are still housed in hundreds of buildings and bunkers in dozens of countries -- many in urgent need of better security.''
According to the NTI, there are 18 documented cases of theft or loss of plutonium or highly enriched uranium, and other alarming incidents including a 2010 break-in by unarmed peace activists at a Belgian base where U.S. nuclear weapons are reportedly stored, in addition to an attempted armed attack two years ago on a South African site housing hundreds of kilograms of HEU.
Despite this backdrop, Obama said Sunday that he feels "very good at this stage in the degree of commitment and sense of urgency that I've seen from the world leaders so far on this issue. We think we can make enormous progress on this.''
Even the crusty veteran Rep. Ike Skelton, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, felt required to issue a gooey statement Monday morning saying that he, too, was encouraged "to see such an unprecedented number of the world's leaders come together to focus on the nonproliferation of nuclear capabilities ...''
It's all the more remarkable that just a generation ago, Ronald Reagan was marching off to a hastily called summit meeting with Gorbachev, in the wind-buffeted Icelandic capital of Reykjavik, humming the tune of the "Evil Empire
Communists, Reagan had declared in that 1983 speech to a hall of cheering evangelicals, "preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict [their] eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth. They are the focus of evil in the modern world.''
Just to make sure the Kremlin understood he'd be a hard bargainer, Reagan added: "Simple-minded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly. It means the betrayal of our past, the squandering of our freedom.''
But Reagan also carried a copy of a letter he'd privately written to Gorbachev earlier that summer, raising the idea of completely eliminating nuclear weapons and putting the security of the superpowers in missile defenses. (George P. Shultz, Reagan's dour secretary of state, wrote later he'd been unable to talk Reagan out of the idea of complete nuclear disarmament.)
Reagan, enamored of the technological promise of what critics branded "Star Wars,'' was convinced he could persuade the reformist Soviet leader of the immorality of living under the constant threat of "mutual assured destruction
That doctrine was not only MAD, Reagan believed, it was also immoral.
"Listen, we are two civilized countries, two civilized peoples,'' Reagan began, according to an official transcript
. "Both countries have terrible missiles aimed at each other that can annihilate countless numbers of people, and primarily noncombatants – women, children. And the sole defense against this possibility is the threat that we also are in a position to carry out such mass extermination. This,'' Reagan said, "is an uncivilized situation.''
Missile defenses, Reagan said, "will make missiles obsolete.'' And they will "provide a guarantee against the actions of any madman like [Libyan strongman Muammar] Qadhafi who would probably use missiles if he had them.''
As autumn rain squalls beat against the country house where the two men met, Reagan added: "I think that the world will become much more civilized if we, the two great powers, demonstrate this example, create defensive systems and eliminate terrible modern armaments.''
Notetakers and transcriptionists didn't record Gorbachev's visible reactions, but I like to imagine him pushing his chair back in astonishment, his eyes widening. After a long pause he said: "I would prefer to reply in a less philosophical spirit, more on a practical plane.'' His idea: Eliminate half of the superpowers' nuclear stockpiles in five years, and the rest over the next five years. During this 10-year-period, missile defense research could be done in a laboratory but no prototypes could be tested outside the lab.
At the end of 10 years – nuclear disarmament. But until then, no testing of Star Wars.
Details, Reagan said, as the idea of nuclear disarmament -- until then the province of peaceniks and sign-carrying grandmothers -- was suddenly in the air. We can do this, Gorbachev said. "We can eliminate them.''
Shultz, a famously poker-faced man, found himself giddily blurting out, "Let's do it!''
Negotiators worked through the night to translate intentions into treaty language. But neither they nor the two leaders could get past this point: Gorbachev wanted a 10-year period in which work on missile defense would be done only inside the laboratory. Reagan insisted on research including work done outside
On this they agreed: ''research'' was permitted under an existing agreement, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. But did "research'' mean only inside laboratories, or could it include testing in space?
Reagan said he could not give in. Gorbachev asked if that was his final word. Reagan said it was.
According to notes taken of this final meeting, Reagan observed that while critics of Gorbachev in the Soviet Union were jailed, Reagan's own critics were outspoken and "kicking his brains out.'' He could not agree to confine Star Wars work only to the lab.
At that point the two men gathered up their papers and left -- only to turn to each other on the front steps of the mansion. As dark clouds raced overhead, the feeling of defeat was palpable on both sides.
"I still feel we can find a deal,'' Reagan said.
"I don't think you want a deal,'' Gorbachev replied. "I don't know what more I could have done.
"You could have said 'yes,''' Reagan retorted.
Within a year, Reagan's presidency was crippled by the Iran-Contra
affair, Gorbachev was grappling with the accelerating dissolution of the Soviet empire and of the Communist Party itself. The goal of disarmament faded.
It's fascinating history. But what's the lesson? Maybe it is that revolutionary arms control is just too difficult.
Or maybe it is that you have to just keep trying. As Reagan himself put it a year later:
"Let it never be said of this generation of Americans that we became so obsessed with failure that we refused to take risks that could further the cause of peace and freedom in the world.''