Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

Lessons from The Hague Peace Palace for the Nuclear Security Summit

| Mar. 24, 2014

Presidents Obama, Xi, Chancellor Merkel and 40 other heads of state assemble in the Netherlands early this week for the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit.  The meeting is in The Hague, home of the iconic Peace Palace.  We can hope that the briefing books for those attending the summit include a photo of the Palace and enough about its history for them to recognize not only the irony but also lessons from its story for the work they are undertaking.

Built for the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the Peace Palace was inspired (and funded) by Andrew Carnegie, the richest man in the world of that era.  By creating a new institution and housing it in a grand palace, he and many other leaders of the time believed they could bend the arc of history from war to peace.  No longer would fundamental differences between nations require war, since disputes could now be referred to the court.  

At the inauguration of the magnificent structure in August 1913, Carnegie captured the zeitgeist of the time. Addressing the leaders of the UK, Germany, France, Russia, Austro-Hungary, and the US, he asked: "Why should these nations ever quarrel?  Why should they not agree to demand peace upon the seas?"  He reminded them that, as he had shown in creating the steel industry, "the greatest advances have appeared to burst upon us suddenly."  Thus, he declared: "So will it be with the change from barbarous war to civilized peace."

Precisely a year to the month after this proclamation, Europe was consumed by a war so devastating that it brought an end to a millennium of European primacy in world affairs.

The Hague Peace Palace, home of the International Court of Justice (Photo: ICJ) 

With the deepening crisis in Ukraine, thousands of Syrians being slaughtered each month in Syria, and looming challenges from slowing economic growth to growing greenhouse gas emissions, some commentators are understandably asking why nuclear security should be at the top of the agenda at this event.  Obviously, the necessity for choices about many of these urgent issues will claim time at The Hague.

Nonetheless, the primary focus at this meeting will be what President Obama has named "the most immediate extreme threat to global security”: a nuclear 9/11. If terrorists could buy or steal enough highly enriched uranium to build an improvised nuclear bomb, they could devastate the heart of Amsterdam or New York or Kiev. The operational objective of this meeting is to motivate governments to take specific actions to ensure this never happens.

The surest way to guarantee that nuclear weapons-usable material never falls into terrorists' hands is to eliminate it. In the years since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, 27 nations have zeroed out all nuclear weapon-usable material.  In just the past five years since President Obama launched the summit process, 13 states have become nuclear weapons material free.  That leaves just 25 states as potential sources of a terrorist's nuclear bomb.

Moreover, at the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in 2010, the fact that 15 bombs’ worth of highly-enriched uranium remained at risk at three sites in Ukraine, including facilities at Sevastopol (now controlled by Russian troops) and Kharkiv (where a number of people have been killed in recent events) became a focus of discussion.  Two years later, at the second summit in Seoul, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was one of the stars of the meeting who stood up to announce that his country had become nuclear weapons material free.The tragic events in Ukraine provide a dramatic reminder of why the work of this summit matters.  When the Soviet Union dissolved, Ukraine inherited the third largest superpower nuclear arsenal in the world.  This included 2000 strategic nuclear warheads, most mounted atop ICBMs aimed at American cities, and a further 2500 tactical nuclear weapons.  Thanks to a combination of grace and good fortune, strategy, determination, and courage, the US, Russia, and Ukraine worked together to eliminate this arsenal.  Today, there are zero nuclear weapons on the territory of Ukraine.

How many additional states will announce at The Hague that they have acted decisively to eliminate all weapons-usable material from their country, or ensure it security to the gold standard?  The answer will remain unknown until next week.  But as we read the communiqué from the 2014 Summit and assess the actions that have been taken in the past two years, we should think again about lessons from the Peace Palace.

At the top of my list are two.  Beware grand declarations of victory over the scourges of history.  Like war, nuclear weapons and nuclear terrorism cannot be wised away or banished by proclamation. That does not mean, however, that we cannot constrain man's inhumanity to man.  Rather, the lesson is that doing so requires a long, hard slog: day by day, step by step, brick by brick, case by case. On that path, the Nuclear Security Summits have extended the strategy of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program that preceded them.  Together, they have succeeded in just 23 years in cutting by half the number of states with material that could fuel a nuclear terrorist's bomb.  

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.Lessons from The Hague Peace Palace for the Nuclear Security Summit.” Nuclear Security Matters, March 24, 2014,