Key point: The threat of nuclear terrorism hasn't gone away.
Just in time for the annual appearance of cherry blossoms, fifty-two heads of state will come to Washington to discuss nuclear security. The fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit, launched by President Barack Obama in 2010, will take stock of the progress made in securing vulnerable nuclear material over the last six years.
Thanks to the summit process, nuclear security, which was previously relegated to small groups of mainly Western bureaucrats and nuclear nerds, has become a prominent issue on the international stage. Major media outlets cover it, governments around the world have been forced to learn about it and greater understanding exists of why protecting nuclear material is critical to international security.
Despite the buzz that these regular meetings of heads of states have generated, many states around the world and their citizens still do not consider nuclear security a relevant concern. The message the Nuclear Security Summit is promoting—that nuclear or high-risk radiological material might end up in the wrong hands and used in a bomb—just doesn’t resonate.
Why is this so?
Many in non-Western countries simply think the threat of nuclear terrorism does not apply to them. They see nuclear security as a preoccupation of advanced Western countries that consider themselves potential targets of nuclear terrorism.
Semantics matters, and how we talk about the risks of nuclear terrorism contributes to these perceptions. The discourse on nuclear security focuses disproportionately on the West. For example, whenever those who care about nuclear security make their argument, they usually say something like: “Imagine a nuclear bomb detonating in Manhattan, London or Paris…” Common threat scenarios involve Western targets, and therefore make the problem seem like a Western one.