The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, April 16, 2010

Fission versus Fusion

The Bonds of Friendship Formed There May Be the Nuclear Summit’s Greatest Accomplishment

When you are considering things nuclear, a good rule of thumb is that fission is bad and fusion is good. Fission is the process leading to nuclear explosions and global annihilation. Even when contained in a nuclear power plant’s reactor, fission produces radioactive slag that takes millions of years to cool down to safe levels. Fusion, on the other hand, is the process powering every star in the universe, including our sun. Fusion means light, warmth, and countless songs – several of which are decent – about gazing up at starry nights.

Theoretical physicists have had a tough time combining quantum mechanics – which explains how atomic particles and sub-particles interact across very small distances – with Einstein’s theory of general relativity – which explains how larger bodies interact across longer distances. Luckily, that which holds true at the micro-level seems equally applicable at the human and political macro-levels. There is a common set of principles for the infinitesimal and the international. The same rules governing quarks also apply to quorums – although admittedly both appear to be acting randomly.

President Obama hosted an international summit, attended by forty-six world leaders and heads of international organizations, dedicated to the reduction of nuclear material stockpiles. Obama sought to convince others the greatest joint threat facing us is nuclear terrorism.

The summit produced some successes. The group drafted a declaration and work plan that all the attendees signed. Some nations, such as Ukraine, Mexico and Canada, announced their intention to give up highly enriched uranium altogether. The U.S. and Russia just signed a major agreement to dispose of sixty-eight tons of weapons-grade plutonium – enough to build seventeen thousand nuclear warheads.

Yet perhaps the greatest breakthroughs at this summit were the personal friendships that Obama appeared to forge or strengthen with foreign heads of state and senior diplomats.

This is far from an insignificant accomplishment. Although Obama entered office promising to change the “go it alone,” cowboy unilateralism practiced by former President Bush and abhorred by much of the world and although he often drew huge crowds during overseas visits, a sense of unease and disappointment has sometimes suggested itself in his inability to form personal bonds with his counterparts.

In some ways, the usual Obama style was still on display at the summit. The President took on a professorial lecturing tone at times. In other cases, he pushed for participatory inclusion, calling on leaders to speak their thoughts frankly about matters under consideration. He even formally bowed again to Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

However, he also engaged in more one-on-one physical contact, slapping backs, kissing cheeks, and holding twelve separate private meetings with various leaders. Such personal diplomacy is “quite important,” according to British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

“When Obama stands up and says ‘My friend Dmitry Medvedev’ or ‘My friend Nicolas Sarkozy,’ he's right, and that's important,” Miliband explained. “He's made a number of friends of world leaders, and I think that's a testament to why so many arrived to take part in this.”

For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel consented to a kiss on each cheek from Obama at the first meeting. I recall Merkel recoiling and running across a room to escape from Bush when he attempted an impromptu should massage on her at a similar summit.

In fairness, there were some naysayers along this line. Washington Post editor Jackson Diehl noted that, in a seeming snub, President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia got no private face time with Obama, despite his loyalty to Obama’s foreign policy, and President Ilham Aliev of Azerbaijan, another ally, did not even receive an invitation to the summit. Diehl wondered if this was a crass attempt by the Administration to ingratiate itself with Russia.

For his part, Charles Krauthammer summarized all the standard criticisms of the event. He griped that how to deal with (potential) nuclear rogue nations, such as North Korea, Iran, and – per Krauthammer – Pakistan, was not even on the table. He fussed at the lack of talk about punishing Syria, which has supplied Scud missiles to Hezbollah. He scoffed that the summit’s mandates are non-binding and voluntary.

Yet after his private meeting with Obama, Chinese President Hu Jintao used the word “sanctions” for the first time when discussing how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. Obama said Hu had assured him that China would participate in drafting sessions at the United Nations on strong sanctions against Iran. Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai later agreed that while China prefers diplomatic solutions, it is “open to ideas” on other ways to deal with Iran.

During his address to the summit, Obama pointed out that while the U.S. is ready to assume leadership in nuclear security, we neither want nor are able to be the sole, unilateral police force for the world on this issue. In the end, all nations must voluntarily cooperate to the extent that they genuinely wish to protect the safety of their citizens from terrorist attacks.

Obama endorsed a suggestion by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to create an international court that would try states providing nuclear technology or materials to terrorist organizations, saying it merited further consideration. Interestingly, I suspect those most vocal about criticizing the “non-binding” nature of this summit would also object most loudly were such a court to demand U.S. citizen(s) turned over to their jurisdiction, if discovered at such activities.

An anonymous European diplomat may have summed it up best when he spoke with reporters about Obama’s role at the summit. “I mean, he did get forty-six leaders to Washington on a boring issue. That's pretty good.”

Diehl’s and Krauthammer’s colleague, David Broder, posits, “The Obama Presidency will be an era of substantial but deferred accomplishments” and welcomes having “a President whose vision extends beyond the duration of his own term of office.”

He notes, however, that such an approach is not without risks. “For a nation whose culture has produced a psychology demanding instant gratification, this politics of deferred satisfaction is something not easily learned.” Obama’s rapid rise to power is symptomatic of the very thing his goals and governing style seeks to transform. Broder worries that Obama “could be cut off by the voters before any of his hopes are realized.”

Regardless of this, Obama is demonstrating he possesses the innate abilities and is learning the skills necessary to bring about real change, if given the chance. This is a positive sign. Quantum mechanics demonstrates that miniscule changes on very small scales can have profound impacts on the larger universe. I hope this will be the case for Obama when it comes to nuclear security and his Presidency as a whole.

Quantum mechanics also teaches that the mere observation of an event is sufficient to change its outcome. Crap! I hope I didn’t just blow it for him.

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