President Barack Obama on Monday will open an unprecedented summit of 47 nations focused on global action to secure nuclear materials and keep them out of the hands of terrorists. On Sunday, the president held the first of more than 10 bilateral meetings with foreign leaders coinciding with the summit, amid tight security here in Washington for the event.
On a cool but sunny spring day, the president walked the short distance from the White House across Pennsylvania Avenue to the official presidential guest residence, Blair House, for the first of at least 10 bilateral meetings he is expected to hold with heads of state and government.
On Sunday, that included the prime ministers of South Asia nuclear rivals India and Pakistan -- Manmohan Singh and Yusuf Raza Gilani -- along with President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, whose country voluntarily gave up its nuclear weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
President Obama's meetings also included two African leaders -- President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, and what the White House called a courtesy visit from Acting Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.
Additional meetings are set for Monday at the summit venue -- the Washington Convention Center -- and will include China's President Hu Jintao, President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia, King Abdullah of Jordan and Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamed Najib Razak.
During the summit, which formally begins late Monday and lasts through Tuesday, other leaders and delegation members will be hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other U.S. officials.
President Obama will chair two key plenary sessions of the Nuclear Security Summit, focusing on how governments plan to respond to threats from unsecured nuclear materials and steps they are prepared to take to ensure their safety.
In a statement to reporters on Sunday as he met with the South African president, President Obama said the summit's focus is the single biggest threat to U.S. security in the short, medium and long term -- the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon. "We know that organizations like al-Qaida are in the process of trying to secure a nuclear weapon or other weapons of mass destruction, and [they] would have no compunction at using them," he said.
The detonation of an atomic weapon in New York City, London or Johannesburg, said the president, would change the security landscape of the United States and the world for years to come with devastating economic, political and security ramifications.
Noting that South Africa once had a nuclear weapons program, President Obama said it decided that this was not the right path, adding that he hopes South Africa can be a guide for other countries to pursue nuclear non-proliferation.
The White House says the final communiqué to be issued on Tuesday by the 47 nations attending the Nuclear Security Summit will formally recognize the serious threat posed by nuclear terrorism, endorse efforts to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials over a four year period and speak about what countries will do on the national and international level.
The summit is the third major event in two weeks dealing with nuclear security, including the recent signing in Prague by President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev of a new strategic arms reduction treaty, and the unveiling of the Obama administration's Nuclear Posture Review.
As Mr. Obama prepares for two days of intense consultations with summit participants on reducing the threat from loose nuclear materials and potential nuclear terrorism, he says he feels good with what he calls the degree of commitment and sense of urgency he has seen so far from world leaders, and that he believes enormous progress can come from the gathering.