I’ve been hearing a lot of inside chatter all week from Washington about Prime Minister John Key’s visit and his participation in the Nuclear Security Summit.

The Summit starts with a moment of silence in memory of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and the others lost on his airplane. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

The Summit starts with a moment of silence in memory of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and the others lost on his airplane. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

The visit really started on a high note when the PM met with Vice President Joe Biden.  I know from direct experience that both men are smart, direct, and down-to-earth.  I am told by staff friends that they took an instant like to each other and had a great meeting.  The discussion was broad-ranging as they brainstormed about ways our two countries can cooperate together further, not only bilaterally but regionally and globally.

There was so much chemistry and common ground that the meeting ran long.  They discussed the obvious topics – climate change, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), Afghanistan, nuclear non-proliferation, and Iran’s nuclear program – all matters on which the two countries are collaborating, in many instances through United Nations mechanisms.  When the PM and the VP finally emerged, both underscored that the U.S.-New Zealand relationship is the strongest that it has been in decades.

The PM also met with Secretary Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.  I had lunch in Los Angeles with the then-Governor and a few friends when he was exploring a potential run for the Presidency a few years ago, and I know him to be a down-to-earth, smart, and practical problem-solver as well as a strategic thinker.

The PM and the Secretary discussed the TPP and last week’s Global Research Alliance meetings in Wellington.  The Secretary congratulated the PM on New Zealand’s development of the GRA concept.  The PM expressed his gratitude that the Secretary had been instrumental in the effort to convert the concept into reality through his personal advocacy, his early commitment of US$ 90 million to the enterprise, and his work to bring other nations onboard.

The PM then moved on to meet with President Obama and attend the event that had drawn him – and 46 other world leaders – to Washington. Not since 1945 had a U.S. President hosted a gathering of so many Heads of State and Government.  It was an unprecedented meeting to address an unprecedented threat.

The Prime Minister and the President chat before the start of the Summit.

The Prime Minister and the President chat before the start of the Summit.

It is important to understand that not only Heads of State and Government attend such summits.  Leaders travel with teams of officials and experts who engage in meetings at various levels, sometimes with and sometimes apart from the Leaders.  So, Washington was packed last week not only with international star-power but with intense expertise.

As I know is his custom, the President wanted the best minds and a diversity of perspectives in the meetings.  He invited to the Summit countries from various regions and representing very different levels of nuclear energy investment, nuclear material holdings, nuclear weapons status,  and  nuclear expertise.  The Summit also assembled an array of experts to present the best information and ideas on tackling the threat of weapons-grade nuclear material falling into the hands of terrorists.  

The threat is not theoretical.  It is tangible and urgent.  Highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium are present in both civilian and military programs around the world.  Extremists of various ilk have expressed their intention to obtain such materials and to convert them into nuclear devices.  The risk of extremists succeeding at such objectives is heightened by certain state actions.

Likewise, the target is not remote or foreign.  Everyone is exposed in very real ways.  Even a distant detonation would disrupt economic activity and quality of life across the globe.  And no one can count on a detonation being distant.  Extremists choose their targets opportunistically and unpredictably.

As participants in the Summit acknowledged, the best way to keep terrorists and other criminals from obtaining nuclear weapons is to secure all such weaponry and nuclear materials, as well as the know-how to make and use them.  That is a big job, and no one country can handle it alone.  The first and best line of defense for all of us is to work together to bolster our ability to detect smuggled material, recover lost material, identify where rogue materials originated, and punish those who are trading in such material.

Significant steps were taken along that collaborative path in Washington this week.  The Joint Communiqué and the Summit Work Plan give a clear view of the specific steps that were agreed in order to advance the shared agenda.  A cadre of experts will reconvene as early as December, and the next Leaders meeting has been set for 2012 in the Republic of Korea.

Throughout the week there was excellent engagement between the NZ and U.S. delegations.  The PM was terrific, and he and his team of experts offered knowledgeable and useful ideas.  The PM himself was engaging and straightforward in a way that greatly impressed my American colleagues.  The Summit simply would not have been complete without the presence and active participation of New Zealand.

It was just too bad that the week was so busy that the visiting Kiwis did not have time to enjoy the unique splendor that is Washington in April.  My friends at the State Department tell me that DC’s thousands of cherry trees – originally presented as gifts by the Mayor of Tokyo to celebrate Japanese/American friendship – blossomed as though on cue, and that the city was heavy with the sweet perfume of the flowers.

The Tidal Basin in full flower.

The Tidal Basin in full flower.

There was, fortunately, time for an Embassy dinner hosted by Dawn and Roy Ferguson in the tony Georgetown district.  Ambassador Ferguson is a highly effective envoy for New Zealand, and he and Dawn have been good friends to my partner and me.  I have enjoyed their hospitality on multiple occasions.  I understand that the dinner guests – including the PM, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, and Friends of New Zealand Congressional Caucus co-chair Rick Larsen (of Washington State) – had a marvelous evening and a good bit of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc and Amisfield Pinot Noir.