Obama’s special show of respect for Nazarbayev and Kazakhstan at Seoul nuclear summit

30 марта 2012, 14:37

Because Kazakhstan has a nuclear-disarmament record it can be proud of, President Nursultan Nazarbayev always enjoys a moment in the sun when he attends an international nuclear conference.

At the Seoul nuclear summit this week the sun was shining so strong that an anti-tanning lotion might have been in order.

American President Barack Obama went out of his way at the summit to salute Nazarbayev and the government and people of Kazakhstan for what they’ve done to make the world safer from nuclear weapons.

Obama’s recognition came partly in words, but even more unmistakably in deeds.

“Across the board, Kazakhstan has been a key leader” in efforts to secure nuclear materials, Obama said before meeting with Nazarbayev one-on-one on the first day of the summit March 26.

“I know that we will have an opportunity during this bilateral meeting to also discuss some of the other efforts that Kazakhstan has made when it comes to highly enriched uranium, plutonium, their efforts at helping to develop an international fuel bank that can lessen the need for countries to pursue their own enrichment capabilities,” he said.

But Obama’s salute to Nazarbayev’s anti-proliferation efforts came not just in what Obama said, but also in his decision to put Kazakhstan’s president at his right shoulder during summit discussion sessions.

nuclear security summit

Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan

I first suspected that Kazakhstan was being accorded special U.S. recognition during the summit when I watched a snippet of CNN’s coverage of the event.

Part of the CNN report was video of the summit photographer taking a group shot of the 50 heads of state attending the event.

I was intrigued by the lineup of the leaders in the photo shoot.

As the one who had started these summits to secure nuclear material two years ago, Obama was – appropriately -- in the first row, center stage.

On his left shoulder was South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. That made sense: South Korea was hosting the summit, so protocol dictated that he be beside Obama.

The person that Obama placed on his right shoulder might have surprised some observers, however:  Nazarbayev.

It’s not that Nazarbayev hasn’t made a huge contribution to anti-proliferation efforts. He has.

It’s just that Obama could have chosen the leader of a world power such as China, Russia or Germany to be on his right shoulder rather than the leader of a developing country of 17 million.

The choice of Nazarbayev was an unmistakable sign of Obama’s and the United States’ appreciation of and respect for Kazakhstan’s efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Nazarbayev halted nuclear testing at the Semipalatinsk test site even before the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1992, and rid Kazakhstan of the world’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal in the mid-1990s.

Two years ago he led a combined Kazakhstan-U.S.-Russian effort to secure tons of fissionable material at a closed-down reactor in western Kazakhstan. The three partners transported the material – enough to make 800 nuclear bombs – to a storage facility in eastern Kazakhstan.

In addition to these anti-proliferation efforts, Nazarbayev has been trying to persuade another regional power -- Iran -- to give up any ambitions it might have of producing a nuclear weapon.

In fact, he wrote an opinion piece about the matter that appeared in the International Herald Tribune on the first day of the Seoul summit.

Noting that “the real intent of Iran’s nuclear program is causing concern across the world,” Nazarbayev wrote:

“Kazakhstan’s experience shows that nations can reap huge benefits from turning their backs on nuclear weapons. I have no doubt that we are a more prosperous, stable country, with more influence and friends in the world, because of our decision.”

I suspected that if Obama were according Nazarbayev special deference in the official photo shoot, he was doing so elsewhere in the summit – and that turned out to be the case.

Photos of the summit discussion sessions revealed that Lee was sitting immediately to Obama’s left and Nazarbayev immediately to Obama’s right, with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Nazarbayev’s right shoulder.

I asked a friend in the diplomatic corps if he had noticed additional signs of the respect that Obama was showing Nazarbayev.

Yes, he said, Obama chose Nazarbayev to “deliver the third substantive address at the summit.”

Since South Korea was the summit host, Lee delivered the welcoming address.

Then the podium went to Obama. Then to Hu, the head of a country that’s already powerful and is becoming more so.

After Hu, the floor went to Nazarbayev.

My diplomat friend also pointed out that Obama accorded Nazarbayev additional respect by meeting with him one-on-one in this second summit, as he had the first one in Washington in April 2010.

Altogether, the American president huddled one-on-one with only a handful of other heads of state in Seoul

Obama chose not to attend the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Astana in October of 2010, sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton instead.

His decision at the greatest show Kazakhstan has ever held must have disappointed Nazarbayev. It certainly disappointed many rank-and-file Kazakhs whom I’ve talked with. They really wanted to see the leader of the free world in their capital city.

The recognition that Obama accorded Nazarbayev during the Seoul summit must have eased some of that disappointment.

And it was there for all the world to see.

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