WASHINGTON (CN) - Keeping nuclear material away from terrorist organizations is the issue drawing more than 50 global heads of state to Washington on Thursday.
But the self-proclaimed Islamic State, commonly called ISIL or ISIS, is not the only item on the agenda of the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit, a two-day event kicking off this morning at a convention center in downtown Washington.
Attendees will also be looking for ways to draw down the number of weapons in the world, especially in places like the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula, while putting the world on a path toward increased cooperation on nuclear agreements.
"So there's a robust, forward agenda, there's no question," Laura Holgate, NSC Senior Director for Weapons of Mass Destruction and Arms Control, said in a press call Tuesday. "And what we're trying to do in the summit is establish a momentum that will carry forward through the existing institutions and in our various bilateral and multilateral conversations."
Russia has announced it will not attend the summit, casting questions on the future of international cooperation on nuclear security.
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications at the White House, chided Russia for its "missed opportunity."
"They've been a partner in eliminating dangerous materials; they've been a partner in promoting nonproliferation due to the P5+1 agreement with Iran," Rhodes said. "And, frankly, all they're doing is isolating themselves in not participating as they have in the past."
Like recent international agreements on climate change, the Nuclear Security Summit encourages countries to make nonbinding commitments called gift baskets, which allow countries to take steps toward greater nuclear security on their own terms, rather than through a rigid international accord.
Amy Nelson, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said these gift baskets are "as much of an incentive as a constraint" for countries, especially those without nuclear weapons or refined materials that would be hesitant to move toward a world where they would never be on equal footing with powers that already have those capabilities.
Since President Barack Obama announced the first Nuclear Security Summit in a 2009 speech from Prague, the meetings have been focused both on the nuclear weapons states already control and the 2,000 metric tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium that could someday become weapons, Rhodes said.
"We know that terrorist organizations have the desire to get access to these raw materials and their desire to have a nuclear device," Rhodes said in a press call. "That was certainly the case with al-Qaida, and that is certainly the case with ISIL as well."
The summit will have a special meeting for world leaders to discuss the threats ISIL and other terrorist organizations pose on global security, a decision made in January but recently relevant after ISIL's brazen attacks in Brussels.
"And having this many leaders together at once provides us an important opportunity, in the wake of the recent attacks in Brussels and other countries, to address how we can enhance our capabilities to work together to confront the threat posed by ISIL, both in the context of preventing the spread of nuclear materials and also with respect to enhancing our own counterterrorism activities" Rhodes said.
Nelson called it "kind of astounding" that the world lacks generally accepted standards for securing weapons-grade material. The summit won't produce some new international institution, but it could help the world get closer to righting this wrong, she added.
Rhodes confirmed this would be a focus at the summit.
"We want to be essentially raising the global norm related to nuclear security so that it's difficult for anybody to have any access to those materials," he said.
But other, nonterrorist threats exist as well, and the administration plans to use the summit to address some of these concerns, especially with respect to North Korea and Iran.
Thursday morning President Obama will meet with South Korean President Park Guen-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to discuss the threat of North Korea, Rhodes said.
"I think the primary focus of the trilateral meeting will be North Korea," said Dan Kritenbrink, NSC senior director for Asian affairs. "And I think the three leaders will clearly demonstrate their unity in our commitment and our firm resolve to deter and defend against North Korean aggression."
Kritenbrink said he expects the leaders to call for other countries to help the United Nations enact measures on the reclusive dictatorship.
Later in the day, Obama will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the same subject before hosting a dinner at the White House Thursday night with all of the world leaders, where they will share perspectives on nuclear terror, Rhodes said.
On Friday morning the president will shift focus to Iran, when he will meet with the nations that helped craft the Iranian nuclear deal last year and the international organization tasked with monitoring Iran's compliance with the agreement.
Rhodes cast the nuclear deal, which received widespread criticism from lawmakers stateside, as an example of "how steady and principled diplomacy can be successful in achieving outcomes and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons."
While the administration seems optimistic about the summit's impact and its importance, Nelson said there are some concerns.
Calling Russia's decision to skip the summit "not ideal," Nelson noted the concern that "outlier states" could follow that lead and not bring anything to the table in future international negotiations.
But while 2016's nuclear summit is the last one scheduled, Nelson was hopeful countries would see the benefit and work together to move beyond the responsive arms control of the Cold War to more proactive nuclear safeguards, which she called "arms control for our time."
"A lot of this is just plain common sense," Nelson said. "There's a lot of dangerous material spread across the planet, we should do something about it."
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