Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR): The New Dot-Com Bubble?

in Program

By Brian Finlay – Renowned evolutionary biologist W. D. Hamilton observed in 1971 that animals fleeing a predator are predisposed to move to the center of the escaping pack. He concluded that the conglomeration emerges not from synchronized organization by the group, but from the uncoordinated behavior of self-seeking individuals. The bubble and bust of the late-1990s is a prime example of this innate human phenomenon. “Dot-coms” capitalized on new technologies and proliferated, fueled by wealthy venture capitalists more concerned with quick returns than proven business models. Individual investors mirrored the movements of their neighbors and the massive buying frenzy was perpetuated. By 2001, the bubble had popped and millions of dollars in short-term gains were lost in unsustainable investments.

This cycle of optimism followed by catastrophic failure is not new to human history. Alarmingly, US efforts to prevent the spread of weapons and materials of mass destruction may become the next bubble to burst–a good investment gone bad as a result of political predilections to expedience and short-sighted “get-secure-quick” schemes.

Fifteen years since their inception, the Cooperative Nonproliferation programs operated by the US Departments of Defense, Energy, and State are judged to be an unparalleled foreign policy success. Efforts to secure nuclear weapons led to the denuclearization of three former Soviet republics and identified hundreds of tons of weapons-grade nuclear material from former Soviet states, rendering it unavailable to those committed to developing a weapon of mass destruction.

Efforts dedicated to addressing the human dimension of the WMD threat have been the most undervalued leg of the nonproliferation triad of weapons, materials, and expertise since the programs’ beginnings in 1992. In addition to the political challenges in selling these programs to a Congress bent on quantifiable metrics of success, some experts maintain that the threat has ameliorated itself through a combination of scientist migration to the West, retirement, and death. More recently, they assert that an energy rich Russia should no longer need such financial support.

But these assumptions reflect a dangerous lack of foresight into the nature and ultimate purpose of cooperative nonproliferation. In the West, the nonproliferation industry rests upon a solid foundation of supporters both inside and outside of government who advocate for and directly support US government programming–functional specialists, NGOs and the private sector. Without this constituency, nonproliferation programming would likely fall victim to competing demands on government resources. The importance of engaging human capacity goes beyond the immediate nonproliferation concerns of the Soviet scientific community once involved with offensive weapons programs. “Redirection” programs are a critical component of a strategy of sustainability–building an industry of supporters who will advocate for and support nonproliferation objectives once Western funding sunsets–a reality facing host countries in the former Soviet Union in the not-too-distant future.

These programs can also make substantial contributions to economic development in the host country, setting the conditions necessary for transparency, partnership and the rule of law. Without nurturing local demand and building trust within host countries, much of the US investment may be squandered once Western security funding sunsets. While the CTR and related programs have proven a spectacular success in the near term, they have failed to transform the US-Russia security relationship from one of competition to one of collaboration. As target dates for completion of the US-financed activities in former Soviet countries draw near, there is an unwillingness to finance equipment maintenance, as well as insufficient local buy-in to preserve security procedures that US taxpayers have spent millions of dollars to institutionalize.

In short, while the weapons and materials security program components of cooperative nonproliferation remain successful, the fundamentals supporting sustained nonproliferation activities are weak. Few powerful constituencies exist locally to advocate for their continuation once Western programs expire. By continuing to discount the role of programs focused on the human dimension of the proliferation challenge, we fail to address the proliferation threat in its totality.

To date, the US government has spent approximately US$13 billion on programs designed to manage the enduring threat posed by the former Soviet Union’s WMD legacy. Of that, approximately $1.3 billion–just ten percent–has been appropriated for scientist engagement activities. Only now are we realizing that the fundamentals that support propagation of the nonproliferation programs once US government “venture capital” dries up are weak. Like the bubble, capitalizing upon short term gain without regard for long term sustainability could erase the impressive gains we have made since the end of the Cold War. The failure to realize enduring value from these significant investments would represent a disaster on the part of the US government and present a potentially catastrophic blow to US national security.


Photo Credit: Freder/istockphoto

 Brian Finlay co-directs the Cooperative Nonproliferation Program, a multifaceted project designed to accelerate existing efforts and design innovative new initiatives aimed at more rapidly and sustainably securing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, materials, and expertise.

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices