Technology & Trade
Commentary

Fighting Terrorism at a Store Near You

in Program

Brian Finlay discusses the commercial opportunities available to private businesses willing to engage former Soviet Union WMD specialists.

 

Net Impact Leading Business
October 2007

Sixty-five years ago this month, the Manhattan Project was launched in the desert sands of New Mexico. By 1945, some of the most brilliant scientists of the time had succeeded in developing and detonating three nuclear weapons. With that, and in partnership with the Soviet Union, America would help touch off a nuclear arms race lasting 42 years, producing a combined total of more than 125,000 nuclear warheads.

Today, sixteen years after the end of that Cold War, more than 25,000 of those warheads remain in the US and Russia arsenals. At least nine countries, possibly ten, possess nuclear weapons. What’s more, bomb grade nuclear materials, enough to make thousands more weapons, sit in poorly guarded nuclear reactors in dozens of countries around the world.

Black market capitalists are selling illicit technologies to Iran and North Korea, helping them to develop their own weapons programs. Osama bin Laden has declared it a “religious duty” to obtain an atomic bomb. And although the United States Government has spent more than $13 billion over the past decade and a half to address these enduring threats, most experts agree that the likelihood of a nuclear attack has only grown since the end of the Cold War.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, a committed group of American businesses and entrepreneurs stepped in to assist and even outperform the US government in countering the nuclear threat. Where the US government has seen a national security threat to be addressed, a small group of wise businesses and venture capitalists have seen commercial opportunity.

Pairing the goals of business development with national security, their story is one of doing well by doing good.

Just as the massive military build-up of the Cold War had encouraged innovation here in the United States-like microwave ovens, smoke detectors, and the internet-forty seven years of competition also left the post-Soviet states with a huge, highly trained, and comparatively inexpensive pool of underutilized scientific talent. While that community continues to represent a proliferation challenge for security experts, it also presents tremendous-though poorly understood- opportunities.

To date, American government incentives to private industry have led the private sector and former Soviet scientists to develop edible vaccines, safer airbags, new hand and fingerprint technologies, an advanced explosive detection system, and even teeth whitening strips. In FY2002 alone, sixteen private firms willing to tap local talent in the former Soviet Union generated $23.95 million from their activities. Equity markets responded favorably to their new technologies, generating $40.6 million in investment from private, institutional, and venture capital investors. And most significantly, more than 563 permanent high-paying technical jobs were created in the former Soviet Union, ensuring that the potentially nefarious talents of former weaponeers were not siphoned off to work for North Korea or Osama bin Laden.

President Bush has asserted repeatedly that the greatest national security threat facing our country is the possibility of a nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon in the hands of a terrorist group. Today, the United States maintains the largest and most potent military force in the history of the world to mitigate that possibility. But in the age of terrorism, of information flows and international trade and travel, military force is no longer adequate to defend ourselves. The tools of catastrophic terrorism are increasingly less likely to be rooted in the acquisition of advanced weaponry, and more likely to be facilitated by highly trained individuals utilizing their talents for destructive ends.

Private companies need to take a more serious role in shaping the strategic environment in which they operate if they are to continue to reap the rewards that stability provides. It is in the interest of both the business community and of government to develop new public-private partnerships to deny would-be proliferators access to weapons, materials, technologies, and the scientific capacity to design, develop, and build a nuclear or other weapon of mass destruction.

 

 

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