Technology & Trade

The Proliferation Security Initiative: Too Much, Too Soon

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By Alex Reed – The threat of WMD terrorism continues to
loom large over American national security, as evidenced by a recent
National Intelligence Estimate warning of the resurgence of al Qaeda. Al
Qaeda, after all, has explicitly stated its intent to acquire a nuclear
capability. In recent years the Bush Administration has spearheaded
numerous initiatives meant to neutralize that threat, including the G8
Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass
Destruction, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540, and the
Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. Ironically, the activity
that receives the greatest rhetorical support from the administration,
the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), is, in its current form,
capable of only modest, albeit important, nonproliferation achievements.
Until PSI can develop a more formalized structure, WMD proliferation
priorities dictate that greater emphasis should be placed on other
components of the US nonproliferation toolkit.

First announced by
President Bush in 2003, PSI is an amorphous set of interdiction
activities that aims to foster cooperation among states in order to
prevent illicit trafficking of weapons of mass destruction, related
materials, and delivery systems. States involved in these cooperative
activities share lessons learned, work to enhance interoperability and
communication, and pledge to interdict vessels potentially carrying
illicit materials if given good reason to do so. In order to prepare
states for potential interdictions, countries have used PSI as a forum
to carry out ship-boarding and interdiction exercises. The US has been
particularly active in PSI, having signed several ship-boarding
agreements with other states that allow US agents access to vessels on
the high seas suspected of illicit WMD trafficking.

Despite the
admirable aims of PSI, the initiative has several serious drawbacks.
States involved in PSI are quick to mention that PSI is an activity, not
an organization, which appeals to governments looking to support
nonproliferation aims without dealing with a messy bureaucracy. However,
while an Operational Experts Group exists to help guide interdiction
activities, there is no over-arching organization that can serve as an
operation center point and a clearinghouse for information. This ad hoc
arrangement inhibits the sustainable cooperation the activity is meant
to engender. Nor is there a central focal point to coordinate and
therefore leverage PSI activities with other national and multilateral
nonproliferation activities. To make PSI truly effective and successful,
participating states should trade some flexibility for a standing
organization that can guide activities. Institutionalized communication
avenues and actual state membership (rather than mere expressions of
support for PSI’s Interdiction Principals) are potential starting points
for this transformation.

Additionally, many legal questions
surround PSI activities. Because PSI lacks a specific mandate under
international law, cooperation on interdiction activities must be on a
voluntary basis. Every vessel that participates in international
maritime trade has a “flag state,” which is the state to which the
vessel is registered. According to the United Nations Convention on the
Law of the Sea, only the flag state is legally allowed to stop and
inspect the ship, unless jurisdiction has been specifically granted to
another state (which is why the US has signed the various ship-boarding
agreements), or the ship is violating another aspect of international
law. Countries attempting to acquire WMD materials and delivery systems
will be in no mood to cooperate. For example, if a vessel carrying
nuclear centrifuge components is headed to Iran, but it is flying
Venezuela’s flag and not violating any other international norms, PSI
countries will have to request permission from the Venezuelan Government
to interdict that ship�a request Venezuela is unlikely to grant.
While an argument can be made that trafficking WMD materials violates
the Convention’s stipulation that “the high seas shall be reserved for
peaceful purposes,” the legal ambiguity behind this justification would
risk turning an interdiction into an international incident.[1] Until PSI acquires the necessary UN Chapter VII mandate, comprehensive interdiction success will be out of PSI’s reach.

the emphasis on counterproliferation and interdiction distracts
governments from more important activities�mainly, securing WMD
materials at their source. While interdiction is an important component
of the nonproliferation regime, it is much more difficult to carry out
than material security enhancement. If terrorist groups cannot get their
hands on the materials necessary to build weapons of mass destruction,
there is no need to worry about trafficking and interdiction. Once bad
actors acquire the material, they are very difficult to track. Even the
best interdiction regime cannot overcome intelligence deficits. Some
governments may allow their material security efforts to stagnate,
believing that participation in PSI is an adequate contribution to
international nonproliferation. The US Government, as the founder and
leader of PSI, should make clear that PSI participation should be a
springboard into other efforts for states first entering the
nonproliferation arena. However, the US needs to get its own priorities
in order first.

For fiscal year 2008, the National Nuclear
Security Administration’s budget request for traditional Material
Protection, Control, and Accounting (MPC&A) programs that secure
nuclear material at its source is approximately $250 million, a rather
piddling amount considering its importance to national security.
According to Congressional Research Service estimates, $250 million
would not be enough to fund even a single day of the Iraq War, which was
initiated to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.[2]
If stemming the spread of WMDs is truly a high priority for the US
Government, significantly greater funding is needed to secure materials
at their source. MPC&A efforts come with the added benefit of having
a ready-made legal justification in the form of United Nations Security
Council Resolution 1540. States willing to offer aid should jump at the
chance to provide security assistance to any state that requests it.

states throw their full weight behind interdiction activities, they
should reconsider their priorities and avoid exaggerating PSI’s impact
while so much other nonproliferation work remains. Only after WMD
materials around the world are secured to a reasonable standard should
PSI become a high priority. In the interim, the initiative would benefit
greatly from a concerted effort to create a solid legal foundation for
interdiction, as well as from a cooperative undertaking to form a
standing organization. Until then, PSI seems to be a case of “too much,
too soon.”


For more information, please visit the Cooperative Nonproliferation Program’s Issue Brief on PSI.

Photo Credit: Clem Gaines/Defense Threat Reduction Agency

[1] United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Article 88.
[2] Average daily war costs taken from: Congressional Research Service, The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11 (Washington: Congressional Research Service, July 16, 2007): 2, accessed at:


Alex Reed is a Research Assistant with the Managing Across Boundaries Program at the Stimson Center.


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