Technology & Trade

Developing Our Way out of WMD Terror

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With a leak resistant system impractical, ensuring that every government has a stake in proliferation prevention, and is incentivized and capable of playing nonproliferation hardball must be critical new element of our WMD proliferation prevention efforts.

This piece originally appeared on Across the Aisle


When Heads of State gathered for the opening of the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York last month, they were welcomed to a headquarters with a leaky roof. Plastic sheeting was installed previously to protect desks and computers in the library from dripping water, where a marble wall has threatened to collapse. Asbestos insulation has yet to be replaced, and some components of the core infrastructure are so antiquated that spare parts are no longer made.

In many ways, the decay of the UN headquarters is an apt metaphor for the world organization’s increasingly antiquated capacity to meet what is unquestionably the most important-and some might say “transcendent”-issue we face as a global community of nations: the growing likelihood of the spread and perhaps inevitable use of a nuclear weapon.

Preventing that catastrophe should be of critical importance to the UN and all Member States. To wit, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently called nuclear terrorism, “one of the most serious threats of our time,” noting that, “even one such attack could inflict mass casualties and create immense suffering and unwanted change in the world forever.”

But working from their 1950s edifice, the UN works to prevent this evolving 21st century threat with a decidedly 20th Century toolkit.

When the current nonproliferation regime was designed, the Cold War raged. Only a handful of countries had developed nuclear weapons. Strict controls on materials and technology by those governments, a non-permissive global nonproliferation regime, and downward pressure from the superpowers on their allies to go nuclear meant that proliferation prevention translated into the restriction of supply. The same was true-albeit less practicable-of biological and chemical weapons. Provided the “great powers” could keep the “bad stuff” under lock and key, proliferation was largely manageable. And the regime was largely successful.

But by the 1980s, the simplicity and stability of that regime began to erode. Globalization, privatization, unprecedented technological innovation, the ease and rapidity of international communications and transportation, free trade, financial liberalization, and global economic development meant that more countries, and more non-state actors-including many legitimate but some ill-intentioned private companies, and even some well-financed terrorist organizations-gained access to WMD materials and potentially dangerous dual-use technology than ever before. Intelligence agencies around the globe recognized that the locus of proliferation concern was expanding from the developed north-Germany, Russia, France, the United States-to far-flung production states like Malaysia, Burma, or Sudan, and to critical transshipment locations in Dubai and Panama.

As the pipes rusted at UN headquarters, the traditional tools of technology denial remained important, but became inadequate instruments to address the threat. No longer was proliferation prevention the purview of modern industrialized states. Increasingly, developing states became both consumers as well as producers of potentially dangerous dual use equipment.

With a leak resistant system impractical, ensuring that every government has a stake in proliferation prevention, and is incentivized and capable of playing nonproliferation hardball must be critical new element of our WMD proliferation prevention efforts. Ensuring that developing countries have an interest and a stake in nonproliferation is the one of the great unmet national security challenges of our time.

Fortunately, since adoption of Security Council Resolution 1540 in April 2004, the United Nations has the unique capacity to bring the developing world into the global regime in a way that plays to their enlightened self interest.

In response to the A Q Khan affair, the UN sought to strengthen the global nonproliferation regime by mandating all Member States to implement a set of supply-side controls and criminalize proliferant activities within their territories. The Resolution included a provision encouraging states with the capacity to provide assistance to do so, and called upon states in need to request such assistance. Unfortunately, 1540 has faced serious obstacles to realization of its full potential. Chief among these is donor states’ inability to bridge the security/development divide and leverage all foreign assistance for common good.

Many of the back end capacities required by any government to fully implement 1540 have a logical nexus with issues that developing governments have repeatedly expressed as central to their development: public health, citizen security, economic expansion, educational and infrastructure development and so on. This happy coincidence provides a unique opportunity to service both security and development goals of the international community.

For instance, the United Nations and donor states have a unique opportunity to use a security instrument (1540), drawing upon “security” appropriations, to help developing world governments modernize their port facilities-with a security objective for the donor, and an economic and competitiveness goal for the recipient. That same assistance used for nonproliferation border control and training could also help control human trafficking, fight corruption and organized crime. Legal and other tertiary education can be leveraged to prosecute WMD crimes while promoting the rule of law. And construction of a modern public health laboratory capacity to benefit local healthcare can also aid compliance with 1540 and the Biological Weapons Convention.

UN Security Council Resolution 1540 has the potential to do what too many policymakers and policy wonks speak of in the abstract: bridge the security-development divide. By leveraging both in mutual support rather than in isolation or worse, competition, we will develop a modern response to the serious and evolving threat of proliferation. Until the international community exercises the same ingenuity and innovation that terrorists and committed proliferators have visited upon us, we will never possess an adequate toolkit to counter this threat to our security and development.


Please visit the Partnership for a Secure America’s blog Across the Aisle


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