Commentary

Fifteen Forty or Fight: This Bush Initiative is Worth Keeping

in Program

By Brian Finlay – Much legitimate criticism has been levied in recent months over the Bush Administration’s record on nonproliferation. In the past eight years, North Korea was allowed to expand its atomic arsenal, Iran moved progressively closer to crossing the nuclear threshold, relations with Russia deteriorated, and the Administration’s unilateralism and “a la carte” multilateralism have been blamed for imbuing the global nonproliferation dialogue with a sense of conflict and contempt over collaboration. But despite the disappointing record of the last administration-a record not altogether different from that of the Clinton Administration-a survey of the facts suggests that, in fact, much good also transpired. We should not let the bellicose talk of the neoconservatives, nor the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, taint the nonproliferation successes of the last eight years. Such an attitude fails to leverage success in favor of the assignment of blame.

In many ways, UN Security Council Resolution 1540 encapsulates this current debate between the left and the right. Pushed by President Bush in response to 9/11 and revelations over the nuclear black market of A. Q. Khan, it is today criticized by many Democrats as a half measure toward multilateralism that was flawed by design and in its implementation. Many castigate the utility of 1540 and suggest that its record of success is meager at best. But in many cases, these criticisms are often knee-jerk reactions to a Bush instrument rather than a reasoned analysis of the facts. A closer look reveals that 1540 has yielded some important successes and is far from the catastrophic failure that skeptics claim.

Consider this: Even amidst an especially corrosive political environment created, in large measure, by the war in Iraq, the international community-largely at the exhortation of the US government-managed to:

  • Develop sufficient consensus to pass the original Resolution that included an array of binding obligations on all UN Member States;
  • Follow that with two subsequent extensions through April 2011;
  • Recruit and retain a highly skilled, multinational group of Committee Experts to guide the Resolution’s implementation;
  • Receive implementation reports from at least 84% of UN Members;
  • Instigate national planning around the world on domestic implementation strategies;
  • Undertake critical outreach and awareness raising in key regions of proliferation concern including Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and South America;
  • Gain support from regional bodies including the European Union, the OSCE, the OAS, CARICOM, and the ASEAN Regional Forum;
  • Respond to targeted requests for implementation assistance in Mongolia, the Caribbean, and elsewhere; and
  • Develop a common matrix cataloguing all relevant legislation and measures along with their enforcement, allowing for information sharing and the mutual leveraging of capabilities.

All of this was made possible, in large measure, because of the efforts of the US government-under George W. Bush. The commitment of the new administration should be an opportunity not to lament the lack of progress and reflect upon what could have been, but instead to focus on how we can leverage the progress we have made thus far and turn 1540 into a centerpiece for multilateral cooperation on nonproliferation.

To do so, the Obama Administration should focus on three things:

  1. Resources: Inevitably, progress on nonproliferation will require more resources. The UN Office of Disarmament Affairs has led 1540 awareness-raising efforts around the world, but spends as much time raising money as conducting that critical outreach. The requisite budget is not large, but dedicated resources will be key to success. In addition, the requests for assistance that have been submitted to the Committee in New York are invariably responded to by the US government. Other governments should be encouraged to step up, perhaps in conjunction with existing commitments under the G8 Global Partnership or the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. One critical area requiring immediate resources is funding for the comprehensive review of 1540 as mandated in the Committee’s Eighth Program of Work adopted in March.
  2. Capacity: Of course, the need for resources goes beyond the financial realm. It is also a question of staff capacity. To implement 1540, a global nonproliferation agenda requiring the collaboration of all 192 members of the United Nations across the nuclear, biological, and chemical fields in government, the private sector, and the NGO community, the US government has dedicated a single individual-without a full time staff or dedicated budget-to coordinate this effort. While he has done a yeoman’s job, the mandate far outstrips the office’s capacity and status. As absurd as this situation may be, it is one more person than any other government has dedicated to 1540 implementation. In most cases, 1540 is one of dozens of issues on the plates of UN Missions-and rarely, if ever, a top priority. 
  3. Innovative Thinking: In regions where 1540 has realized the most progress-for instance along America’s “third border” in the Caribbean-it has not been on the merits or ideals of proliferation prevention. Instead, governments have leveraged 1540 as a “dual-use” tool to not only shore up their nonproliferation obligations internationally, but to meet pressing security and development objectives at home: economic development, public health, efficiencies of domestic trade infrastructures. The Administration should demand such “outside-the-box” thinking to advance sustainable nonproliferation.

UNSCR 1540 has all the characteristics necessary to become the President’s centerpiece of a new collaborative global strategy to prevent the diffusion of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons around the world. The White House should build upon the Resolution’s record of success to advance this critical goal.

Image Credit: Patrick Gruban, Wikimedia Commons


 Brian Finlay directs the Managing Across Boundaries Program and co-directs the Cooperative Nonproliferation Program at the Stimson Center.

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