Commentary

The Global Partnership Working Group: Preserving Your Father’s Arms Control

in Program

By Brian Finlay – Amidst calls for the forum’s dissolution, and at its most recent summit in L’Aquila, Italy, the G8 offered a new approach to preventing the illicit diversion of WMD knowledge. The Global Partnership Working Group (GPWG)-the steering committee for G8 efforts to prevent proliferation-welcomed the ideas enthusiastically, but may have inadvertently added fuel to the argument that the G8 has outlived its usefulness. The current proposal is a flop; it fails to take into account how much the global environment has changed since the Global Partnership was launched in 2002.

Founded at the G8 Summit in Kananaskis, Canada, the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction is approaching the finish line of its ten-year mandate. With a total financial commitment-which has yet to be met-of $20 billion, the effort has undertaken a complex array of projects across the states of the former Soviet Union ranging from chemical weapons destruction to the dismantlement of Russian nuclear submarines, the physical protection and disposition of nuclear materials, and the engagement of experts trained in the dark arts of WMD development.

Thanks to the Global Partnership, the world is a safer place today than it was in 2002. The massive, and often ill-protected, WMD legacy of the Soviet Union has contracted significantly over the past seven years. But while Partnership countries generally, and the GPWG specifically, have improved and accelerated the “threat reduction” activities launched initially by the United States and Russia in 1992, they have yet to prove themselves capable of moving beyond the existing paradigm with innovative concepts that address the new challenges of proliferation in a rapidly globalizing world.

The end of the Cold War dramatically changed not only the strategic but also the economic environment in which proliferation can flourish. Over the past two decades, global foreign direct investment has increased by 784%. Spurred by significant reductions in tariffs, global trade has grown from $1.08 trillion in 1990 to $3.83 trillion in 2008. The end of the Cold War itself touched off an unprecedented transfer of a growing menu of sophisticated-and potentially dangerous-technologies from government to private hands. As private companies, initially in the developed world, gained access to new technologies, they sought to maximize profit and efficiency through outsourcing, off-shoring, supply-chaining, and other activities that drove intellectual and manufacturing capacity beyond Western shores. The result is that while knowledge creation, competitiveness, and wealth creation all continue to be dominated by the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan, leading indicators also point to an emerging innovation capacity among newly industrialized and even developing world economies.  The biological sciences are particularly telling: Cuba, for example, was one of the first countries to have developed a vaccine against the group B meningococcus. Egypt has developed several innovative diagnostic and therapeutic products for hepatitis C. India developed and now produces a recombinant hepatitis B vaccine and is one of several developing countries, including Brazil, that has launched a major nanotechnology initiative.

The Global Partnership must be retooled to recognize, leverage, and address the existing realities of a world where proliferation can occur from more sources in more corners of the globe than ever before. To date, it has not proven itself capable. Nowhere is this more apparent than in its existing proposal to develop a coordinated approach to the threat of WMD knowledge proliferation and scientist engagement. While the GPWG deserves credit for bringing increased attention to this often-neglected leg of the nonproliferation “triad,” its proposal offers more of the same: periodic “consultations,” target community education, the sharing of best practices and development of “sustainable partnerships” across states, and, in one throw-away line at the end, ill-defined “encouragement, when possible, of a proactive private sector role.”

What the GPWG fails to recognize is that the role of governments in innovation-including innovation in the “dual-use sciences”-has diminished so significantly so as to be dwarfed today by private industry. Privately-owned companies not only produce and operate nuclear, chemical, and biological industrial equipment, they also carry out, by far, the greatest share of the basic R&D for the relevant technologies, goods, and methods of application. University research is often commercially funded. And even governments have expanded public-private partnerships in some of the most sensitive areas of technology in order to take advantage of cost reductions and innovation. By almost every measure, the private sector in G8 countries, and in others around the globe, leads the way in technology innovation-and concomitantly, in the potential technology and knowledge proliferation to terrorists or committed state proliferators.

Of course, the array of private entities that could aid proliferators-either deliberately or unwittingly-goes far beyond those firms that operate fuel enrichment facilities, experiment with select biological agents, or produce toxic chemicals. A broad swath of dual-use technology innovators and manufacturers is also involved in information security, telecommunications, sensors, lasers, and many other sectors that could have direct applications in proliferation efforts. This network of companies is growing more quickly and in more countries of the globe than ever before-even amidst the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression. 

Unless the private sector becomes the focal point of global efforts to prevent the illicit acquisition of dual-use technologies, and these efforts are seen in the best interests of business, no amount of scientist “education,” government “coordination,” UN/IAEA/BTWC “cooperation,” or G8 “collaboration” will mitigate the threats associated with the exponential growth of global innovative capacity. Indeed, it is precisely this narrow thinking that discourages the private sector from engaging government in our country and in countries around the globe.

Unless the Global Partnership can learn to think and act more innovatively to address the evolving proliferation challenges of the twenty-first century, the effort will (and should) experience the same fate as our fathers’ Oldsmobile.

Image Credit: E. Chickering/Library of Congress


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

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