Commentary

Next Steps for Nuclear Security

in Program

By Brian Finlay – Even the President’s most vocal critics are having difficulty finding fault with the results of his recent Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. The gathering of 47 world leaders was long overdue. Since the 1990s, it has been clear that the al Qaeda terrorist network has been devoted to obtaining and using a nuclear weapon. Around the globe there have been eighteen known cases of theft or diversion of highly enriched uranium or plutonium-the critical ingredients of a nuclear weapon. Yet incredibly, experts agree that the world’s efforts to prevent this possibility have been lacking.  

In the final communiqué of the Summit, the leaders of all participating countries agreed to redouble their efforts to secure all vulnerable nuclear material within four years-an effort that has been ongoing for at least the last eighteen. While it is true that the leaders’ commitment to lock down materials of mass destruction wherever they are found is a critical step forward, ultimately this will be a pyrrhic victory unless these leaders seriously rethink how we modernize our efforts to prevent proliferation in the face of the dramatically changing threat. 

Throughout the Cold War, a relatively small number of wealthy countries-principally in the developed North-possessed the materials necessary to fashion a nuclear weapon. Over time, these materials proliferated as more and more governments took control of HEU and plutonium stockpiles.

Still, the threat of nuclear terrorism seemed manageable if only these governments exercised rigorous control over limited stockpiles.  Today, the nature of the threat has changed. No longer do governments alone determine who gets the bomb. Globalization, privatization of government-controlled interests, and economic expansion and competition both in the North and across the Developing World has meant that more actors-including private industry and individuals-in more countries, in more regions of the world have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons than at any other point in human history. Indeed, today’s notable proliferation challenges in North Korea and Iran are in large measure the result of unscrupulous private sector companies and nefarious individuals operating in countries never before thought to be part of the proliferation supply chain willingly developing, sharing, funding, or shipping sensitive technologies. This occurs while subverting governments’ preventive efforts, or as often, while governments willingly look the other way in the face of greater economic interests or competing security challenges.

Convincing governments, including the 145 countries not participating in the President’s Summit, and a rapidly expanding array of private sector entities that proliferation is, in the words of Obama, an “unprecedented threat” will be no easy task. Consider this:  

  • The US Department of State estimates that Southeast Asia accounts for about a third of the estimated 700,000 annual victims of human trafficking across international borders each year;
  • Worldwide, one death in three is from an infectious or communicable disease, such as HIV/AIDS with almost all of these deaths occur in the non industrialized world;
  • And each year across Latin America, more than 100,000 people are killed by violent crime often involving handguns and linked to the growing trade in illicit drugs.

In the face of these challenges, many governments will never see the seemingly distant threat of nuclear terrorism as a preeminent challenge to their security. Nor is it reasonable that we expect they should. Yet meanwhile, from Southeast Asia to Africa and Latin America, countries of the Developing World are become increasingly attractive acquisition or transshipment hubs for terrorist entities seeking the bomb. 

As a follow up to the Summit, the President should certainly work to hold the 47 countries represented accountable for the important promises they made in Washington. But as importantly, he should be thinking innovatively regarding how to reach out to governments and private sector companies, particularly those of the developing world whose priorities are often elsewhere, but whose exploitation by committed terrorists could significantly advance the likelihood of a nuclear 9/11. This can be achieved by focusing on the “dual-use” aspects of nonproliferation and other security assistance. Across Africa, the same assistance necessary to comply with the Biological Weapons Convention can be leveraged to enhance national public health infrastructures. In Central America, security dollars directed to prevent permeation of nuclear materials across porous borders will also help prevent small arms and drug trafficking, principle causes of youth gangs and violence. And export controls and port security enhancements in Caribbean countries can promote efficiencies at burgeoning transshipment hubs, thus ensuring economic diversification and expansion. 

Such an approach is not a panacea to prevent WMD terrorism. But by better coordinating and leverage security and development assistance, a rising tide can raise all boats and promote buy-in and long term sustainability.

Photo Credit: Chuck Kennedy, Official White House Photo


 Brian Finlay directs the Managing Across Boundaries Program at the Stimson Center.

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