International Order & Conflict
Policy Memo

Undermining Efforts to Prevent the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: International Governance on the Cheap

How sustained U.S. financial investment in organizations and initiatives that curb WMD proliferation benefits U.S. national interests and global security

Constrained and sometimes arbitrary financial support from member states to many international organizations, particularly those with critical international security functions, risks shortchanging their long-term confidence and makes balanced and objective planning difficult. For organizations devoted to countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, this can negatively impact the deliberation and diligence they require to investigate, analyze and act against state or other actors seeking to unbalance global security norms and architecture. The United States has a pivotal role to play in building support for a global WMD nonproliferation system that works to support U.S. national interests and global security. This will also necessarily involve building international consensus on institutions that do not provide good nonproliferation value-for-money, and seek to reform those organizations so they work towards the common good.

“In this world, you get what you pay for.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

What? Me Worry?

Less government means better government, as propounded by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, became in the twilight of the last century, a mantra of many western political leaders and the “Washington Consensus.” Coupled with residual distrust of foreign entanglements, this view permeated not just the U.S. domestic political arena, but U.S. foreign policy as well. For many international security institutions, including those seeking to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the consensus came to mean small zero-growth regular budgets, deferred investment in critical infrastructure, diverting existing funds to the crises of the moment, and increased reliance on voluntary donations – in some organizations accounting for more than the annual budget.

Adam Smith would not be amused. Smith saw the international arena as largely ungoverned interactions between states, not at all akin to an overly regulated domestic economy.  Indeed, he recognized the need for effective international institutions to manage international relations. Moreover, Smith believed that the arguments for less government intervention and free trade did not apply to matters of national security and foreign policy.  And, truly, in this case, two wrongs do not make a right.

Let’s focus on the impact this restrictive funding approach has had on an existential global security problem – WMD proliferation. The awareness of the risk posed by WMD proliferation increased significantly in the early twenty-first century.1Defined here to include nuclear, radiological, chemical, and biological weapons and their means of delivery. However, efforts to stop the spread and use of WMD prior to 9/11 focused on actions taken by states. Thus, the international order on WMD included agreements such as the Geneva Protocol of 1925, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT, 1970), the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC, 1975), the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC, 1997), the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM, 1987), and the four main export control supplier groups, i.e., the Australia Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), and the Wassenaar Arrangement. 

However, after 9/11 and other mass casualty attacks, attention shifted to non-state actors and their pursuit of WMD, including the use of the mail to spread Anthrax, the activities of the A.Q. Khan network, and the interest in WMD shown by Al-Qaeda and other terrorists. This shift led the United Nations (UN) Security Council to identify the proliferation of WMD to terrorist groups as a major threat to international peace and security in UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540 in April 2004. UNSCR 1540 changed the perceptual dynamic about the potential of terrorists and others to use WMD, and it quickened the development of new nonproliferation institutions.2The use of chemical and biological weapons in the mid-1990s by the Aum Shinrikyo group in Japan and the threat of “loose nukes” in the former Soviet Union in the 1990s did not have as an immediate impact on multilateral nonproliferation institutions as did the events of 9/11. In addition to UNSCR 1540, the early years of the century saw the creation of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), the G7 (then G8) Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction (GP), the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GCINT), the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT), and the amendment strengthening the CPPNM, among others.

In parallel, several existing international institutions adapted to these new threats and risks. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) gained a greater mandate to address nuclear security (further enhanced through the four Nuclear Security Summits). The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) increased its focus on chemical security to prevent the re-emergence of chemical weapons programs and took on even greater responsibilities with the use of chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq. The UN Security Council took unprecedented actions in seeking to end the WMD programs of Libya, the DPRK, and Iran, while the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs took on new responsibilities for investigations on the use of chemical and biological weapons and other nonproliferation activities. Several organizations added or expanded the prevention of WMD proliferation in their portfolio, such as the Financial Action Task Force, INTERPOL, and the World Customs Organizations. Similarly, several of the aforementioned supplier groups adapted their controls to increase their focus on non-state actor threats or threats from pre-existing state WMD programs.

The United States has had a leadership role in creating and maintaining every one of these agreements and institutions, as the nonproliferation of WMD became a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, especially after the end of the Cold War. The United States drove the development of the international legal and diplomatic landscape of WMD nonproliferation through the creation of these institutions, agreements, arrangements, and regimes. Proliferation of WMD has almost always depended upon international cooperation, so not surprisingly, effective efforts to prevent proliferation depend on multilateral cooperation and coordination.

Has the United States found these institutions useful? Conduct a simple thought experiment: Without them, which countries or non-state actors would now have significant stockpiles of, or access to, WMD that currently have none? How well could a single country (or the international community) credibly detect or effectively limit clandestine WMD programs in their absence? The United States has found the value of these institutions so great that even during the Cold War it found ways to create and cooperate in these institutions with its greatest adversary – such as its bilateral negotiations with the USSR to draft the NPT.

Governance or Govern-not?

The creation of these new instruments or these new tasks for existing institutions for nonproliferation, however, emerged bound by an ingrained wariness among some in the United States to creating what some saw as expensive international bureaucracies informed by the notion that less government means better government. For those of us involved in the creation of the PSI, for example, our starting point had to be that the PSI was to be an activity, not an institution. Similarly, the creation of the Committee established pursuant to UNSCR 1540 to monitor and facilitate implementation of the resolution was a matter of negotiation, not a de rigueur assumption of good governance.  Even growing disillusionment with the “Washington consensus” – deserved or not – did not result in increased funding for these institutions. 

How small are the core, regularly assessed budgets today? The 2021 Regular Budget for the IAEA, for example, is a little less than $461 million – $12 million less than the California city of San Jose’s police budget.  And the IAEA is the pacesetter for multilateral institutions that seek to prevent the proliferation of WMD.  The annual budget of $84 million for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons  is about the same as the police budget for a medium-sized U.S. city such as Providence, Rhode Island. That’s also similar to the budget for a modest Hollywood film, The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps. The numbers for other critical nonproliferation institutions are much smaller – $13.3 million for the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs, around $3-4 million for the UN ’s 1540 Committee and its Group of Experts, and $1.5 million for the Biological Weapons Convention and its Implementation Support Unit.3For the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs, see  For the BWC, see And the situation is not better for those organizations where the nonproliferation of WMD is a small part of their broader mandates. INTERPOL, for example, had a budget of only about $160.5 million for 2020, a little more than the police budget for a larger U.S. city such as Omaha, Nebraska or the budget for Shrek the Third, while the World Customs Organization – whose members are typically revenue generating bodies – only had a budget of about $18.8 million.4For INTERPOL, see For the World Customs Organization, see 136M Euros in 2020 and the World Customs Organization,

Are these amounts sufficient for the tasks assigned to these institutions?  An explosion in voluntary contributions for key activities not covered by the regular budgets, such as technical support for nuclear or chemical security or implementation of UN Security Council resolutions on Iran and Syria, suggests otherwise. For all of these institutions, voluntary extra-budgetary contributions make up a significant portion of the funds for their activities, in several cases exceeding their regular budgets. Further, several of these organizations suffer from regular shortfalls between assessments for the regular budgets and failure by members to pay those assessments. The “attribution” mechanism for the CWC (the Investigation and Identification Team), for instance, is dependent on voluntary contributions from the European Union, the U.S., and its allies, including funding for an analytical laboratory. The BWC also reported serious financial difficulties as a result of non-payment of assessed contributions by State Parties, delays in receiving the assessed contributions from those that do pay, as well as difficulties posed by the shift to a more restrictive UN accounting system.5Chair of the Meeting of the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, “Report on the Overall Financial Situation of the Biological Weapons Convention,” BWC/MSP/2019/5, 28 November 2019,  This forced the creation of an interim solution that relied on voluntary contributions but reached only 36 percent of its funding goals.6Ibid, p. 4. This cast doubt as to whether the BWC could undertake important tasks, such as universalization. What’s more, these financial constraints still fail to prompt the rarely asked, never answered question:  Without additional resources, what existing tasks should we discard to tackle the new tasks?

To make up for their paltry regular budgets, many of these institutions are forced to rely on extra-budgetary funding from the European Union, the United States, and a few other like-minded countries, to supply the bulk of the voluntary funding that fuels some of their most important work.  Although this can give extra-budgetary funders greater influence over specific initiatives within these organizations, the over-dependence on voluntary funding means the institutions do not have the resources for rapid responses to crises, do not have the financial stability for anything more than short-term planning, and cannot effectively address the problems that require long-term commitments. In addition, the reliance on extra-budgetary funding for specific initiatives, such as OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team, has led to attacks on the legitimacy of such efforts (in this case by Syria7Second Report by the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team Pursuant to Paragraph 10 of Decision C-SS-4/Dec.3 “Addressing the threat from chemical weapons use” SARAQIB (Syrian Arab Republic) – 4 February 2018, p. 12,, Iran8Statement by the Delegation of the Islamic Republic of Iran on the Report of the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) at the 94th Session of the Executive Council, 8 July, 2020, and Russia).9On the first report of the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team on chemical incidents in Al Lataminah (SAR), 22 April 2020,

A lack of regular budgetary funding for implementation of WMD nonproliferation agreements especially hampers technical assistance programs for low-capacity states to implement their nonproliferation goals, which makes these assistance activities more reliant on donor-driven initiatives rather than objectives of low-capacity states.  Most important, these factors together undermine trust in the institution as a useful partner in national and international efforts to prevent WMD proliferation.  Without the commitment of the member states to providing the necessary budgetary resources to long-term projects, the prospects of those countries investing in the development of lasting partnerships with these institutions makes little sense.  Not surprisingly, too, some of the states most opposed to the nonproliferation objectives of the United States also stand against efforts to strengthen these institutions of nonproliferation governance and activities.

Strengthening Multilateral Nonproliferation Governance

Greater institutional support from the United States will be necessary to ensure the healthy functioning of a global system to prevent or limit the proliferation of WMD. However, countering the U.S. drift towards a minimalist, deregulatory tendency in a loosely governed and poorly resourced international security space requires resolute action to overcome numerous challenges.  For example, increasing funding to the IAEA has required a variety of achievements, including a “100 per cent value-for-money rating from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget,” winning the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, a substantial increase in its current tasks, and support for a greater role for nuclear power in addressing climate change.10See, p. iii. In contrast, despite increasing awareness due to the COVID pandemic of the political urgency of strengthening international cooperation on the detection and prevention pillars of the BWC, there remains no serious efforts to reform the fundamentally unsound BWC resource base. And, in the CWC, the attribution mechanism remains dependent on the support of the U.S. and its allies in the face of opposition from Iran, Russia, and Syria. The rote, automatic application of the prescription that less government equals better government in the international security arena has distorted our capacity to respond to existential threats and risks beyond the control of many states working together, much less the control of any single sovereign state.

Greater institutional support from the United States will be necessary to ensure the healthy functioning of a global system to prevent or limit the proliferation of WMD.

The United States has a pivotal role to play in building support for a global WMD nonproliferation system that works to support U.S. national interests and global security.  Simply substituting the “small government” narrative with the values of a “big government” story will continue to mislead. Throwing more funds at the problem will surely not get support from either the White House or Congress. The United States has supported new institutions with unfunded or underfunded mandates, which also has not worked.

Instead, the Biden Administration can lead the international community out of this dangerous dead-end by advocating for a domestic political consensus focused on investment that supports a better alignment of the financial and human resources for these institutions with the nonproliferation goals of the United States. Making a longer-term commitment to aligning the budgets and other resources of these institutions to their assigned tasks makes a good starting point, even if that means pledging them more – much more – regular and reliable funding for their work.  We also must recognize and build international consensus on institutions that do not provide good nonproliferation value-for-money, and seek to reform those organizations so they work towards the common good. 

In some instances, building consensus will require difficult compromises to reform the objectives and management of these institutions, as well as in re-apportioning member states budgetary contributions to remove the excessive reliance on extra-budgetary funding to achieve basic objectives. In other instances, it may be necessary in some instances to help organizations become more open to new stakeholders (such as more partnering with industry, other international organizations, and academia). However, if we cannot reform these organizations or regimes to fulfill their core functions in a way that delivers for U.S. national interests, we still need to be willing to hold back financial contributions.

Even the most effective and efficient institutions must become better at articulating their successes in a way that the average citizen can understand.  From disrupting WMD proliferation networks, dismantling weapons programs, reducing the risks of “loose nukes” and the like, the effort to prevent WMD proliferation has had many, significant successes. However, proliferation prevention is a hard story to tell. It is far easier to complain about the IAEA than to prove how many states it has prevented from access to nuclear weapons. Thus, a presentation of the bare facts alone often will not suffice.  In the United States, these success stories – sometimes about the dog that did not bark – must resonate with members of Congress and, perhaps more important, their constituents at a visceral level.  These stories must also help change the underlying narrative that the liberal prescription for lessening regulations in domestic affairs doesn’t apply to national security and foreign policy nor to the largely ungoverned international arena.  Instead, we need better governance, appropriately resourced, with U.S. leadership at the fore.

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