Fresh Ideas Needed to Prevent WMD Proliferation

Stimson Spotlight

Fresh Ideas Needed to Prevent WMD Proliferation

By Debra Decker:

President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima last week was important for one very stark reason: It forces us to remember how devastating some weapons can be. We may have forgotten, or be too young to recall, the old fears of hiding under cramped school desks to shelter and ‘protect’ ourselves from a nuclear attack. But we should not forget the overwhelming danger to civilians that nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons pose — which is why they are called Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).

These weapons have terrible effects.

International concerns focused on countries getting and using WMDs. By 1946, the United Nations had already taken on the issue of controlling atomic energy and nuclear weapons development among states. Nations agreed to the Non-proliferation Treaty, which entered into force in 1970. Although nuclear weapons are not banned, leaders — including Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev — have supported working toward the vision of a nuclear-free world. Indeed, many countries have stepped back from or not pursued nuclear weapons — and the same is generally true with some notable exceptions for chemical and biological weapons. The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention, which entered into force respectively in 1975 and 1997, outlawed countries possessing or developing them. All these agreements have and continue to face political obstacles.

However, in today’s interconnected world, concerns abound — not only of irrational nation states that do not fear reprisals for the development and use of such terrible weapons — but also of extremists who seek gains through inflicting terror. We know that al-Qaeda was actively looking to develop and use weapons of mass destruction. Others have also, from Aum Shinrikyo to most recently ISIS. So how will these terror networks achieve the development and delivery of such weapons? Through theft, purchase, and development.

Recently, smugglers have been active in trafficking highly enriched uranium, reportedly sourced from a former Russian nuclear facility; some middlemen — but not the buyers and sellers — have been apprehended in Moldova. Such trafficking is unfortunately not new. For decades, Pakistan’s A. Q. Khan and his network of businessmen had struck deals to supply nuclear equipment and technology to countries that supported illicit trafficking and/or terrorism. And as the Nuclear Threat Initiative pointed out in its 2016 Nuclear Security Index report, progress on nuclear security has slowed. And that is just in the nuclear area.  

Put plainly — in a globalized world, challenges abound in preventing the world’s most dangerous weapons from falling into the wrong hands. We need new thinking unmoored from a Cold War paradigm of state-centered dangers in order to address these modern 21st century challenges.

The U.N. Security Council 1540 Committee — a part of the Security Council that works to prevent proliferation of these weapons and their means of delivery — responded to this threat in part with an initiative that seeks the best and brightest ideas from those who will inherit these problems: students from around the world. The Committee, partnered with the Stimson Center, has launched an international student essay competition focusing on what needs to be done to prevent the proliferation of WMDs. Details about the contest are available here. The highly competitive contest has drawn global interest — and the ideas and conversations it generates should go far to close future pathways of proliferation.  

Before President Obama left on his trip to Hiroshima, he met with the White House interns concluding their work for the spring. His remarks to them ring true, You really can make a difference.” The president’s trip reminds us of the need to address the horrors of WMDs. It will fall in large part to the next generation to work to make that difference.  

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Debra Decker is a Senior Advisor at the Managing Across Boundaries initiative at the Stimson Center. The 1540 Essay Competition details can be found at www.stimson.org/1540contest. Supporters for the project include: The Asan Institute for Policy Studies, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Institute for Security Studies, UN Office of Disarmament Affairs, US Department of State, and The Washington Foreign Law Society.

Photo credit: Maryland National Guard via Flickr