Ending the nuclear threat

UNITED NATIONS — Since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, security planners the world over have lost considerable sleep contemplating the prospect of terrorists armed with nuclear weapons.

The world has responded with an array of measures to fight this terrifying possibility. A handful of countries launched the Proliferation Security Initiative in 2003 to interdict the transfer of weapons of mass destructions (WMD) and materials; its supporters now number in the dozens, and it reportedly has a score of interdiction successes. In 2004, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1540, which requires all states to establish domestic controls to prevent WMD proliferation and their means of delivery. A year later, the U.N. adopted the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism; it has been signed by 115 countries and came into force July 7.

These initiatives target non-state actors and terrorists. The prospect of North Korea and Iran building nuclear arsenals has reminded governments that equal attention must be given to ways that states proliferate. A number of proposals tighten controls over the spread of nuclear knowhow and materials; most of them focus on the reprocessing and enrichment technology that is needed to build a bomb.

UNSCR 1540 is frequently held up as the most significant item in the nonproliferation tool kit. The resolution makes it mandatory for all states to take action to halt WMD proliferation. They are required to file reports with a special committee at the U.N. that explains their compliance with the resolution. Those reports are analyzed by the 1540 Committee and its experts so that they can find shortcomings and identify ways to assist countries and ensure that the resolution is fully implemented — and safety better guaranteed.

My organization works through the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), a multilateral security forum that we helped establish over a decade ago, to raise regional awareness of the threat posed by WMD, encourage governments to work harder to combat this menace and help them build capacity to do so. We hold meetings throughout the year that examine dimensions of the WMD threat and efforts to halt its spread. I, along with other nongovernmental organizations, visited the U.N. last week to discuss our work, in particular efforts to support UNSCR 1540.

We are making progress. About three-quarters of U.N. members filed reports and the 1540 Committee is trying to figure out how to fill gaps in national nonproliferation efforts. It should come as no surprise that national capacity to fight this threat varies greatly. Nonetheless, some fundamental issues cut across all countries.

All governments face resource constraints — time, money, personnel — when trying to support nonproliferation efforts. Officials on the front lines of this work, such as customs agents and export control authorities, are especially hamstrung. Our meetings have been punctuated by depressing presentations by customs officials throughout Asia that demonstrate how overwhelmed they are by the sheer volume of trade as they try to do their job. Coordination among bureaucracies is poor. Similarly, most nations have not developed the legal infrastructure to fight this problem; UNSCR 1540 is designed to address this last problem.

The most powerful obstacles are attitudinal. Three are especially pernicious:

The first is the belief that WMD is someone else’s problem. It is tempting to see this threat as a concern just for developed states, an attitude that is reinforced by governments that either think they aren’t a target or they don’t have components or materials that could be used to make such a weapon. Both views are shortsighted. Terrorist cells are ubiquitous and they have many grievances, not just those related to Islamic fundamentalism (remember Aum Shinrikyo in 1995?).

Terror attacks in Indonesia, the Philippines and even Japan should disabuse any country of the notion that it isn’t at risk. Indeed, “soft targets” have become more appealing since military and diplomatic facilities have tightened security. Most countries have some nuclear materials, if only from radiological sources used for medical purposes, or they make or assemble parts for a larger WMD assembly, or they serve as transit points for shipments.

A second belief is the idea that there is tension between security and economic or business concerns, and one comes at the expense of the other. This attitude is most pronounced among developing countries, which suspect the nonproliferation agenda is a way to deny them critical technologies. They are wrong. Export controls are confidence builders and “trade enhancing,” not trade inhibiting. Governments are more willing to trade with countries that have systems that will prevent diversion or misuse of products. Singapore, for example, has a robust export-controls program and its trade is booming. A key component of the CSCAP program is getting Asian governments to understand this.

Misguided cost-benefit analysis is found in developed countries, too. Some governments worry that pressing the nonproliferation agenda may impose burdens on their own companies or could complicate relations with other states. Companies are often reluctant to closely scrutinize orders for fear of losing business.

A third attitudinal barrier is the belief among nuclear weapons states that they can push a nonproliferation agenda without paying equal attention to their obligation under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to move toward nuclear disarmament. Three decades ago, nonnuclear weapons states agreed to accept unequal status in the NPT only if the nuclear powers agreed to eventually disarm. Today, nonproliferation efforts mount as nuclear powers modernize their nuclear arsenals while denying them to other governments. This seeming hypocrisy saps the will of nonnuclear states to embrace the nonproliferation agenda.

Fortunately, that last attitude appears to be changing. After several years insisting that disarmament obligations were not an issue, there seems to be a shift in U.S. thinking. There is recognition that nonproliferation and disarmament cannot be separated, and progress on the former depends on movement on the latter.

There was cautious optimism at last month’s Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference. The starting point for the discussion this year was a commentary in January by former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, and former Defense Secretary William Perry that argued that the U.S. should be leading efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons. These realists acknowledged that nonproliferation efforts are not enough to counter the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

Their article has galvanized the nonproliferation community, confirming the sense that the pendulum had swung too far and that disarmament issues must be put back on the table. Having these men make the case for disarmament provides serious intellectual firepower to the argument and make it hard to dismiss disarmament advocates as naive dreamers. Credible commitments to both nonproliferation and disarmament are needed to end the nuclear weapons threat.

Brad Glosserman, a contributing editor to The Japan Times, is executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS, and chairs the CSCAP Export Controls Experts Group.

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