03/12/2013 - 17:02

Nonproliferation in a time of austerity

Fissile Materials Working Group

Fissile Materials Working Group

The Fissile Materials Working Group (FMWG) brings together the experience of leading nonproliferation experts and nongovernmental organizations to...


Since the early 1990s, the nonproliferation community has obsessed over the annual appropriations to programs at the US defense, state, and energy departments that are designed to keep weapons of mass destruction (WMD) out of the wrong hands. While the budgets of individual programs have fluctuated, the unmistakable trend in US nonproliferation spending was upward. Program managers could generally count on this year's budget being higher than last year's, and next year's being higher still.

On the whole this was a good thing. As threats grew and evolved, governments had to keep pace. But today, amid the global economic downturn, nonproliferation budgets around the world are shrinking. Just this month, the White House announced a $57 million funding cut to the Defense Department's Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Though some will lament the passing of the golden era of nonproliferation spending, more judicious outlays may not be all bad. One unforeseen byproduct of perpetually growing budgets was a sapping of the motivation of the governmental and nongovernmental organizations that make up the "nonproliferation complex" to adapt to changed circumstances. Nowhere has this flagging of innovation been more evident than in attempts to address the proliferation challenges emanating from the next generation of potential nuclear states in the developing world.

Despite the ebb and flow of the global economy and the countless headline-grabbing security threats that occupy popular attention, the world is a safer and more prosperous place than ever before. The past decade has witnessed fewer deaths from violent conflict than any in the previous century. And over the past 15 years alone, the lives of even the world's poorest citizens have improved more rapidly than during any other period in human history. By virtually every measure, we are living longer, healthier, and more productive lives, according to a report from the UN Development Programme. Much of this success is directly attributable to an unprecedented era of globalization and innovation. Worldwide prosperity has spread along with the flow of advanced technologies from richer to poorer nations.

Yet even as we celebrate these trends, interspersed among this flow of goods and know-how are an array of dual-use inventions -- technologies that have both civilian and military applications. In many cases, the countries that can benefit most from technological growth and development also have the weakest technology governance infrastructures. Lacking the capacity to provide even the most basic services to their citizens, many developing-world governments have, not unreasonably, failed to devote the resources needed to comply with global nonproliferation norms and treaties. Persuading these governments to introduce control measures has been a significant international security challenge, not least because many developing countries would rather direct scarce financial resources to more immediate threats to security and prosperity. The resulting lack of controls on nuclear technology has helped create dangerous new links in the proliferation supply chain.

Adapt to survive. In a world of shrinking nonproliferation budgets, burgeoning global markets for advanced technologies, and expanding opportunities for the theft and diversion of sensitive materials, those working to keep nuclear weapons from proliferating must adapt their strategies. Although bilateral arms reduction agreements, nuclear security summits, and tough sanctions for violators will always have their places in the nonproliferation regime, the fundamental shortcoming of these efforts is their failure to gain worldwide traction. Their claims to be global notwithstanding, the lion's share of nonproliferation programs have been designed by wealthy countries of the developed North, with little concern for the pressing concerns of the global South -- human insecurity, economic underdevelopment, poor public health, and failing domestic infrastructure.

Rather than focus on the different priorities of North and South, the nonproliferation community should consider solutions based on concerns shared by both the developed and developing world. Today, security and prosperity are challenged by problems that transcend borders, including everything from the counterfeiting of cigarettes and pharmaceuticals to the trafficking of small arms, drugs, and humans. Each of these scourges has a corrosive worldwide impact, but they have a disproportionately negative impact on developing countries. Cross-border crime doesn't just hurt local economies. It funds terrorist organizations and allows traffickers to fine-tune their routes -- the same routes that can be exploited by WMD smugglers. Although nuclear proliferators may have different starting points and clients than drug traffickers or intellectual property, modes of transport, methods of finance, and pathways into and out of countries often overlap. Identifying and pressuring these choke points in the global supply chain for illicit goods is critical to combatting proliferation across the global South.

The inability to think holistically about smuggling -- despite mounting evidence that nearly all forms of illicit trafficking are interconnected -- hinders attempts to limit its impact in any specific area. Furthermore, in an era of shrinking budgets for global nonproliferation activities, identifying new partners with whom to share know-how and resources will be essential if the nonproliferation community is to guard against a serious degradation of the preventive web it has worked so hard to develop.

To date, the nonproliferation community has viewed the trafficking of nuclear material and dual-use items as distinct from the global flow of other contraband, because nuclear trafficking relies heavily on the inventors and makers of the goods. However, successful proliferation requires not just suppliers, but also transporters, financiers, fixers, and other illicit middlemen who deal in a wide spectrum of illegal goods.

The narrow prisms through which governments often respond to illicit trafficking and proliferation have yielded disconnected responses to interconnected threats. The result is that neither the North nor the South is fully realizing its security objectives.

A cooperative response. To unify their approaches to nuclear proliferation, governments must spread awareness of the detrimental effects of a wide variety of trafficking activities on global security and economic development. They should also survey current anti-trafficking policies to analyze how responses developed for one smuggling method might be employed against smuggling overall. And nongovernmental organizations involved in nonproliferation have an obligation to think outside their comfortable boxes. Rather than focus on protecting pet appropriations, they should seek new relationships with agencies, governments, companies, and organizations outside the current nonproliferation architecture. The result would build good will between developed and developing countries, advance efforts to prevent all manner of smuggling, and ultimately save money, as fewer efforts would be duplicated and resources would be more effectively deployed.

To date, this sort of coordination has been all but absent. In the case of the United States, for instance, even agencies with similar, WMD-focused mandates -- such as the departments of defense and energy -- have struggled to synchronize their activities. In an era of budget growth, there was little incentive for the nonproliferation community to think about national security objectives holistically or to seek new approaches toward stemming the spread of nuclear technology. But downward budgetary pressure is now endangering the nonproliferation enterprise built over the last two decades, and the failure to think innovatively will lead to dangerous retrenchment. It is time for the nonproliferation community to start thinking less about protecting particular programs, agencies, and organizations, and more about finding common cause in the worldwide fight against smuggling.

This article was written by Brian Finlay, managing director at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank devoted to enhancing international peace and security.