Widening fears over catastrophic terrorism continue to stoke scrutiny of “nuclear capable” governments’ capacity to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Prevailing wisdom holds that proliferation and nuclear terrorism are manageable provided these governments exercise rigorous control over limited stockpiles of nuclear materials. It was this conviction that led President Obama to convene 47 world leaders in Washington for an unprecedented summit on nuclear security in April. Although the Nuclear Security Summit highlighted the enduring need for vigilance among committed governments, regrettably, the nature of the proliferation threat has evolved so dramatically that traditional methods of prevention are growing increasingly out of date.
Today’s proliferation challenges are perhaps best summarized by this disconcerting revelation: No longer do governments alone determine who gets the bomb. Globalization, privatization, and economics have empowered more actors—including private industry and individuals—in more countries with the capacity to facilitate nuclear weapons acquisition. Indeed, today’s notable proliferation challenges in North Korea and Iran are, in large part, stories of unscrupulous nonstate actors that have willingly developed, shared, funded, or shipped sensitive materials and technologies. They have done so while subverting governments’ preventive efforts, or while governments willingly neglect such efforts in pursuit of greater economic interests or competing security challenges.
Recognizing Regional Priorities
Convincing governments and a rapidly expanding array of private sector entities that proliferation is, in the words of the president, an “unprecedented threat” will be no easy task. Consider this:
- Annually across Latin America, more than 100,000 people are killed by violent crimes often involving handguns linked to the growing trade in illicit drugs.
- Each year in sub-Saharan Africa, around 1.4 million people die from AIDS while an additional 1.9 million new victims are infected with HIV.
- In South Asia, as a result of malnutrition, 30 percent of infants born are dangerously underweight.
In the face of these development and security challenges, many governments will never view the threat of nuclear terrorism as a preeminent challenge to their security. Nor is it reasonable for us to expect them to. Yet many of these countries are becoming increasingly attractive acquisition points or shipping hubs for entities seeking the bomb. And there are powerful financial incentives for any government or private sector company to look the other way in the face of lucrative trade in sensitive goods and materials.
Two Birds, One Stone
In this environment, appealing to the enlightened self-interest of every link along the proliferation supply chain is critical to proliferation prevention. Fortunately, the assistance available to do so is inherently “dual-use.”
For instance, seeking to diversify their tourism economies in the 1990s, Caribbean countries invested in their port and transshipment facilities, capitalizing on their strategic location at America’s “third border” and at the end of the Panama Canal route. Following the September 11 attacks, US authorities demanded heightened security measures that most governments of the region could ill-afford, leaving them locked out of the global supply chain, their earlier investments for naught. As new streams of nonproliferation assistance became available, however, Caribbean governments saw an opportunity to marry those security goals with their domestic economic development and diversification plans. That assistance helped them comply with nonproliferation obligations, meet International Ship and Port Facility Security standards, and ensured their continued competitiveness in the global marketplace—all while promoting sustainable nonproliferation.
A similar dual-use dynamic is now unfolding in Central America. As governments of the region struggle with drug and small arms trafficking and the subsequent growth of violent gangs—all challenges of a higher priority than WMD proliferation—new nonproliferation assistance can help strengthen border security and cargo screening and promote the rule of law. Such measures would tighten the global nonproliferation regime while providing direct benefit to the beleaguered people of Central America.
In the Middle East, the dual-use “needs” are very different. Long-term economic planning and burgeoning energy requirements have led no fewer than 12 governments to begin exploring civilian nuclear power. Many have the financial resources to implement their plans, but most lack the human and technical capacity. Targeted technical assistance could go far to promote the safe, transparent development and operation of nuclear power generation, while simultaneously ensuring a sustainable and robust nonproliferation environment, thus bringing the region into a wider security dialogue.
In recent years, Africa has become a growing international security priority. Weak and failing states have proven themselves to be hotbeds for terrorist recruitment, and governments’ inability to effectively police their borders has raised concerns over illicit transshipment. Moreover, longstanding and acute health problems have challenged African governments’ ability to implement newly promulgated international health regulations and provide reasonable care for their people, thus ensuring an endless cycle of poverty and hopelessness. By identifying and marrying new streams of nonproliferation assistance to these endemic challenges, not only can we help to eliminate the growing trafficking trade in drugs, small arms, humans, and conflict resources that undermines governments and threatens people, we can inject innovative new assistance into regional public health infrastructure—all while achieving sustainable nuclear and biological nonproliferation.
As a follow up to the Nuclear Security Summit, President Obama will work to hold the 47 countries represented accountable for the promises they made. Just as importantly, he should think creatively regarding how to build sustainable nonproliferation efforts with the next generation of governments whose priorities are often (and rightfully) elsewhere, but whose exploitation by committed terrorists could significantly undermine the president’s nonproliferation agenda.