Center for American Progress

Lack of American Leadership Impeding Nonproliferation Efforts

Lack of American Leadership Impeding Nonproliferation Efforts

In its final report, the 9/11 Commission correctly identified terrorists armed with nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons as posing “the greatest danger of another catastrophic attack in the United States.” But to achieve a bipartisan consensus, the Commission misdiagnosed the key reason why we have failed to adequately meet this threat: the crisis of American leadership caused by the Bush administration.

The Commission recommends three very sensible steps the United States should take to protect its citizens from terrorists armed with deadly weapons: fully support Cooperative Threat Reduction programs; expand the Proliferation Security Initiative; and develop an international legal regime that would grant universal jurisdiction to capture, interdict, and prosecute traffickers in these weapons.

But the Bush administration’s actions thus far and poor leadership will stifle America’s ability to implement these recommendations.

The Commission’s first recommendation – “full support” for Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programs – aims to strengthen ongoing efforts to prevent the theft of fissile materials that could be used to make a nuclear weapon. Securing fissile materials from theft is the single most important, practical step we can take today to improve America’s national security: no fissile materials, no nuclear weapon, no nuclear terrorism.

But according to a study by Harvard University experts released this spring, more fissile materials were secured in the two years before 9/11 than in the two years since then. Instead of increasing funding for these programs, as the Commission recommends, the Bush administration’s FY 2005 budget request would have effectively cut funding for these programs. Only a bipartisan effort in the Congress restored funding for CTR to what it had been in prior years.

Indeed, for a fraction of the cost of the Iraq war, the Bush administration could secure most of the world’s stockpiles of fissile materials.

We should be vastly expanding CTR, not fighting to maintain it at the levels of years past. And we surely cannot expect other countries to redouble their efforts to improve stewardship of fissile materials in such global efforts as the G8 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction when the Bush administration shows such uneven support for these efforts.

In addition, the Bush administration has also allowed a series of bureaucratic disputes over such arcane issues as liability to obstruct existing CTR programs. Trivial spats over bureaucratic politics should not stand in the way of America’s national security.

The Commission’s second recommendation focuses on improvements to the 2003 Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which provides an important framework for countries to cooperate in efforts to interdict illegal trafficking in arms and materials. The Commission sensibly recommends that NATO integrate its intelligence and planning capabilities with the PSI, and that key non-NATO countries such as China and Russia be encouraged to participate.

The practical impact of these recommendations, however, will be limited by Bush’s poor record on cooperating with other nations. To interdict a ship, we have to secure permission from the flag state of a vessel in question or the state whose coastal waters are being used for navigation, or get U.N. Security Council approval. Failure to follow these rules will hurt the United States because we rely on free sea lanes for international trade and military operations.

Yet, the very nations whose permission we would need are states like North Korea, which are unlikely to give us permission to search their vessels. And the Bush administration’s obsession with national missile defense is hardly likely to inspire China’s cooperation in the PSI.

The U.N. Security Council option is also limited because the Bush administration is likely to face a tough uphill battle convincing the Council that a particular state or vessel poses a proliferation threat when it manipulated intelligence on Iraq and has exercised American power with such arrogance.

On the Commission’s third recommendation, creating universal jurisdiction over illegal weapons trafficking, President Bush will have a hard time convincing the world to create new international legal norms when he flaunts existing ones, such as the Geneva Conventions. His administration’s refusal to join treaties that most of the rest of the world supports – such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty – further undermines America’s leadership.

Hypocritical actions by the Bush administration have also reduced the incentives other nations have to join our nonproliferation efforts. The Commission’s report does not mention the Bush administration’s research and development of new, more “usable” nuclear weapons such as the “bunker-buster.” Nor does it criticize the Administration’s failure to fully support treaties that would help restore America’s leadership on nuclear proliferation, such as a Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty with strong verification and inspection provisions.

The Commission is right to say that America is safer now than it was two years ago. But we would be a whole lot safer if the Bush administration were a more responsible steward of America’s global leadership, and had made better choices about where to spend America’s precious financial and political resources. The Commission’s recommendations are sensible, but the Bush administration’s record of poor choices and skewed priorities will make it difficult to implement them.

Andrew J. Grotto is an associate scholar in national security at the Center for American Progress.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.