Weapons of Mass Destruction: Does Globalization Mean Proliferation?

In testimony to Congress last June, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld joined a decade-old chorus of experts who proclaim that multiple proliferation threats are growing. Citing “some important facts which are not debatable,” Rumsfeld asserted that “the number of countries that are developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction is growing. The number of ballistic missiles on the face of the Earth and the number of countries possessing them is growing as well.” To prove his point, Rumsfeld presented data that illustrated dramatic growth in the biological, chemical, nuclear, and ballistic missile threats between 1972 and 2001.

While Rumsfeld’s data were accurate, his characterization of the threat is not. Indeed, contrary to conventional wisdom, globalization has not led to an increased proliferation threat from weapons of mass destruction. Wrongly assuming that the threat is expanding could lead Congress to misallocate resources both within and between government agencies. As a result, an innovative and long overdue Bush administration strategy to move the world away from classic nuclear deterrence and arms control could increase the very proliferation it is trying to eliminate or manage.

A Changing, Not a Growing, Threat

Careful assessment of each component of the proliferation threat?nuclear, biological, chemical, ballistic missile, cruise missile, and covert?delivered nuclear, biological, and chemical-suggests that the multiple proliferation threats facing the United States in the first decade of the 21st century are finite and far smaller in scope and complexity than they were during the Cold War. Taking into account all relevant data and avoiding comparisons of static assessments from two points in time?the Rumsfeld method?makes it clear that proliferation threats are not growing, let alone expanding uncontrollably. In fact, most evidence suggests that contemporary proliferation threats are shrinking in terms of number of countries involved. It is less clear whether a very few hard-core proliferating states will continue to cooperate with each other to produce credible military capabilities and then use or threaten to use them in ways that endanger fundamental or important U.S. national security interests.

Multiple proliferation threats are changing, not growing. Because the United States is concerned not just with its existence or fundamental national security interests but with a broader set of secondary national security interests?to protect our allies, to access critical resources, to engage in global commerce?the changing nature of contemporary proliferation is serious and will stress the current national security, intelligence, and foreign policy systems in the United States in conceptual, organizational, and financial ways. Neither existing multilateral arms control regimes nor unilateral defense programs, by themselves, will well serve our national security interests in the decades to come.

While it is theoretically possible that proliferation threats could expand in the future with little warning, much depends on how the United States allocates its time and its financial and alliance resources to deal with these threats. A realistic assessment of the threat environment concludes that U.S. conventional military, intelligence, diplomatic, and counter-terrorism programs, expanded in scope at moderate expense and augmented with increased development and testing of ballistic and cruise missile defenses, are capable of dealing effectively with proliferation.

There are several other keys to winning the nonproliferation battle. One is convincing our allies that they need to continue to work with us to implement effective antiproliferation policies. Another is convincing China and Russia that their active support for further proliferation is not in their national interest. The third is the ability of the United States as a society and government to better understand and then influence isolated regimes and leaders such as Saddam Hussain and Kim Jong Il. The short history of the post-Cold War era suggests that these regimes, as immoral and power-crazed as they may be, operate on a self-preservation logic of their own that can be influenced by relatively well-targeted resources.

Sources of Multiple Proliferation Threats

A net assessment of the national security and proliferation threats to the United States by nation states (measured on a five-point scale and taking into account capabilities, implications, and intentions) reveals a clear hierarchy of threats. As table 1 [below] shows, one country (Russia) is a level 5 threat; one country (China) a level 4 threat; three countries (Iraq, North Korea, Iran) are level 3 threats; two countries (Libya and Syria) are level 2 threats; five countries (Taiwan, Pakistan, India, Egypt, and Israel) are level 1 threats. The remaining seven countries that have some proliferation capability (Afghanistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Myanmar, and Cuba) are less than a level 1 threat.

Two of the level 3 threats may realistically be moved off the multiple proliferation threat list within several years. Diplomacy, innovative verification, and the right mix of incentives and disincentives could take North Korea off the list?and could thereby ease ballistic missile proliferation problems with several countries, including Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Egypt, and Sudan. And a slow process of engagement with the democratically elected government in Iran could make it easier for “moderates” in that country to challenge Iranian hard-liners’ dominance over decisionmaking regarding intelligence; military, nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare; and terrorism. Success in those two countries could leave the United States with only one category 3 threat (Iraq) by the end of George W. Bush’s first term. That would leave only three countries?Russia, China, and Iraq?as serious level 5, 4, or 3 national security threats to the United States.

But even if one assumes that North Korea and Iran remain multiple proliferation threats and even if one widens the focus to level 5, 4, 3, and 2 threats, only seven countries (Russia, China, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Libya) are cause for serious proliferation concern. The multiple proliferation problem is finite, as it was in 1990. Twenty years ago, before the term globalization came into common parlance, the proliferation watch list included many more countries.

Untold Stories

Much of the analysis of the current multiple proliferation threat that reaches the general public is imprecise. For example, most analysts fail to specify both the degree of development of distinct capabilities and the logic behind the current worst-case assumption that concludes that countries or subnational groups are likely to use the full range of clearly distinct capabilities against the United States, our allies, or our interests.

Many warnings that the proliferation threat is large and growing also lack historical perspective. The proliferation threat is presented as having become serious and complex only after the end of the Cold War. Lost are the lessons of the evolution of effective, U.S.-led nonproliferation activities before 1990.

Multilateral and bilateral nuclear nonproliferation efforts have been remarkably successful, especially given the limited resources devoted to them over 40 years. Though Secretary Rumsfeld did not mention it, 18?23 countries gave up limited or significant nuclear weapons opportunities in large part because the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime assured them that their security would be enhanced through multilateral arms control. The nuclear nonproliferation battles that were fought and won over the past four decades to create parts of the very NPT regimes the administration wants to embrace were daunting?and much more formidable challenges than the finite proliferation threats the United States faces today. The only current proliferation threat that even comes close to those of the Cold War is the problem of Russia’s uncertain control over its nuclear arsenal, materials, and technology.And in December 2000 the Department of Energy’s Cutler-Baker Commission estimated that Russia’s nuclear problem could be “solved” with an investment of approximately $30 billion and improved U.S.-Russian cooperation.

Few assessments of today’s terrorist-related proliferation threat remind readers that the Soviet Union, East Germany, Libya, North Korea, and other nations were active state sponsors of terrorism against U.S. interests during 1960?90. The USSR supported terrorist training camps, provided diplomatic cover for terrorists’ travel, provided safe havens, and selectively shared intelligence and technology with a wide range of violent terrorist groups. Compared to this earlier global terrorist threat, the current weapons of mass destruction terrorist threat from Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan, and Sudan seems less significant, even if it is more decentralized. We must keep in mind the FBI assessment made in 1996 and reaffirmed subsequently: “Our investigations in the United States reveal no intelligence that state supporters of terrorism, international terrorist groups, or domestic terrorist groups are currently planning to use these deadly weapons [of mass destruction] in the United States.”

Looking Ahead

Historically, countries that develop multiple proliferation capabilities do so primarily because of regional security threats and secondarily to deter U.S. intervention. Thus, dissuading potential adversaries from developing weapons of mass destruction capabilities will require as serious an approach to solving regional security problems as is being devoted to ballistic missile defenses. While the Pentagon must plan for nonproliferation failure, if the entire administration accepts this fatalistic logic and puts 99 percent of its nonproliferation eggs into the ballistic missile defense basket, this prediction will become reality. Globalization complicates the proliferation picture but it does not mean that the nonproliferation battle is inevitably lost.

Table 1: Rank Order of the Importance of Proliferation Threats to U.S. National Security
Country Magnitude
of Threat
Proliferation Threats Classifications of the “Real” Problem
Russia 5 BM, BW*, CM, CW*, N, T* Disintegration
China 4 BM, BW, CM, CW, N, T* Transformation uncertain
Iraq 3 BM, BW, CM, CW, N, T May require a regime change
North Korea 3 BM, BW, CM, CW, N, T Willing to negotiate away BM & N & T and perhaps BW
and CW over time
Iran 3 BM, BW, CM, CW, N, T Evolution possible depending on domestic policies
Syria 2 BM, BW, CW, T Linked to Middle East peace process
Libya 2 BM?, BW, CW. N?, T Linked to Middle East peace process
Taiwan 1 BWp, CMp, CWp, BM, CM, N* Linked to one-China policy
Pakistan 1 BM, BW, CW, N, T Will react to India
India 1 BW?, CM,CW*, BM, CM, N Engaging with the United States
Isreal 1 BM, BW, CM, CW, N Preemption is the key threat to the United States; linked to
Middle East peace process
Egypt 1 BM, BW, CM, CW Linked to Middle East peace process
Afghanistan 0.5 BM, T Weak state
Sudan 0.5 BM?, T Weak state
Saudi Arabia 0.5 BM, CW Strong regime, weak state
United Arab Emirates 0.5 BM, CM Almost exclusive Gulf focus
South Africa 0.25 CM, CW Allied with West
Myanmar 0.25 CW Weak state
Cuba 0.25 T Domestic politics
BM Ballistic missiles     CM Cruise missiles     P Potential     * At some stage of giving up this capability
BW Biological weapons     CW Chemical weapons     T Terrorism     ? Status uncertain