International Security Studies

Events

U.S. Counterproliferation Policy

January 27, 2005 // 11:00pm

This meeting, jointly sponsored by the Center's Division of International Studies and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was another in the ongoing Nonproliferation Forum series.

Michael Nacht provided a broad overview of U.S. counterproliferation policy – addressing its historical evolution, its political and technical feasibility, and its relationship to traditional nonproliferation policies. His starting point was the persisting confusion over the meaning of "counterproliferation" and "nonproliferation." Nonproliferation denotes activities to deter or dissuade state and non-state actors from acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Alternatively, counterproliferation pertains to strategies adopted after proliferation has occurred to compel these actors to give up those unconventional military capabilities. He noted that this dichotomy parallels the traditional distinction in international relations theory between the concepts of "deterrence" and "compellence." Nacht, citing the pioneering work of former Harvard University professor Thomas Schelling, argued that compellence (in this context, counterproliferation to reverse proliferation) is a more difficult objective to achieve than deterrence (i.e., nonproliferation to forestall its occurrence).

Not until the 1990s did the United States develop counterproliferation capabilities. During the preceding Cold War era, the United States emphasized deterrence and nonproliferation. An important tool to restrain proliferation in South Korea, Taiwan, and other countries were U.S. security commitments, which addressed the core motivations that might otherwise have led them to acquire nuclear weapons to deter regional adversaries. The Clinton administration, under Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, pursued a Counterproliferation Initiative in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, when UN inspectors uncovered a large-scale covert WMD program. The Bush administration further elevated counterproliferation in U.S. strategy in the new strategic environment created by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For the Pentagon, the increased emphasis on counterproliferation has translated into four objectives: first, to keep WMD technology out of the wrong hands; second, to eliminate or destroy WMD capabilities should proliferation occur; third, to develop the capacity to fight in a WMD environment, if necessary; and fourth, to mitigate environmental consequences should WMD use by an adversary occur.

The primary focus of U.S. policy has been on two categories of countries: "proliferators," such as Iran and North Korea, which are actively seeking to acquire WMD capabilities; and "leakers," notably Russia and Pakistan, – whose inadequate controls over weapons and sensitive technologies could lead to their diversion to another state or a non-state actor, such as Al Qaeda.

In conclusion, Nacht highlighted a key challenge facing U.S. policymakers: managing nonproliferation as a foreign policy objective in relation to other goals and interests. He noted that policymakers, including both candidates in the 2004 presidential campaign, consistently refer to nonproliferation as a top policy priority. Yet citing the cases of Pakistan and China, Nacht argued that other foreign policy objectives (such as counterterrorism) have frequently trumped nonproliferation as a priority in U.S. bilateral relations.

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