Holistic Approach to Nonproliferation

In honor of National Women’s History Month, each week Ploughshares Fund will be honoring the women who have been instrumental in advocating for nuclear nonproliferation and recognizing leaders in the field.  Since one month is not enough to speak on all the amazing women in nonproliferation, we present you with a Bonus Week! Guest Blogger Ellen Laipson, President and CEO of the Stimson Center, was kind enough to share her thoughts on nonproliferation and the work being done at Stimson.

In the ten years I’ve had the honor to lead the Stimson Center, the agenda for research on nonproliferation has evolved in important ways.  Stimson’s co-founders, Barry Blechman and Michael Krepon, were interested in a full suite of ways to reduce the dangers of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, and were looking for new conceptual approaches to a global challenge that before now was viewed in the East-West, US-Soviet context. 

Stimson has worked on arms control treaties, on confidence building measures, particularly between India and Pakistan, and has worked with other NGOs seeking common approaches to specific issues, such as the 1995 Nonproliferation Treaty Review.  Overall, Stimson looked at nonproliferation as one of the pillars of global governance that set norms and rules of compliance for all nation states.  The work addressed concerned nuclear ambitions in the developing world, and drew on knowledge from the hard sciences to design reliable verification measures. Stimson produced serious, original scholarship, and worked hard to promulgate these ideas with government decision-makers.  It is a proud record that put Stimson on the map.

Over the years, while the worst case scenarios about proliferation have not materialized, the focus has increasingly been on a small set of “rogue states,” that choose not to conform to the global rulebook, and do not respond either to the incentives or to the threats proffered by the international community.  The deep knowledge and technical skills of the arms experts therefore have had to be married up with insights from regional experts, who might be able to decode the behavior of the non-compliant and thereby help develop more effective strategies.

Much work was done on the success stories – countries that walked back from full or partial nuclear capabilities, largely because of a shift in national politics or a change in the perceived threat environment.  In 2009, for example, Barry Blechman edited a book in which authors from nuclear states considered how their governments would see their interests affected by a global ban on nuclear weapons. It was hoped that understanding the change of heart in Brazil, Argentina, South Africa or Kazakhstan might shed light on the enduring challenges of Iran and North Korea.

Another dimension of the nonproliferation agenda has been a post-9/11 worry about loose nuclear materials falling into the hands of violent, non-state actors.  Among other multinational efforts, the UN promulgated new measures (we still call the process “1540” after the first UN Security Council resolution on the topic) obliging all nations to demonstrate their efforts to prevent the illicit movement of WMD materials. 

Here’s where Stimson again took an original approach: Our colleague Brian Finlay saw a need to engage the next generation of potential proliferators in developing countries.  Rather than lecturing them on their nonproliferation obligations, Brian asked them about their development priorities and then worked to make North-South partnerships based on the synergies between traditional development assistance and security assistance.  Utilizing this approach, Stimson has been able to find win-win solutions that achieved both global 1540 goals and national development goals for countries of the Global South.

This more holistic approach to nonproliferation obligations has worked well with countries that are not nuclear “wannabees.”  The question is its applicability to the harder cases. I see a strong need to spend more time thinking about the other party – and his/her strategic environment – to build more effective outcomes.  My own professional experience has led me to emphasize the situation on the Persian Gulf and Stimson has tried to dig a bit deeper into what would motivate Iran to comply with its obligations.

Ploughshares Fund has supported work by Stimson and others to game out whether progress on non-nuclear topics – such as Afghanistan or drugs, in the case of Iran – might have a salutary effect on the nuclear file.  This important conceptual and culturally-specific work can add real value.  We should also be looking for more holistic ways to delegitimize nuclear weapons, and here one cannot avoid the basic truth that the US has to try harder to lead by example. 

Ellen Laipson is President and CEO of The Stimson Center, a non-partisan institution devoted to enhancing international peace and security through rigorous analysis and outreach.