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HOME > TOPICS > The Nonproliferation Regime      
What Post-Cold War Proliferation Controls Require

Testimony of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center executive director, Henry Sokolski, presented before a Hearing of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, "The Wassenaar Arrangement and the Future of Multilateral Export Controls."

Apr 11, 2000
What Post-Cold War Proliferation Controls Require (PDF) 32.17 KB

What Post-Cold War Proliferation Controls Require

Testimony of Henry Sokolski

Presented before a Hearing of the
Senate Governmental Affairs Committee
"The Wassenaar Arrangement and the Future of Multilateral Export Controls"
April 12, 2000

Since the end of the Cold War, sustaining or expanding multilateral controls over strategic technology and materials has become a much more difficult task for a number of reasons. First, with the fall of the Berlin Wall came the collapse of East-West trade controls. Western aid and trade (including in high technology) flowed freely into former Warsaw Pact nations. Investment in China increased dramatically. Even U.S. relations toward North Korea eased. 

Second, whatever international consensus there might have been for targeting nonproliferation controls against a specific list of countries became far less powerful once the Cold War ended. During the Cold War, Western policy planners worried that any regional war that went ballistic or nuclear might draw in the superpowers and risk a global conflagration. Keeping strategic weapons capabilities out of trouble spots, therefore, made as much sense as East-West export controls. After the Cold War ended, though, key proliferators - e.g., China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea - became targets for trade or aid not only from Russia and European Union nations, but from the U.S. In fact, in the early l990s, the U.S. and other like-minded nations felt compelled to ease trade restrictions toward export control regime members in order to maintain and expand these regimes’ membership. 

Third, the early successes that nonproliferation regimes enjoyed preventing the transfer of listed items have been recently undermined by proliferators’ acquisition and sale of unlisted goods that can be used to produce strategic weapons. 

Finally, since the end of the Cold War, the availability and uncertainties regarding the amounts and status of the most threatening of strategic commodities - nuclear weapons useable materials - has grown dramatically. Indeed, during most of the Cold War almost all of these materials were contained in U.S. and Soviet deployed forces. With the reduced military deployments that followed START I, however, the number of nondeployed warheads in each force now well exceeds the number of deployed warheads. Moreover, the possible amount of surplus weapons usable materials (highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium) in Russia is now both uncertain and potentially vast - possibly three to four times the amount contained in Moscow’s deployed strategic force. 

This is just the beginning. In addition to surplus military fissile, the amount of surplus civilian separated plutonium world-wide has more than tripled since l990. This civilian material today could be fashioned into more than 30,000 crude bombs - i.e. more than five times the number of weapons the U.S. currently deploys. Finally, the uncertainties surrounding China’s and India’s growing nuclear production capabilities and stockpiles are no less profound. 

Together these Post Cold War trends have made controlling strategic weapons goods much more difficult and highlight the need for three new forms of restraint: 

1. Preventing not just listed commodities, but unlisted strategic goods from going to weapons projects by using new and existing export control authority. In specific, getting other nations to adopt the kind of catch-all controls the U.S. and the European Union have and using existing multilateral export control regimes to assure members’ denials are not undercut by other members. 

2. Getting more accurate inventories of the status and amounts of nuclear weapons usable materials world-wide, starting with Russia. 

3. Strengthening U.S. authority to negotiate both of the above by ending U.S. subsidies to known proliferators and by upholding existing U.S. nonproliferation laws, particularly with regard to U.S. cooperation with known proliferators, such as Russia, China, and North Korea. 

Catching Bad Exports to Bad Destinations

With the precipitous decline in the number of licensed exports both here and abroad (1) there has been increased interest in focusing the controls that remain on “end users of concern.” As the Deutch-Specter Commission to Assess the Organization of the Federal Government to Combat the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction noted in its final report (recommendation 4.1): 

For export controls to keep proliferation-sensitive materials, equipment and technology out of the wrong hands, assessments of the likely end user should be critical to decisions of whether to approve or deny any export license. This is increasingly true, as shown by our experience in Iraq. Proliferators will revert to using “low” technology when they are denied access to high technology and their WMD aspirations require only a “low-tech” solution. 

This new proliferation challenge, however, cannot simply be addressed with good intelligence. In addition, nations must have legal authority to control not only “high” technology, but relevant “low” technology not on any current control list. The question is how. During the Cold War two approaches were taken. Multilateral consensus was reached either to add items to legal control lists or to limit exports to specific destinations. Sometimes consensus was reached on both. 

Today, however, it is much more difficult to reach such consensus. On the one hand, key exporting nations disagree about what countries or projects might be dangerous. On the other hand, the range of technologies that might be used to make strategic arms is too broad and expanding to permit a description in any static legal listing. As such, trying to force agreement over such matters, as we tried in creating the Wassenaar Arrangement, is a surefire way to fail. 

There is, however, an alternative. Instead of trying to force agreement over end destinations and control entries, the U.S. could continue to use existing export control regimes but encourage members to use and adopt catch-all restraints. Such restraints were first developed in the l970s to capture U.S. dual-use exports not on any U.S. or multilateral control lists that might nonetheless help make nuclear weapons. After Desert Storm, the U.S. expanded its use of such catch-all authority to cover unlisted dual use exports that might help other nations make long-range missiles or chemical and biological weapons. Shortly after it promulgated export regulations, the European Union (EU) adopted such catch-all controls as well. 

Under such restraints, if an exporter knows or is informed by his government that one of his exports might be used to develop a foreign strategic weapon, his government can require that an export license be secured for the export and deny its approval. The genius of this approach is that it encourages least common denominator results - i.e., maximum restraint -- instead of lowering controls to a common denominator that all parties to export control efforts might be able to agree to. Instead of debating endlessly among multilateral export control members about what items should be controlled to what destinations, then, this approach encourages members to exchange substantive threat assessments and leaves each to determine what it should control where. 

This is quite flexible. On the other hand, the approach is firm where it needs to be. The reason why has to do with the no undercut provision already present in the charters of the Australia Group, Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime. As is clearly provided in these regimes’ rules, once a member denies an export and so notifies the control regime, no member can undercut the denial by shipping the same item to the same destination without first gaining the agreement of the other members. In a number of cases, the EU and the U.S. have mated existing no undercut requirements with their own catch all controls and successfully blocked critical goods that were not any control list from being exported to bad destinations. 

This trend should be encouraged. Unfortunately, not all members of existing export control regimes have catch-all control authority in place. In addition, those promoting exports both here and abroad generally oppose the use of such authority. If we are serious about catching bad exports to bad destinations, though, we need to encourage the adoption and use of such controls and back their use much more vigorously with appropriate intelligence sharing. 

Reducing Uncertainties Over the Greatest Proliferation Threat

If all one had to worry about was improving multilateral controls over strategic technology and materials, tightening such controls would be our sole nonproliferation objective. Unfortunately, there is a far greater proliferation threat, which has grown dramatically since the end of the Cold War. That threat is the burgeoning world-wide surplus of nuclear weapons usable materials and the increasing number of nondeployed U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads. 

At the height of the Cold War, most nuclear weapons usable materials were contained in the 50,000 or more warheads the U.S. and Soviet Union had deployed. Since START I, though, the U.S. and Russia have reduced their combined strategic nuclear weapons deployments to approximately 12,000. Although the U.S. has been fairly open about the number of tactical weapons, ready and inactive reserve warheads and weapons pits it has along with how many tons of military fissile it is holding, the Russians have not. 

Indeed, there are significant uncertainties. Experts believe Moscow has an additional 14,000 tactical and ready and inactive reserve warheads although these experts have only the vaguest idea of what the breakout is for each category (see chart I). Even more disturbing are the uncertainties surrounding how much surplus weapons materials - highly enriched uranium (HEU) and separated plutonium (Pu) - Russia might have. Conservative estimates of Russia’s surplus HEU holdings range between 700 and 1,200 metric tons. As for its surplus weapons-grade plutonium holdings, these estimates range from 135 to 150 metric tons. By any measure, these numbers and the uncertainties are large. Indeed, the difference between current high and low estimates of Russia’s military nuclear surplus - 515 metric tons of fissile - is enough to fabricate approximately 23,000 advanced thermonuclear devices - i.e., between 3 and 4 times the number of weapons that the U.S. currently deploys. It also should be noted that in the Russian case, the U.S. has been working to reduce these uncertainties for at least 10 years. In the case of China, we have even less information. 

This, then, brings us to yet another worrisome uncertainty -- what the future status and size might be of the world’s civilian holdings of separated weapons usable plutonium. During the height of the Cold War, there was relatively little of this material. Today, however, over 30,000 crude weapons could be fabricated from civilian separated plutonium now on hand. Although this is a median estimate, this figure is likely to remain this high and might even rise during the next ten years. Again these figures are estimates; the exact numbers are unknown (see chart II). 

That said, such uncertainties about size and weapons status of both the world’s civil and military fissile holdings confront us with a new set of security challenges. On the one hand, these uncertainties are making it increasingly difficult to know how many weapons nations like Russia, China, India and Japan might be able to fabricate how quickly (see chart III). On the other hand, they are increasing the chances that nuclear diversions could go undetected to smaller hostile states (or subnational groups). 

None of this makes sound defense planning or effective arms control any easier. Indeed, whether one is for or against missile defenses or for deploying or reducing more nuclear weapons, the large size of these uncertainties make one’s life far more difficult. Certainly, more accurate inventories of these materials and their status would allow defense planners to do a much better job of bounding and hedging against potential breakout scenarios. In fact, with the current high level of uncertainties, most defense planners will simply want to hold on to as many nuclear warheads at the highest level of readiness as they can. Similarly, the level of missile defense deemed sufficient must be much higher, if the number of weapons other nations might quickly deploy remains so large and uncertain. With a more accurate inventory that reduces such uncertainties followed by multilateral efforts to make nuclear weapons usable materials less accessible, high-end nuclear or missile defense hedging would be less necessary. 

At the same time, getting such an inventory is critical to the future of arms control. Certainly, arms controllers can no longer argue that they are significantly reducing the nuclear threat if all they can constrain are the relatively small numbers of deployed strategic weapons. The uncertainties and risks posed by surplus nuclear holdings, after all, could easily result in the deployment of many times the number of currently fielded weapons. 

Given these realities, not only liberal organizations, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, but conservatives, including presidential candidate George W. Bush, have made getting a more accurate inventory of these nuclear holdings a top priority. In this, both realism and optimism are at play. Certainly, if we are unable to secure more accurate nuclear inventory data from our friends and others, it recommends far more investment in national security. If, on the other hand, other nations are willing to match our level of nuclear openness, we may be able to take additional steps to reduce the size and accessibility of the world’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons usable materials. In such a world, the nuclear threat might lessen and spending on non-nuclear defenses to fend off the risks that remained would make sense. 

Maintaining Our Moral Authority

Tackling the challenges posed by dual-use exports and the growing surpluses of nuclear weapons useable materials will be stressful enough. What will make addressing these problems even more difficult, though, is continued U.S. inattentiveness to its own proliferation behavior. I am speaking here not about lax enforcement of U.S. nonproliferation sanctions laws, which in many cases are too distasteful to our commercial and diplomatic instincts to command strict adherence. Instead, I am talking about our government’s continued willingness to subsidize known proliferating entities. The U.S. government still licenses and frequently guarantees and finances strategic technology exports to known proliferating entities. These entities, meanwhile, are free to raise funds in U.S. bond and equity markets without disclosing how such funds might be used. 

In the past, such subsidies included $21 million in U.S. Export-Import Bank guaranteed exports of precursors and controlled chemical production equipment to Nanjing Chemical. The U.S. knew this firms was proliferating to Iran but only sanctioned it after the Senate ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. China National Nuclear Corporation, meanwhile, received approximately a billion dollars in Export-Import Bank subsidized steam turbines, nuclear engineering, and U.S. Department of Energy nuclear assistance even while it was helping Iran with its nuclear program. Even now, hundreds of millions in U.S. satellite exports continue to be transferred to the very Chinese firms selling missile and related technology to Iran, Pakistan, and the Middle East. These are the same Chinese firms who are making the M-11 missiles now being targeted against Taiwan. In addition, the U.S. has allowed Chinese financial institutions with clear ties to the Peoples Liberation Army to raise billions of dollars in untied loans through the U.S. bond market. 

Matters are hardly much different with Russia. Here the U.S. is giving Minatom - a Russian entity building nuclear reactors in Iran and nuclear weapons in Russia -- billions for enriched uranium and other forms of nuclear cooperation. And yet, in most cases, U.S. officials have only the vaguest idea of how Minatom is spending this money. Also, the Specter-Deutch Commission received several briefings on how Russian firms trying to develop Iran’s oil industry were seeking billions of dollars in Wall Street’s bond market. (2) Finally, until recently, NASA was paying the Russian Space Agency (RSA) hundreds of millions of dollars for cooperative work on the International Space Agency even though the RSA was helping Iran develop long-range rockets. 

Then, there is North Korea, a Stalinist state for which the U.S. plans to build two modern reactors capable of producing at least 50 bombs worth of plutonium a year at a cost of over $4 billion. What’s astounding about this is that Pyongyang is still in violation of its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and its International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards obligations. In fact, President Clinton recently notified Congress that there was evidence that Pyongyang is pursuing a covert nuclear weapons program. 

At best, this is bad business. Not only is engaging in such trade and aid a risky way to make money (or lose it), it directly undermines our ability to work effectively with others against proliferation. After all, we can hardly ask our friends to make sacrifices for nonproliferation if we ourselves are lending known proliferators such direct support. 

Congress understands this. Indeed, it recently made this clear with its unanimous passage of the Iran Nonproliferation Act, which suspends further NASA progress payments to the Russian Space Agency (RSA) until the White House can certify that the RSA has stopped proliferating missile technology to Iran. For the first time, Congress has said no to subsidizing bad actors. More, however, needs to be done. At a minimum, Congress must make sure implementation of the Agreed Framework and other nonproliferation agreements do not violate or bend existing U.S. nonproliferation requirements and that all parties live up to their nonproliferation pledges. In the case of the Agreed Framework, Bipartisan House legislation passed overwhelmingly last fall that would have assured this had the Senate had time to act. This legislation was recently reintroduced by Congressmen Gilman and Markey and will soon be marked up in committee. 

Beyond this, Congress needs to consider what steps could be taken to limit or prohibit the licensing of U.S. exports to entities our intelligence agencies have clearly identified as proliferators. Proposed legislation, the “Proliferation Desubsidization Act” introduced by Congressman Weldon and others attempts this. It too deserves review. Finally, to keep proliferators from funding their projects with U.S. private funds, Congress should make sure that U.S. investors at least know what they are investing in. A proposal to legislate such transparency, was recently offered in the “U.S. Market Security Act” by Congressman Bauchus. I understand that this committee is interested in such legislation as well. 

In short, there’s plenty of good work yet to be done. What work there is to do, however, will require more than simply extending controls created before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I trust this committee and our government in concert with others will not shy from taking this work on. This concludes my testimony. 


1.  At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. licensed over 150,000 dual-use items annually.  Currently, the U.S. licenses approximately 8,000.

2.  See page 78, recommendation 5.25 of the Report of the Commission to Assess the Organization of the Federal Government to Combat the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

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founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues. NPEC educates policymakers, journalists,
and university professors about proliferation threats and possible new policies and measures to meet them.
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