Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 20:35 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 20:35 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: PSI one tool among many

10 August 2009 09:19

Emma Belcher is a Research Fellow at the Belfer Center, Harvard.

My Lowy Institute Policy Brief, A Tighter Net: Strengthening the Proliferation Security Initiative, was published last Thursday. Dr Christian Enemark from the University of Sydney had this response to the paper (my thoughts follow):

I agree with Emma Belcher's observation that 'the PSI net has serious gaps'. However, more fundamental than the problem of limited state participation is the PSI gap with respect to one category of so-called 'weapons of mass destruction': biological weapons. The PSI could only assist in preventing biological 'proliferation' if bioweapons-relevant technologies were controllable in ways identical or similar to the control of nuclear materials. They are not. Important differences include:

  1. Almost all biological agents (except smallpox virus) are found naturally in the environment and at countless government, academic and commercial laboratories worldwide.
  2. It is impossible to track biological materials as one would track fissile materials.
  3. Scientific advancements are bring us closer to being able to chemically synthesise entire micro-organisms from scratch, thus obviating the need for shipments of live biological agents.

The most important overall difference is that the spread of bioweapons-relevant technology is overwhelmingly an intangible phenomenon determined by the knowledge and behaviour of individual biological scientists. Thus attempts to control physical quantities of biological materials are for the most part misdirected and ineffective.

Biological weapons present a proliferation challenge so far removed from the nuclear realm as to be almost unrecognisable to traditional arms control practitioners. A nuclear-oriented nonproliferation model of intercepting prohibited cargoes cannot simply be grafted onto the biological realm in the name of addressing the full range of 'WMD' threats. The scale and nature of the problem of biological weapons is fundamentally different from that of nuclear weapons such that the nuclear-focused PSI cannot accurately be described as a response to all 'WMD'.

Dr Enemark is quite right – biological material, with its widespread legitimate uses, is much more difficult to control than nuclear and radiological material, which is highly regulated and whose production is much more readily identifiable. However, the PSI does not attempt to 'control' physical quantities of biological materials as he suggests.

PSI participants do not intend to stop and search all shipments of WMD-related material, as to do so would impose prohibitive costs to government and industry and be counterproductive. Rather, the PSI relies on actionable intelligence to inform interdictions and existing legal means for seizing materials and prosecuting those with criminal intent.

In addition to pursuing components that can constitute WMD, moreover, the PSI focuses on delivery systems such as Scud missiles, which can be used for delivery of all WMD, including biological weapons. Indeed, the large size of Scud missiles means they could more easily be discovered upon intelligence-driven inspection than material sufficient for a nuclear device, such as a soft drink can-sized amount of plutonium. In this respect, the PSI addresses more than simply nuclear-related threats.

Much of the PSI’s success can be attributed to the way it has strengthened transgovernmental networks to deal with aspects of WMD proliferation and raised the profile of the issue. It is for these reasons, as well as operational successes, that the PSI should be strengthened to include more states with stakes in nonproliferation of WMD. Attention would be much better directed in strengthening the PSI is this respect.

My policy brief focused on nuclear issues. However, it is undeniable that there is more work to be done with respect to the unique challenges that biological weapons present. States would do well to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention with respect to verification, compliance and enforcement, progress on which stalled following the US withdrawal from negotiations in 2001. Perhaps there will be a better prognosis under the Obama Administration, and ahead of the 2011 review conference, although it remains unclear how much political momentum there will be in this direction.

No one is suggesting that the PSI is a panacea for every aspect of WMD proliferation. Rather, it is one tool among many that can, and should, be used to fight proliferation.