No mission in the fight against global terrorism is more critical than preventing a nuclear, biological, or chemical attack. And it is not a mission the United States can undertake alone. To that end, the Bush administration led the U.N. Security Council in drafting and adopting Resolution 1540, which requires that all states do their part in preventing proliferation of these weapons and related materials, as well as their means of delivery. Nations are obliged to take “appropriate effective” actions to criminalize proliferation, to tighten security regulations and practices, to enhance law enforcement capabilities, and to adopt more stringent export controls.
Given the importance of this mission, one might think the U.S. government keeps a comprehensive list of which countries are doing all they can to comply with Resolution 1540. More to the point, one would think the government routinely evaluates which countries are doing a terrible job.
You might think this, but you would be wrong. Yes, there are plenty of laws that require or authorize sanctions against governments that knowingly provide direct support to proliferators. But these laws offer little protection against those governments that–through neglect, corruption, or incompetence–fail to keep the materials and technology needed to make nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons from slipping out of their control and across their borders.
This lack of evaluation is very unusual. Every year, Congress requires the executive branch to report on foreign governments’ performance in numerous other areas, such as their human rights policies, their commitment to protecting religious freedom, and their efforts to combat narcotics trafficking.
Among such judgments, the annual Trafficking in Persons Report offers a model for assessing foreign governments’ efforts to prevent proliferation. Since 2000, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act has required the administration to assign countries to one of three categories: Tier 1, for countries meeting minimum standards for action against human trafficking; Tier 2, for countries failing to meet the standards but making significant efforts toward compliance; and Tier 3, for countries neither meeting the standards nor making serious efforts to do so. For these Tier 3 countries, the president is empowered to suspend certain types of non-humanitarian, non-trade-related foreign aid. And nations in the Tier 2 category that show signs of falling behind in their efforts are placed on a special “watch list” that effectively names and shames them, while putting them on notice that they might soon be subjected to sanctions.
The power of the Trafficking in Persons Report can be seen in countries’ reactions to a Tier 3 listing. Numerous states that have found themselves potentially subject to penalties–such as Bolivia, Cambodia, Ecuador, Israel, Greece, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates–won their way off the Tier 3 list in the next year by passing new legislation, launching investigations, stepping up prosecutions, and strengthening efforts to shelter victims of trafficking.
The Trafficking in Persons Report does not perfectly fit the case of proliferation. For instance, the complete details of countries’ failings in securing such weapons, materials, or related technology would need to be classified. Also, nonproliferation and antiterrorism assistance should be excluded from the aid threatened by a Tier 3 listing. But such an annual proliferation assessment, backed up by real consequences, would encourage better behavior: Few countries would want to risk losing important military or economic aid because of a Tier 3 rating, and no U.S. president would be comfortable publicly giving taxpayers’ money to a government judged to be putting Americans at risk of a nuclear, biological, or chemical terrorist attack.
Congress should require the executive branch both to assess annually how well countries are meeting their legal obligations to prevent the proliferation of the world’s most dangerous weapons and to withhold aid to those governments that refuse to meet those obligations. The consequences of governments around the world shirking their duty are simply too high.