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Diplomacy in Action

Addressing Next Generation Proliferation Challenges

Thomas Countryman
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
The Commonwealth Club
San Francisco, CA
October 26, 2012


Date: 10/26/2012 Location: San Francisco, CA Description: Addressing Next Generation Proliferation Challenges, Assistant Secretary Thomas Countryman delivering remarks before the Commonwealth Club, San Francisco, CA.
 - State Dept ImageThank you, Paul, for the generous introduction and, to the Ploughshares Fund, for its smart and strategic approach to building a more safe and secure world. I’d like to start out by conveying my appreciation to the Commonwealth Club for inviting me here today. The Commonwealth Club has a long-established tradition of bringing together some of the greatest minds to discuss the day’s most pressing problems. I’ll try to do my level best to preserve that venerable tradition. It’s a real honor and privilege for me to talk with you today about one of the greatest challenges facing all of us: the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and transfers of destabilizing conventional weapons. 

There’s really no better place to have this conversation than here in the Bay Area. The region is home to some of the world’s leading research universities, the most innovative technology and life sciences firms around, and several leading National Laboratories, including the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The latter has been a terrific host this week to the G-8 Nonproliferation Directors Group meetings, which the United States is chairing this year – and my excuse for leaving Washington to be here.

50 years ago, the world waited – perilously close to the brink of nuclear war – to see if President Kennedy and his senior advisers could reach a peaceful resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cold War is, of course, long over. The possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union has disappeared. Our kids no longer need to worry that their world could be destroyed overnight in a single flash of light. But while the threat of nuclear war between countries has receded, the world the new generation will inherit is far more complex and, in some ways, more dangerous given the pursuit of nuclear weapons by violent extremists.

Think of the challenge. Just one nuclear weapon exploding in San Francisco could potentially kill hundreds of thousands of people. The demand for the world’s worst weapons, while hardly widespread, does now include some terrorist groups with catastrophic ambitions. The illicit market for conventional weapons is a six billion dollar enterprise that impacts security and regional stability around the world. It takes some real skill, but the knowledge, materials, and equipment required to make at least a crude chemical or biological weapon is both attainable and relatively inexpensive. We should be thankful that building nuclear weapons and their delivery systems is a complex undertaking that requires significantly more resources, including advanced scientific and technical expertise. But even here, individuals motivated by ideology and/or profit are willing to support countries that thumb their nose at internationally-accepted nonproliferation norms.

Insurgents, terrorists, criminals, and drug cartels already have access to small arms and light weapons. Imagine what would happen if they also had ready access to weapons of mass destruction? More than a decade ago, Osama bin Laden proclaimed that "acquiring weapons (WMD) for the defense of Muslims is a religious duty.” And we know that several retired nuclear scientists met with Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan a month prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Keeping the world’s most dangerous weapons out of its most dangerous hands is job one for the International Security and Nonproliferation Bureau (ISN) at the State Department.

It’s a truly sobering challenge, but it gives me comfort to know that I support an administration that has gone to great lengths to emphasize the importance of nonproliferation to national security. In his first major foreign policy address in Prague, President Obama declared our country’s commitment to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons as part of his long-term vision of a world without nuclear weapons. The President said that a nuclear-free world isn’t something we can, or should, try to achieve hastily, by ourselves, or without careful consultation with our partners. But, over time, small steps can lead to a big change for the better. Building on the accomplishments of our predecessors, we have continued this journey by taking concrete steps to reduce stockpiles of nuclear weapons, secure vulnerable nuclear materials better, and develop and implement plans to make it harder for terrorists to get their hands on them.

Today I will describe the changing nature of nonproliferation work and discuss the dynamic programs and partnerships that we have established in the United States and internationally to realize the President’s “Prague Agenda.”

Let me briefly begin by providing a thumbnail sketch of the changing proliferation threat. For decades, the proliferation of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, as well as their means of delivery, was a “State” problem that governments addressed by international treaties and conventions like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Biological Weapons Convention, and the Chemical Weapons Convention. These legal instruments, the international organizations that monitor them, the export control regimes to reinforce them, and the related international sanctions to discourage cheating all seek to curb proliferation among States.

During the Cold War, States were the likely sources of, and destinations for, weapons of mass destruction. Comparatively few countries possessed the resources and know-how to produce WMD and only a few more felt the need to seek such capabilities, given the two superpowers’ security guarantees.

The end of the Cold War, the fragmentation of the Soviet Union, and the advent of globalization contributed to the erosion of national sovereignty. Mass communications and information-sharing technologies decentralized power to non-state actors, giving rise to, in Tom Friedman’s phrase, “super-empowered individuals” with the tools to threaten international security like never before. At the same time, countries like North Korea and Iran have emerged as more traditional threats. But the proliferation challenge has fundamentally evolved from an exclusively “State” problem to a “network” problem that includes States but also unscrupulous scientists, engineers, businessmen and brokers around the world.

The story of the A.Q. Khan proliferation network illustrates this new dynamic. Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan is a Pakistani nuclear scientist and metallurgist who gained illicit access to sensitive uranium enrichment designs and know-how through a position he held in Europe. Uranium enrichment can be used for peaceful nuclear energy production or, in a highly enriched state, can be used to make nuclear weapons.

Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, built an international proliferation network that used front companies and deceptive transshipment practices to elude detection. He and his colleagues, who had far-flung nodes across the globe, contributed to nuclear weapons programs in Iran, Libya, North Korea and Pakistan. The Khan network was taken down in 2003, and Khan was arrested and later confessed his crimes on Pakistani television. Some, but regrettably not all, of Khan’s associates around the world have been prosecuted or have been convicted of related crimes. Khan himself is now running for a parliamentary seat and has disavowed his earlier confession.

The story of the A.Q. Khan network shows how a determined figure and his cronies can take advantage of modern technologies, effectively exploit international weaknesses in trade controls, and skillfully conceal illicit WMD materials and components to spread the world’s deadliest technologies. Indeed, tracking down and securing these kinds of sensitive items in today’s international marketplace can be like finding a needle in a haystack.

Fortunately, we have developed collaborative approaches to confront these challenges. First, within our government, we broke through stovepipes to create well coordinated, interagency approaches for nonproliferation. In fact, I can honestly say that this is the strongest collaboration I have seen across U.S. agencies working on any one set of issues in my 30-year career in government. And this collaboration goes beyond just the Executive Branch. The Cooperative Threat Reduction Program initiated by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar after the fall of the Soviet Union, is a whole-of-government, bipartisan success story when it comes to safeguarding the materials, facilities, and equipment needed to develop WMD.

From its initial focus twenty years ago on Russia and the newly independent states, the Nunn-Lugar program has withstood the test of time, expanding to other parts of the world and evolving toward a focus on biological threat reduction. In the years ahead, I am confident that both the United States and Russia will maintain the political will necessary to complete this important, unfinished business.

The lead implementer of the Nunn-Lugar program is the Department of Defense (DoD). Other U.S. agencies, such as the Department of State, work closely with DoD to coordinate, plan, and support mutually reinforcing efforts. For example, the Department of Energy has complementary nonproliferation programs that aim to secure nuclear and radiological materials and strengthen the capability of foreign governments to deter, detect, and interdict illicit transnational trafficking.

Likewise, in my own bureau, we do our part to address the threat posed by vulnerable weapons and materials, as well as the expertise needed to develop them. My bureau helps countries establish, improve, and enforce controls over the trade and transfer of weapons and related dual-use items. We engage scientists with WMD skills so that they can put their expertise to use for peaceful purposes; we help secure biological laboratories housing deadly pathogens; and we work with other countries to develop teams to thwart nuclear smugglers. From time-to-time, unexpected nonproliferation and disarmament opportunities present themselves, set into motion by global and regional political changes like the Arab Spring. To stay ready, my bureau maintains a rapid-response fund to exploit narrow windows-of-opportunity to remove dangerous weapons, materials, and equipment in sometimes challenging political environments.

Of course, diplomacy is the main business of the State Department, which brings me to my second point: We are seeing unprecedented interest and cooperation across governments around the world in preventing the use of WMD. In 2010, the President called together the world’s first-ever nuclear security summit to address the challenge of keeping the world’s nuclear materials out of terrorist hands. Over 40 nations came together in Washington in April 2010 – the largest meeting of world leaders on American soil since the signing of the UN Charter here in San Francisco in 1945. The nations at the Washington nuclear security summit committed themselves to lock down vulnerable nuclear material within four years and prevent nuclear smuggling.

And I am proud to say that we have made considerable advances since this inaugural summit. By the second one held this past March in Seoul, around 480 kilograms of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) were removed from eight countries for safe disposal. That’s enough material to produce about 19 nuclear weapons. Ukraine and Mexico accomplished a total "cleanout" of their entire HEU stockpiles, returning them to Russia and the United States. In the two years since the Washington Summit, we have converted the HEU equivalent of 3,000 nuclear weapons in Russia and the United States to harmless Low Enriched Uranium (LEU). In Seoul, countries agreed to additional commitments, so two years from now, when world leaders gather in the Netherlands for a third summit, we will see even more progress towards securing nuclear materials and denying them to terrorists.

The cornerstone of our nonproliferation diplomacy is the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, a confrontation that President Kennedy believed left a one in three chance of nuclear war, he saw the possibility that as soon as a decade later, his successor would have to “face a world in which 15 or 20 or 25 nations may have these weapons.” Thanks in large part to the NPT, that dire prediction never came to pass. Today, its nearly 190 member countries have agreed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, despite the capabilities many of them have to build them. Why has the NPT proven to be such a success in discouraging the spread of nuclear weapons? At its heart, the NPT offers the following “bargain”: States that have nuclear weapons commit to disarm, States that don’t have nuclear weapons commit not to acquire them, and everyone enjoys the right to peaceful nuclear energy.

In Prague, the President affirmed the bargain’s soundness and the NPT’s linchpin status for international nonproliferation cooperation. We take this commitment very seriously and have worked hard to strengthen the NPT regime. In 2010, at an important international conference to review the NPT, the United States worked closely with others to bolster global confidence in the regime and build support for enhanced methods to detect and deter future efforts to pursue covert nuclear weapons. For the first time in 10 years, all the NPT members reached a consensus on a detailed action plan covering each of the Treaty’s three pillars: nonproliferation, disarmament, and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Some key elements of the plan include the entry into force of the U.S.-Russian New START Treaty and universal adherence to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) Additional Protocol (which is an enhanced system of monitoring nuclear programs by this international organization). The plan also provides support to a new IAEA initiative to raise $100 million over five years for peaceful nuclear applications in human health, water management, food safety, and the responsible use of nuclear power.

The United States is also leading by example in keeping its end of the NPT bargain. In addition to contributing generously to the IAEA’s Peaceful Uses Initiative, we signed a historic, new strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty, New START. That agreement commits both the United States and Russia to further reductions in our nuclear stockpiles. As we continue discussions with Russia on even further nuclear reductions, the President has made clear that we can ensure the security of the United States and our allies and deter against any threat at the same time. We can do all these things and continue to pursue ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. And after years of delay, it’s time to find a path forward on a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of materials for nuclear weapons.

As part of America’s leadership on nonproliferation, we have been working patiently and persistently with the international community to encourage all parties to work towards the regional conditions necessary to create a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Ultimately, however, only the states in the region can create the right kind of atmosphere to host a conference to establish it. That goal remains, as of now, elusive given the unsettled regional environment. However, in Southeast Asia, we have made more progress on a nuclear weapon free zone treaty, having reached an agreement to sign that treaty’s Protocol just as soon as some ancillary concerns are resolved.

Now, unfortunately, not all countries are willing to comply with their NPT obligations. North Korea announced its withdrawal in 2003, and both Iran and Syria remain in non-compliance. To deal with those who don’t play by widely-accepted rules, the United States has rallied the international community in applying sustained and meaningful global pressure through a series of UN sanctions resolutions, while taking strong actions of its own. In the case of Iran, American leadership in international organizations like the NPT and IAEA has enabled us to rally global support for strong and effective sanctions to censure Iran for failing to meet its international nuclear obligations and pressure Iran’s leaders to fulfill those commitments and address the world’s concerns about their nuclear program.

At the same time, we have led international efforts to address the evolving threat of WMD acquisition by non-State actors. Treaties conceived principally as bulwarks against proliferation by states, such as the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions, have gained added relevance in today’s world: We are now more focused than ever on interpreting these treaty obligations to require governments to prevent the acquisition or use of these weapons by anyone on their territories. These efforts are reinforced by the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540. A groundbreaking global initiative promoted by President George W. Bush, UNSCR 1540 calls on all states to develop and enforce measures to protect sensitive materials as well as to prevent and deter illicit access to WMD and their means of delivery. Over the last four years, we have continued to support the 1540 initiative, pledging $3 million in funds in 2011 and agreeing to extend assistance to countries seeking to enhance their capabilities over the next decade.

The international community is also working to stop the trafficking of WMD materials through the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), another President Bush-era effort to establish a more coordinated and effective basis for conducting WMD interdictions. I’m happy to say that, this August, the Dominican Republic became the PSI’s 101st participant. Finally, the international community is also coming together to address the nuclear terrorism threat via the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GINCT). This joint U.S.-Russia effort, which includes 85 nations and four international organizations, seeks to strengthen the global capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to acts of nuclear terrorism. UNSCR 1540, PSI, and the GINCT are among the newest set of tools to respond to contemporary proliferation challenges. Along with sanctions, they slow down the efforts of countries like Iran and North Korea who disregard international rules and commitments.

We face not only the challenge of terrorists seeking WMD and states like Iran and North Korea who flout the nonproliferation regime, but also the real danger of regional nuclear and missile arms races.

More nuclear material and more nuclear weapons in more places means less security. So we encourage all countries to exercise restraint in their nuclear programs and to take steps that build confidence and trust, and reduce nuclear risks in the process. Talking to each other is, of course, critical to improving mutual understanding, so we also seek increased engagement through in-depth formal and informal dialogues with countries like India, Pakistan and China on these and related security issues.

I hope I have left you with a greater understanding of the challenges your government faces and how we are working every day to address them. Before concluding, let me briefly say a few words about your role as members of industry, civil society, or academia. One of the biggest lessons we learned from the A.Q. Khan experience is that WMD proliferation cannot be tackled by governments alone – not in a globalized world with super-empowered individuals, modern technology, and massive, lighting-speed flows of goods and capital.

Firms that manufacture so-called “dual-use” items with both commercial and military applications, shipping and freight forwarding companies, and other corporate entities all made a contribution – many of them unwittingly – to Khan’s network. In short, virtually everyone can play a positive role. We have teamed up with universities to provide training to foreign border control and customs officials. We are also building a “network of nonproliferators” through our outreach to strategic industries. And we are helping train foreign officials to ensure that nonproliferation know-how and best practices are shared with the private sector overseas.

Classification societies, insurers, shippers, and credit organizations, for example, play a significant role in the implementation of sanctions against countries like Iran and North Korea. Nongovernmental organizations serve an important purpose in bringing to light high-quality research, keeping the public informed and engaged, and pushing the nonproliferation agenda around the world. So if you have any ideas or solutions from your community that might help us keep the world’s most dangerous weapons away from the hands of the most dangerous individuals, my colleagues and I want to hear about it.

For those of you who need some more old-fashioned incentive, the State Department launched a $10,000 innovation challenge. We called for creative ideas about how to use commonly-available information devices to help verify that arms control treaties are being followed and to discourage cheating. We recognize that advances in information technology and social media may be able to directly support our disarmament and nonproliferation efforts. I am sure that if the great brains of the Bay Area – the scientists in the path-breaking labs, the engineers in the research and high tech centers of Silicon Valley, and the professors and their students at places like Stanford and Cal – focus on these issues, we will be able to develop even more effective and less costly solutions to the problems I have described today.

Make no mistake, we’ve made real strides over the past decade in rising to the nonproliferation challenges at hand, but we still have a long way to go and we won’t get there without the sustained commitment of governments, industries, and civil societies worldwide.

Let me conclude on a personal note. You undoubtedly are aware of the tragedy in Benghazi, Libya last month that claimed the life of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other colleagues. Chris lived a long and distinguished career in the Foreign Service and was widely-recognized as an expert on the Middle East. But before the President appointed Chris to be the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Chris directed ISN’s office of Multilateral Nuclear and Security Affairs. In this capacity, he led some of our efforts related to the global nonproliferation regime, including the NPT, IAEA safeguards, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy through the IAEA.

You no doubt have heard some of the many resounding testimonials: Chris was a dedicated public servant, a gifted and passionate diplomat, and a patriot who believed that America can and must play an active, positive role in the world. He was also, of course, a Californian at his core. So here, in his home state, let me say this: We owe it to Chris and to future generations of Americans like him not to shy away from the world’s most pressing problems and to make sure that all of us are doing what we can to build a safer, more secure, and peaceful world free of its deadliest weapons.

I appreciate your taking time out of your busy day, and I hope you will consider staying in touch with the State Department through our real and virtual engagements. You should find nearby brochures that include further information about how to contact us. I now look forward to your questions and comments.

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