Nonproliferation with Attitude: Counterproliferation Tools and Diplomacy in U.S. Foreign Policy
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
Good day, everyone. It’s a pleasure to be here, and I am grateful for the chance to speak to you about a vital facet of our work at the State Department that is sometimes overlooked: counterproliferation diplomacy.
I. What is Counterproliferation?
First, it’s useful to begin with definitions. I am sometimes asked what “counterproliferation” means, and how it differs from “nonproliferation.” In truth, there really isn’t an official definition, but let me give an informal answer: counterproliferation is a subcomponent of nonproliferation policy — a particularly proactive piece, or what I think of as “nonpro with attitude.”
In this typology, traditional nonproliferation work involves creating and maintaining barriers to the flow of dangerous technologies into dangerous state or non-state hands, impeding transfer of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), WMD delivery systems, and advanced conventional weapons, and any items, materials, or know-how related thereto. In traditional nonproliferation policy, we work to prevent technology and material from getting into such hands by ensuring that effective institutions, legal authorities, and practices are in place that make it easier for responsible parties to detect and prevent such activity before it occurs.
As I see it, however, counterproliferation — or “CP” — goes a step beyond just barrier-building. Whereas traditional nonproliferation seeks to lock down and prevent destabilizing movement of mankind’s most dangerous capabilities, counterproliferation directs itself against proliferation-related activities themselves. CP targets particular transfers for interdiction to ensure that they do not reach their intended destination, and it aims to disrupt and dismantle the networks of illicit merchants, brokers, shippers, transshippers, middlemen, financiers, and facilitators that organize and undertake such transfers.
In one form or another, the United States has been engaging in CP work for a long time, but it really bloomed as a focus of U.S. foreign policy activity in the early 2000s — led by officials such as John Bolton when he was Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, and Bob Joseph, first at the National Security Council staff and then also as Undersecretary of State. CP is a top priority for the current administration as well.
II. Tools of Counterproliferation
The toolkit we use to disrupt proliferation-related transactions begins with good intelligence — and indeed the U.S. intelligence community (IC) has done a good job of building up its capabilities to inform and support CP priorities. Indeed, the U.S. interagency has developed effective mechanisms to partner with the IC, share information, and bring officials from a kaleidoscope of different departments and agencies together to work collaboratively on dynamic proliferation network targets in real time.
A. National Tools
At the State Department, we are intimately involved in such CP work, and we participate in the key interagency mechanisms and processes through which it is executed. As the lead department for diplomatic and foreign policy engagement with other states, State plays a key and longstanding role in interdiction policy.
Since the 1990s, for instance, State has chaired four interagency working groups that review information on proliferation-related activities and take diplomatic and other actions to stop transfers that pose proliferation risks. These working groups are: the Nuclear Interdiction Action Group (NIAG) addressing proliferation of nuclear weapons-related technologies; the Missile Trade Analysis Group (MTAG) that focuses on the proliferation of equipment and technology that could support the development WMD delivery systems; the SHIELD, which follows transfers of technologies suitable for the production of chemical and biological weapons; and the Technology Transfer Working Group (TTWG), associated with the proliferation of conventional weapons technologies.
Once it is understood that a transaction of proliferation concern may be in the works, or once information is obtained about global proliferation networks, the United States has a range of tools we can employ to try disrupt such activities. With diplomatic outreach, or through law enforcement or other channels, the United States might engage with foreign partners to enlist their help in stopping transactions en route, seizing and disposing of the items in question, arresting or expelling individuals involved, or shuttering associated commercial entities. Where mechanisms exist under legally binding provisions of United Nations Security Council resolutions, we can also report activities to the UN and seek to have entities designated as sanctions violators, so that other UN Member States will be legally obligated to act against these malefactors as well.
Once a transfer of sensitive technology to a program of concern has occurred, there are a range of U.S. legal authorities that we in the United States can use to impose sanctions on the entities or individuals involved or those who protect or facilitate their work, imposing a financial and reputational cost and complicating these entities’ ability to conduct business. We might use Commerce, Treasury, or State Department authorities provided by various Executive Orders (EOs) to penalize support for proliferation-related activity and deny proliferators the materials and resources they need to do their dirty work. Beyond EOs, the United States can use a variety of statutory authorities to designate and apply sanctions to proliferators and their facilitators. The Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act, for instance – or INKSNA – targets any entity, individual, or even a government that provides controlled items to those countries. It is but one of many laws in the U.S. arsenal.
Employing multiple tools simultaneously and in a coordinated way can be extremely effective in enabling us to stop such activity in its tracks and chase the bad actors responsible around the world — making their lives as miserable and unprofitable as possible, and sometimes even getting them put behind bars.
B. Working with Partners
We don’t do all of this work alone. In fact, we’ve been working for years to build international CP partnerships, one of the most important of which is the Proliferation Security Initiative – which we refer to as PSI. Launched in 2003, PSI is a global effort to stop the trafficking of WMD, delivery systems, and related materials to and from states and non-state actors of proliferation concern. Originally a group of 11 states, 105 countries have now endorsed its Statement of Interdiction Principles. Three successive U.S. administrations have supported PSI.
PSI partners agree to use their national capabilities and legal authorities to interdict transfers of proliferation concern, as well as to develop procedures to facilitate information exchange, strengthen national legal authorities for interdiction, and take specific actions in support of interdiction efforts. They also undertake exercises and capacity-building engagements that reinforce their CP like-mindedness and build habits of cooperation in stopping problematic transfers.
Notably, PSI is an activity by likeminded partners, not a formal organization. It does not have “members,” a secretariat, a governing body, or even a formal accession process for joining. This informal and flexible framework, however, is a strength rather than a weakness, for it has helped PSI remain effective over time while avoiding the bureaucratic ossification, lowest-common-denominator consensus decision-making, and sterile formalities of so many international organizations and multilateral fora. PSI’s activities, workshops, and capacity-building engagements have helped partner countries create and sustain a community of policymakers and other experts good at cooperating together on interdiction-related activities. We work hard at this, and PSI continues to conduct a robust schedule of interdiction-related capacity-building events with partners around the world.
And we’ve had real successes in making proliferation-facilitating activity much more difficult, expensive, and risky — and, critically, more rare — than would otherwise have been the case. There is not, and cannot be, any kind of “100 percent solution” in the CP business, for the world is full of dangerous people seeking dangerous things, and no shortage of bad actors trying to make money by helping meet that demand. But our CP work supports critical U.S. national security priorities, and helps make the world a safer place, by disrupting such activities wherever possible and impeding progress on threat capabilities.
Unfortunately, it is usually difficult to talk about CP successes in public. After all, a good deal of this work piggybacks on sensitive intelligence information and involves sensitive relationships with overseas partners — not all of whom are very eager to be known for such cooperation with the United States. It is often better to let the proliferators think that their latest gambit has just collapsed out of bad luck — or better yet, as a result of the incompetence or untrustworthiness of their counterparts in a proliferation network — than it is to let them know that when their deal fell apart, or when their colleague got arrested or their front company got shut down, there were a few of us at the State Department, at Treasury, or in the intelligence and law enforcement communities raising a glass and toasting each other for arranging it. But sometimes that is exactly what we do!
A. The BBC China
But let me offer a couple of illustrative successes that can be talked about. The classic example is now a fairly well-known one, and some of you may recall the merchant vessel BBC China — a ship diverted to Italy in October 2003 while carrying uranium enrichment gas centrifuges from the notorious Pakistani nuclear smuggler A.Q. Khan en route to the secret nuclear weapons program of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
The interdiction of the BBC China was the result of an epic intelligence, diplomatic, and law enforcement effort around the world that led to the dismantlement of Khan’s network and the revelation of its support to nuclear weapons programs in North Korea and Iran, as well as Libya. The ship’s seizure was also the catalyst making possible the conclusion of secret negotiations between U.S. and British officials and Libya over its WMD programs, and it led directly to Qaddafi’s renunciation of WMD and missile work in December 2003 and our successful negotiated and cooperative effort to remove these programs from Libya thereafter. This was a period of tremendous CP successes, and I am proud to have been — in my first period of State service — a part of the small army of U.S. interagency and international partners who contributed to bringing this about.
B. DPRK Ship-to-Ship Transfers
But that was a while ago now, so as a more recent example of successful work in this arena, I’ll offer you a case study in how we work to impede North Korea’s efforts to evade global nonproliferation sanctions through the use of illicit, ship-to-ship transfers of contraband. While focused largely on commodities such as coal, petroleum, and seafood, North Korea’s sanctions evasion networks provide revenue that helps advance and sustain Pyongyang’s WMD and missile programs.
The JIN HYE was a Sierra Leone-flagged vessel photographed in December 2017 engaged in ship-to-ship transfer activity with another vessel in the East China Sea. UNSCRs prohibit ship-to-ship transfers with the DPRK. After we received these images as part of our global CP information-sharing network, U.S. detective work revealed that although the operator of the vessel tried to disguise its identity by painting false International Maritime Organization numbers on the side of the vessel, painting a false name and port of registry on its stern, and painting over its DPRK flag, the second ship was in fact the North Korean vessel CHON MA SAN. We now knew that the JIN HYE was engaged in sanctions evasion in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.
Having figured this out, our diplomatic machine kicked into action. We presented this information to the United Nations DPRK Sanctions Committee, which designated the JIN HYE and the CHON MA SAN for violating UN sanctions on North Korea. This action imposed a port ban on both vessels, forbidding any UN Member State from allowing either ship in port. Additionally, the UN action obligated Sierra Leone to de-flag the JIN HYE, while the CHON MA SAN was subjected to an asset freeze.
With these UN designations in hand, we sent out teams around the world to make life even more miserable for the JIN HYE’s operators. We worked with Sierra Leone to ensure it revoked the flag-of-convenience affiliation that the JIN HYE had enjoyed, rendering the vessel officially stateless and in some sense akin to no more than a pirate on the high seas. We worked with other countries to revoke the ship’s official seaworthiness certification, to drop the insurance coverage that the JIN HYE had previously enjoyed, to close down the companies owning, operating, and managing the vessel, and even to arrest their management. This dramatically constrained the vessel’s ability to operate in the global maritime economy ever again.
This is just one example, and of course things don’t always go so well. Nevertheless, this gives a taste of what we do, at State and elsewhere in the interagency, in using CP tools to protect the American people from the dangers of WMD, missile, and advanced conventional weapons proliferation.
IV. Current Challenges
My bureau — the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, or ISN — is the State Department’s lead for CP policy and operations, and I’m enormously proud of all the work our ISN team does on this. But CP requires unrelenting attention and commitment, and we still face a world full of threats. I’ll highlight five major challenges today.
A. North Korea
One continuing challenge, of course, is to exert sustained pressure on the North Korea to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization, to which Chairman Kim Jong Un agreed at the Singapore summit. U.S. officials have been crystal clear about the importance of maintaining this pressure, and sanctions will remain until North Korea denuclearizes.
We will keep working with partners around the world to improve their capability and their willingness to fight DPRK sanctions evasion. President Trump told the UN Security Council in September 2018 that ship-to-ship transfers “must end immediately,” and we are working with our partners to patrol the sea lanes and to detect, punish, and end such transfers. Indeed, we are working to shut down every tendril and node of the networks through which Pyongyang obtains revenue for its WMD and missile programs – and we need to keep doing so even while North Korea steps up efforts to trick our friends and allies into relaxing sanctions pressure in ways that would lead Pyongyang to conclude that it doesn’t have to implement denuclearization after all.
A second challenge relates to Syria, where the murderous Assad regime is in the final stages of slaughtering its citizens in pursuit of victory in that country’s tragic civil war. With the regime having so appallingly used chemical weapons in the war, we are concerned that Syria could soon seek to rebuild and advance its illegal chemical weapons capabilities, as well as its ballistic missile force. CP partners around the world thus need to be ready so that we can do everything possible to stop Syria’s chemical and missile recapitalization.
Third, until we have success in using our recently reimposed sanctions to persuade Iran to reach a better and more comprehensive negotiated solution with us, we and our global CP partners will need to be fiercely vigilant against Iranian proliferation. We will work tirelessly to disrupt the illicit networks through which Iran obtains technology and materials for its missile development, through which it provides missile technology to others, and through which Iran may attempt to obtain dual-use goods in support of a return to nuclear weapons work, or in support of its illicit chemical weapons capabilities. We will also address Iran’s proliferation of missiles and other advanced systems that threaten regional peace and stability. Finally, entities and individuals that support Iran’s procurement and proliferation activities should know that this exposes them to sanctions, and that we will not hesitate to penalize those who assist Iran’s illicit programs.
D. Transshipment Nodes
Fourth, we face today a major challenge from the ability of proliferator regimes such as Iran and North Korea to take advantage of major global transshipment points that otherwise facilitate legitimate trade. There is, unfortunately, ongoing trade in which both sensitive technologies and uncontrolled items flow through major transshipment nodes of the global trading economy and end up in the weapons systems of states such as Iran, Syria, or North Korea.
Failures of enforcement in transshipment jurisdictions are thus contributing to regional and global instability, fueling conflicts that could explode catastrophically at any time. It is critical to do more against these transshipment threats — such as taking proactive steps to make full use of so-called “catch-all” export controls and implementing the efficient methods of cargo tracking and monitoring that are now available, but that some still choose not to use. Where necessary, we must crack down on those who refuse to help meet these threats.
As a fifth and final note, we face a major CP challenge from China, which still remains the supplier of choice for many of the world’s proliferators, especially with respect to missile technology. U.S. diplomats have repeatedly and insistently raised numerous proliferation cases with Chinese officials, but the response is uneven at best. Often, very little action is taken.
Much of this we cannot discuss in public, but there is one longstanding case that I want to highlight before I conclude. Li Fangwei (also known as Karl Lee) is a key China-based broker for Iran’s ballistic missile program. Li continues to support Iran’s ongoing efforts to develop more sophisticated missiles and drive for self-sufficiency in its program. For more than a decade, we have sought to end Li’s support to Iran’s program, taking numerous legal and administrative actions against him and engaging extensively with the Chinese Government about his proliferation activity. This is important, because over his career, Li has supplied Iran with a full range of the materials required to construct ballistic missiles, and the equipment and components he has provided have contributed to Iran’s continued development of missiles with improved accuracy, range, and lethality.
So let me be clear: Li Fangwei’s continued proliferation to Iran makes clear that Beijing has failed to take effective action to curb his activity. Beijing’s reluctance to take concrete measures to prevent Li’s ongoing support to Iran’s missile program suggests China chooses not to resolve this problem, calling into question its commitment to nonproliferation. China’s inability or unwillingness to curtail such activities is of ongoing, and increasing, concern — and it represents one of the key challenges in the counterproliferation business today.
So there’s much to be done, but I hope I’ve given you a taste of the nature and extent of our CP work. Despite usually flying “below the radar” of most public policy discourse, these counterproliferation efforts need and deserve unstinting commitment and high-level support from across the policy community, and I am pleased to have been able to draw your attention to them today.