Multilateral export controls needed

Multilateral export controls needed

As policymakers move to identify strategies for dealing with the post-Saddam Iraq, many experts believe the U.S. search for weapons of mass destruction will also unearth information that Western and non-Western sources contributed to Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical programs, either deliberately or inadvertently. Similar concerns have been aroused by the revelation of Iran's nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz and reports that Pakistan has swapped enrichment technology for North Korean missiles and technology. These developments underscore the need for multilateral strategies to prevent proliferation of weapons.

It is important to remember that even after the Persian Gulf war, such states as Iraq and Iran were able to procure sensitive technology, materials and know-how through commercial channels. They did this by constructing elaborate global networks of shell companies, brokerage firms and warehousing facilities.

They have used loopholes in multilateral mechanisms for controlling technologies and materials used in nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. These mechanisms include the Australia Group, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Wassenaar Arrangement.

Whatever the outcome of U.S. efforts to build a democratic Iraq, the need to prevent more Iraqs will remain. So will the need for bold steps to refashion existing non-proliferation export control regimes. It is time to accept that the multilateral mechanisms for nonproliferation export controls have reached a plateau in their efficiency, and a new institution is needed to take these efforts to the next level of effectiveness.

Some of the existing loopholes can be plugged by short-term, process-level fixes. These fixes include improved sharing of information and intelligence among regime members, and more interaction between technical and policy experts.

Yet in the end, these would be temporary solutions. Existing export-control regimes have several shortcomings.

The regimes now operate as loose coordination mechanisms among 30-plus states that have very diverse economic and political interests. Member nations have substantial leeway to decide how far to go in adopting regime guidelines in their export-control policies. A single member can, and often does, hold up modifications of control lists, while the others have no recourse except "continued dialogue" with the recalcitrant member. Even if there is a clear violation of guidelines, the regime cannot impose sanctions.

The operational environment of these regimes has changed in the past two decades, as have the challenges to nonproliferation efforts. Members of export-control regimes no longer monopolize the creation of, and innovation in, dual-use technologies. As the technology trade moves with the "speed of business," technology export control guidelines in the regimes still move with the "speed of diplomacy" - cautious, tendentious, and ultimately dependent upon national discretion and implementation.

If the strategic leaders in the U.S. and other supplier states truly want multilateral export controls to be effective in the new environment, they must be prepared to invest political and diplomatic capital in conceptualizing and crafting a new regime that is leaner and meaner than the existing four regimes.

It will require phased merging, and fundamental changes in rules. The new regime could be short of a treaty, yet more formal than the current regimes. Most important, the new regime should not automatically include all current members or non-members. Export controls are a supply-side tool. As such, the new regime should provide an opportunity for all relevant supplier states to affirm or re-affirm their commitment to its new goals and rules.

Most of those who have studied the issue and those who deal with it in government agencies agree on the need for a bold new initiative on multilateral export controls. It is up to the visionary leaders in the political community, especially in the U.S., to see the long-term benefits of a new global nonproliferation regime and to lend their resources to such an enterprise. Military options are the last line of defense, but they will be needed more frequently if we fail to construct and maintain effective regimes - the first lines of defense.

Dr. Seema Gahlaut is co-author of the report, "Strengthening Multilateral Export Controls," released last September by the Center for International Trade and Security at the University of Georgia. She may be reached at (706) 542-2985, or via e-mail at