Multiple Proliferation Threats in 2001

Thomas W. Graham
Second Chance Foundation

February 14, 2001

The research I have conducted over the past five years, while working for the Rockefeller Foundation and General Lee Butler's Second Chance Foundation, has led me to reach the following tentative conclusions; almost all of which seem to fly in the face of conventional wisdom. The multiple proliferation threats of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), ballistic and cruise missiles and terrorism in the first decade of the 21st century are finite—at most 17 countries—and are far smaller in scope and complexity than we experienced during the Cold War. There is little or no evidence that these combined proliferation threats are expanding, let alone expanding uncontrollably. The threat of WMD is exaggerated, especially the terrorist element. Virtually all analyses utilize the logically imprecise conceptual category of "WMD" that combines nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) weapons and fails to specify with any precision the degree of development and likelihood of use of these clearly distinct threats. The realistic multiple proliferation threat environment does not seem beyond the ability of US conventional military, intelligence, diplomacy and FBI counter-terrorism capabilities to deal with.

The United States has an opportunity to take one of the major proliferation threats, North Korea, off the table. North Korea is engaged in a bargaining process. North Korea was ready to make an agreement to give the United States everything it wanted but a last-minute political assessment killed the deal. North Korea has already stopped supporting terrorism, its missile program is trivial and its nuclear program is frozen. The Rockefeller Foundation developed better human intelligence on North Korea than the United States government by spending only half a million dollars. The same type of bargaining process could also take Iran off the table.

There is a difference between official proliferation threat assessments and those of the private sector. The private insurance industry does not offer an insurance policy for terrorism in the United States, reflecting how unlikely this threat is viewed by this industry. In 1996 and again in 1999, the FBI stated that it had no intelligence that state supporters of terrorism or international terrorists were planning to use NBC weapons in the United States.

The threat is exaggerated by a political delivery system comprised of a loose network that conducts research, sets policy agendas and supports legislation. The political right has developed this delivery system to point where it now plays a dominant role in America's mainstream news coverage of national security issues. Alternative views just don't get covered.

Information and decision-making in the national security field was hierarchical during the Cold War. During the mid 1990s it was a problem solving system that relied on getting the right people together in the same room to affect policy change. Today, ideology has become the dominant variable. National missile defense (NMD) unified the Republican party whereas other issues cause huge splits.

Few US foundations, only 5%, fund anything international. Only twenty-five foundations fund peace and security projects. The foundation sector is doing a poor job of restructuring for the post-Cold War world. Ted Tuner's Nuclear Threat Initiative is a chance for innovation. While the addition of $50 million per year may be a big help to supporting NGO research and activism, chances are limited that Turner's idealism and communication genius will be combined with NGO research to produce a powerful set of "new" ideas that have the potential to capture the imagination of political leaders. The foreign policy establishment, however, has reacted defensively, quite similarly to its reaction to the nuclear freeze movement of twenty years ago. To a large degree, they have engaged in threat replacement, replacing the Soviet Union with WMD; same viewgraphs, same mindsets.

The message needs to get out to a larger audience. Although the Pentagon budget went up $20 billion, this was not covered in the New York Times. There is self-censorship among the medium circulation networks.

I would recommend several new initiatives to remedy this situation. First, an alternative national security budget should be developed including the intelligence community and the Departments of Defense, Energy, State and Education. The Department of Education could play an important role in preparing the United States to face the threats of the 21st century through support for area studies and graduate students. There is also a need for alternative analysis of the proliferation threat to be coupled with a new media approach. If there is no mainstream alternative view, there is no fight and therefore no media coverage. This is just the standard operating procedure for the media.

Rapporteur: Gregory Koblentz

back to seminar schedule, spring 2001