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The Essential Features of a Focused Strategy to Deal with the Proliferation Challenge:  What Has Been Done and What Is to Be Done?

The Essential Features of a Focused Strategy to Deal with the Proliferation Challenge: What Has Been Done and What Is to Be Done?

Book Chapter, pages 141-152, Aspen Institute


Author: Ashton B. Carter, Former Co-Director, Preventive Defense Project, Harvard & Stanford Universities

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security; Preventive Defense Project



    President George W. Bush has rightly proclaimed that keeping the worst weapons – weapons of mass destruction – out of the hands of the worst people is America’s highest national security priority.  Yet so far, the United States has been waging a war on terror but not a war on WMD, attacking the worst people much more vigorously than the worst weapons.

    The war on terror and the needed war on WMD are related, but they are not identical. The terror attacks of 9/11 stimulated a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. counter-terrorism practices and agencies: the struggle was taken on the offensive in Afghanistan and around the world with a global coalition of support; previously casual border and immigration controls were tightened; emergency response was fortified; and a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created.

    A comparable and sorely needed overhaul of counter-proliferation remains to be made. The most significant action taken by the United States to counter WMD since 9/11 was the invasion of Iraq, which appeared to be fully justified on the basis of existing intelligence suggesting a recrudescence of Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs. Now we know that the picture painted by that intelligence was incorrect. Meanwhile, North Korea plunged forward unopposed to quadruple its stock of nuclear bombs, a counter-proliferation setback far graver than anything imagined of Saddam’s regime. The initiative for curbing Iran’s evident nuclear ambitions was ironically left by a distracted Washington to the two parties that failed most conspicuously to cooperate with it in the war against Iraq: the Europeans and the United Nations. Perhaps the most important omission in the aftermath of 9/11 was any new effort to prevent “non-state actors” – terrorists – from getting their hands on WMD.

    In February 2004, in the wake of the failure to find WMD in Iraq, President Bush delivered a speech at National Defense University laying out his proposals for dealing with the spread of WMD. While some of his ideas are useful, by and large they represent piecemeal extensions of long-standing policies rather than a bold departure.

    The term WMD itself is normally used to cover nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, ballistic missiles and, more recently, “dirty bombs,” which are ordinary high-explosive bombs impregnated with radioactive materials. In actuality, while still dangerous, chemical weapons are not much more lethal, pound for pound or liter for liter, than ordinary explosives and hardly deserve the WMD label. Similarly, long-range ballistic missiles are only to be feared if they have a nuclear or biological warhead, so they should not be considered a separate category of WMD. Dirty bombs would cause local contamination and costly clean-up – but not true “mass destruction.” The primary focus of an overhaul of counter-proliferation should therefore be nuclear and biological weapons.

    A true overhaul of counter-proliferation would aim to eradicate the threat of nuclear terrorism entirely by denying fissile materials to non-state actors and to contain the scale of the most likely forms of bioterrorism. It would revamp outdated arms control agreements, expand counter-proliferation programs in the Pentagon and DHS, and improve the way intelligence on WMD is collected and analyzed. It also would favor countering WMD with non-nuclear rather than nuclear measures, and it would at last develop coherent strategies for heading off the two most pressing nuclear proliferation threats: Iran and North Korea.

Full text is available through the link and attached pdf file below.


Full text of this publication is available at:{DEB6F227-659B-4EC8-8F84-8DF23CA704F5}/ASGC

For Academic Citation:

Carter, Ashton B. "The Essential Features of a Focused Strategy to Deal with the Proliferation Challenge: What Has Been Done and What Is to Be Done?." Aspen Institute, 2005

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Preventive Defense Project

The Preventive Defense Project (PDP) is a Harvard-Stanford research collaboration, co-directed by Ashton B. Carter and William J. Perry.

Ashton B. Carter

In February 2015, Ashton B. Carter became Secretary of Defense for the United States.

Dr. Carter is former director of the Belfer Center's Preventive Defense Project and former director of what is now the Belfer Center. He is on leave.


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