The Proliferation Security Initiative: The New Face of Interdiction
It is the year 2007, and U.S. intelligence receives highly reliable information that an Al Qaeda affiliate is attempting to smuggle a crude nuclear weapon into the New York harbor on a merchant vessel. The president orders the Pentagon to intercept it at the edge of U.S. territorial waters, at which time a special operations team successfully boards the vessel, subdues several terrorists posing as crew members, seizes the bomb, and renders it safe. Would such an operation represent a success for the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI)? The answer is no. In fact, in such a scenario, the PSI may play no role at all. The United States would be acting unilaterally, as would any other country faced with a similar and imminent threat, under a legal and political justification of self-defense. If one rewinds the clock two years, however, and instead asks how to prevent that terrorist organization from acquiring the bomb or the materials to make it, the PSI’s potential role becomes relevant. Such a successful scenario did take place in the fall of 2003 when Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States worked together under the PSI rubric to stop a seaborne shipment of centrifuge parts to Libya, thereby helping to stymie that country’s nuclear ambitions.
The shipment to Libya is the only publicly acknowledged PSI interdiction in the short history of the initiative. Despite this lack of public interceptions, however, the PSI has been highly touted as a new counterproliferation measure. President George W. Bush and other world leaders regularly cite the initiative as an example of a new form of multilateral cooperation in the post–September 11 world. Yet, such rhetoric, coupled with a dearth of actual incidents, has led to a number of misconceptions about the PSI, as well as skewed perceptions of its focus and potential effectiveness. The concept for the initiative is simple—to deter or stop the shipment of proliferation-related items to certain states or nonstate actors—but the details of its implementation involve myriad political, legal, operational, and informational issues.
The PSI consists of a group of like-minded states committed publicly to aggressively interdict weapons of mass destruction (WMD), their components, and their delivery systems. At its core, the PSI is a coalition of the willing with the potential for participants to vary the degrees of their commitment and participation. The PSI’s objectives and working methods have been set forth in a simple one-and-one-half–page political statement, the "Statement of Interdiction Principles," issued by 11 states on September 4, 2003, in Paris. In so doing, these 11 founding participants—Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States—vowed to step up their efforts to interdict WMD-related shipments in the transport phase, whether by land, air, or sea.
U.S. officials have emphasized that the PSI is different from past nonproliferation regimes and efforts because it is "an activity, not an organization." Although the PSI is indeed different—it does not have a headquarters, an annual budget, or a secretariat—the program is supported by a firm pedigree. The initiative builds on decades of multilateral efforts to stymie proliferation and, in fact, relies on previous measures as a principal component of its potential effectiveness. Like other nonproliferation efforts, the PSI conceptually resembles an international regime—a set of principles, norms, rules, and decisionmaking procedures in a given issue area. It is a regime, however, designed for a new era, recognizing that proliferation threats today are different than those in the decades when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was negotiated and supplier regimes such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the Australia Group were established. Because of this changed security environment and the experiences gained in combating proliferation, the PSI employs different tools and focuses on the interdiction of WMD-related items in the transport phase—after they have left a dock, airport, or warehouse and before they reach their destination.
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Andrew C. Winner is an associate professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.