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The Proliferation Security Initiative as a New Paradigm for Peace and Security

Authored by Dr. Mark R. Shulman. | April 2006

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Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have menaced mankind for six decades. Since the end of the Cold War, the threat has changed dramatically with the development of new weapons, with the rise of transnational criminal and terrorist organizations, and with a diminishing capacity of some states to control the weapons they have. In the hands of an Al Qaeda, such a weapon threatens to kill tens of thousands and destroy tens of billions of dollars worth of property. It could bring global trade to a standstill and trigger panic, economic depression, and widespread suffering the likes of which have not been seen for many years.

Containing the threat of WMD requires action on several fronts. States that legitimately possess nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons must work to ensure that they will not be used and that they eventually will be decommissioned. States that illegitimately possess them must abandon them. States that do not possess them must refrain from obtaining them. Nonstate actors must never possess them. One key to achieving these objectives is to halt the flow of WMD across borders.

The U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative is a bold and timely multilateral initiative to prevent the proliferation of WMD and the materials used to construct them. To accomplish this objective, the Initiative facilitates information-sharing in order to better identify and locate shipments of WMD. It also contemplates the interdiction of shipments of weapons and materials?by force if necessary. Since announced in 2003, the Initiative?s efforts have focused on halting the flow of WMD across the world?s oceans. In the future, its activities may extend to land-based interdictions.

While a product of a presidential administration infamous for its unilateralism, the Initiative has received widespread support. United Nations (UN) Secretary General Kofi Annan has explicitly endorsed it. At least 60 states are participating in it at one level or another, including Great Britain, but also France, Russia, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Spain. Unfortunately, support is not universal.

The Initiative constitutes one of the most important recent developments in the area of international peace and security, and may also add up to the most exciting changes in the area of public international law. It has the potential to alter fundamentally the transnational legal framework for the use of force by states. Force may become a more ordinary tool that sits on a spectrum of means by which political objectives can be achieved. By blurring the lines between war and peace, the Initiative eventually may permit states to use highly targeted and entirely proportionate force for limited purposes to further security objectives without triggering war and all the horrors that it entails.

Implementation of this Initiative raises serious legal challenges by questioning the basic principles of the international system: the sovereignty of states in general and freedom of the seas in particular. The Initiative eventually may overcome these challenges by increasing the transparency of its decisionmaking apparatus and criteria, by continuing to expand its base of support through diplomacy and dialogue, and working within the rule of law to create a new base norm that prohibits the proliferation of WMD. This monograph describes the Initiative, its legal status, and its prospects for becoming a significant tool in the quest to prevent mass destruction.