Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Proliferation Security Initiative: Neither fish nor fowl (but perhaps a vehicle)

Proponents of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) are fond of explaining that it is “an activity, not an organization.” The presumption seems to be that international organizations are cumbersome and prone to bureaucratic pathologies, while activities are, by definition, outcome-oriented. A slippery distinction that might be supposed to undermine important efforts to codify verifiable and legally-binding rules related to nonproliferation.

On the other hand, PSI’s emphasis on “voluntary” cooperative activities recalls David Mittrany’s “functionalism,” in which a peaceful world society is:
“more likely to grow through doing things together in workshop and market place than by signing pacts in chancelleries” (as quoted by Professor Inis Claude, Jr., Swords into Plowshares, 4th edition, 1970, page 380).
Over time, such voluntary patterns of cooperation among states may become more familiar, reducing the risks and costs of cooperative transactions, perhaps leading to more transformational effects, as Professor Claude suggests:
“Internationalism will well up from the collaborative international contacts of officials in labor, health, agriculture, commerce, and related departments, eventually endangering the citadels in which diplomatic and military officials sit peering competitively and combatively at the world outside the state.”
(Swords into Plowshares, 383-4)
How do these obscure theoretical points relate to the PSI experience? On October 3, 2008, former Undersecretary of State for International Security and Arms Control Bob Joseph provided an interesting gloss on this question at a Security Policy Forum event at the Elliott School of International Affairs, recalling the response of two European states to an opportunity for cooperation to intercept the BBC China carrying proliferation-sensitive materials to Libya:
“the German response was ‘we are a member of the PSI, we will do this.’ The Italian response a day later was exactly the same.”
Wade Boese correctly observes that this interception cannot be so easily credited as a PSI achievement and that both Germany and Italy:
“had stopped proliferation in transit prior to PSI’s launch. The initiative does not legally empower or obligate countries to do anything that they previously could not do.”
The PSI is certainly open to criticism that it is intangible and has few specific successes concretely attributable to it. Certainly the German assertion of “membership” signals the elusive character of this phenomenon which is adamantly “not an organization” in the minds of its framers. But if Mr. Joseph is right and this understanding has been relaxed in the minds of key PSI partners, the PSI could become a means to more systematic and identifiable cooperation through the existing PSI mechanisms of communication and coordination. Ultimately, it might not even be the United States that takes the next step and, for example, proposes a charter. But John Bolton and friends have built the world a decidedly internationalist resource and it behooves the international community to think creatively about how it might be adapted to greater effectiveness.


  1. Doug,

    Is there a transcript of Bob Joseph's talk available anywhere? Wade has been a consistent skeptic of PSI. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I think it colors his analysis at times. In this case, while it is true that Germany and Italy have acted against proliferation in the past (prior to PSI), they have also declined to act in cases prior to PSI. The question is whether participation in PSI has made them more likely to act against proliferation than they otherwise would have been. It's a very tough thing to measure and analyze. Bob Joseph's comments give some information that indicate this may be the case. it would be great to hear from policy makers in Germany and Italy about their deliberations on this and whether the recently stood up PSI (Paris declaration of principles issues in Sept 03) was raised or discussed in their internal deliberations on the BBC China.

    PSI is also interesting as an element in building an antiproliferation trafficking regime, although I do not thing the Bush administration thought about it in this way or as part of a greater whole.

  2. Thanks, Drew, for your comment. Unfortunately, I do not have a transcript of Bob Joseph's remarks.