During the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama promised to "institutionalize” the Proliferation Security Initiative, or PSI. This is an international effort designed to stop shipments of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, and related materials worldwide. Obama promised to "expand the responsibilities of its members, not only in stopping illicit nuclear shipments, but also in eradicating nuclear black market networks. A stronger PSI will produce greater international intelligence and police cooperation, maintain tougher export controls and criminal penalties for violations in countries around the world, and apply the tools developed to combat terrorist financing to shut down proliferators' financial networks."
This is a sprawling promise, and experts say it has been hard to gauge its progress.
First, some background on the initiative. It was announced by President George W. Bush on May 31, 2003. Much of work to get the initiative off the ground occurred under Bush. The Obama administration has kept it going, but the advances have been incremental. About 100 countries have committed to PSI principles, though the degree of participation varies. Nations have joined as recently as August 2012, when the Dominican Republic signed on.
The administration has voiced rhetorical support for the initiative. In its 2010 Nuclear Security Strategy, the administration said it would seek to make PSI a "durable international effort.” This sentiment was echoed in the administration's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.
But experts say it's hard to know how effective the program has been. In a report released on June 15, 2012, the Congressional Research Service said that "there has been little publicly available information by which to measure PSI's success.”
One possible measurement CRS considered is the number of PSI member nations. Some nations that aren't members -- including India and Taiwan -- have cooperated with the initiative without formally becoming members, but China, Malaysia, Pakistan, and South Africa, among other key countries, remain outside the PSI framework, CRS noted.
Of particular concern are "flag of convenience” countries. These include 32 mostly small nations that are often used by shipping companies as their official nation of registry because they are cheaper and have less intrusive government regulation. The top five "flag of convenience” countries -- Panama, Liberia, Belize, Malta, and Honduras -- are all PSI participants, but more than a dozen remain outside the framework, CRS said.
Another possible measurement is the number of interdictions successfully carried by PSI member countries, but CRS called this metric "problematic,” because it isn't clear whether increases stem from PSI or from improved intelligence or activity that would have happened in the absence of the initiative.
A third possible measurement is the signing of ship-boarding agreements. There are currently 11 such agreements, CRS said. The Obama administration has concluded two -- Antigua and Barbuda, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
Matthew Bunn, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, said that the administration's advancement of PSI has been a mixed bag, though he added that some of the elements of the promise we're checking have seen progress outside of PSI specifically.
For example, the Financial Action Task Force-- an international body established in 1989 that includes 36 nations-- "has expanded from dealing with laundering of drug money to dealing with terrorism financing and now to proliferation financing,” Bunn said.
Obama has "institutionalized” PSI in the sense that he continues to tout its importance and sign agreements with other nations. But independent observers such as CRS say it's hard to say exactly how much the initiative has accomplished. So we rate this promise a Compromise.