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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson November 15, 2012

Rhetorical support for WMD-prevention program, but progress hard to document

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.

Our Sources

Congressional Research Service, "Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI)," June 15, 2012

State Department, "The Dominican Republic Becomes 101st Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) Participant" (news release), Sept. 27, 2012

White House, Nuclear Security Strategy, May 2010

Defense Department, 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, April 2010

Email interview with Matthew Bunn, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, Nov. 5, 2012

Email interview with Kingston Reif, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Nov. 15, 2012

Robert Farley
By Robert Farley October 30, 2009

Obama promotes 2010 summit that includes Proliferation Security Initiative

In a speech in Prague on April 5, President Barack Obama reiterated his intent to strengthen the Proliferation Security Initiative to stop the black-market spread of weapons of mass destruction.

"We must also build on our efforts to break up black markets, detect and intercept materials in transit, and use financial tools to disrupt this dangerous trade," Obama said. "Because this threat will be lasting, we should come together to turn efforts such as the Proliferation Security Initiative and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism into durable international institutions. And we should start by having a Global Summit on Nuclear Security that the United States will host within the next year."

In July, leaders of the G-8, a group of the world's advanced countries, endorsed Obama's vision. "We maintain our support for the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which plays an important part in preventing and countering proliferation of WMD, their delivery systems and related materials," the group said in a statement. "We recognize the progress in combating the financing of proliferation activities, and the role of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)."

The Global Summit on Nuclear Security that Obama talked about in his April speech has been set for March 2010. We'll have to wait until then to get a better idea whether Obama will fulfill this promise. But Obama has clearly set this one in motion, enough to warrant a rating of In the Works.

Our Sources

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