The Proliferation Security Initiative: An Interview With John Bolton

Wade Boese

On the wall of the reception room outside John Bolton’s State Department office hangs a Wall Street Journal profile entitled “Disarming America’s Treaties.” The accompanying illustration shows Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, cutting a handful of treaties in half with a pair of scissors.

Bolton, who prefers blunt talk to diplomatic niceties, is clearly proud of his reputation—and of his record. Since he assumed his post as the Bush administration’s top arms control official in May 2001, the United States has withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, torpedoed a proposed addition to the Biological Weapons Convention, and disavowed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Yet, in recent months Bolton has slowed his assault on old accords, many of which he views as unacceptably constraining the United States while imposing no limits on those willing to cheat on their commitments, and turned his considerable energy and intellect toward promoting new checks on weapons proliferation. This change of pace, however, does not suggest a growing fondness for binding arms control measures.

The new project—the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI)—stems from what the undersecretary quickly declares are the failings of the existing web of national and multilateral export controls to end a “thriving black market in [weapons of mass destruction (WMD)] components, technologies, and production materials.” Bolton elaborated on the PSI, which he described variously as a “political arrangement” and an “activity,” in a Nov. 4 interview with Arms Control Today.

Despite press reports to the contrary following President George W. Bush’s May 31 unveiling of the initiative, Bolton says PSI is not about stopping illegal drug shipments or blockading North Korea. The initiative’s sole objective is interdicting “WMD trafficking at sea, in the air, and on land,” the undersecretary emphasized.

All WMD trade will not be targeted with the same vigor. Halting shipments to rogue states and terrorists will take priority because they “pose the most immediate threat,” Bolton said.

WMD-related cargo destined for Israel, India, and Pakistan—the world’s three unofficial nuclear-weapon states—is of secondary importance. Bolton explained: “There are unquestionably states that are not within existing treaty regimes that possess weapons of mass destruction legitimately. We’re not trying to have a policy that attempts to cover each and every one of those circumstances.”

To help deny rogue states and terrorists the weapons they desire, the United States has recruited 10 allies: Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom. In addition to this core group, tens of other countries, including China and Russia, are being urged to aid or join in WMD interdiction activities.

Bolton described the responses as overwhelmingly positive and discounted reports of Chinese and Russian reservations about the initiative. He said Moscow reported it had “no objection” to intercepting WMD shipments, while Beijing claimed to “support the concept behind the initiative.”

Yet, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson offered a less enthusiastic view Sept. 4. “Quite some countries have doubts over the legality and effectiveness of the PSI,” Kong Quan said.

Although the core group of PSI participants is seeking to enlist as many willing countries to the cause as possible, there are no current plans to take the initiative before the UN Security Council to win its backing. Bolton implied that such a step now would be unnecessary, saying, “We think we’ve got plenty of authority as it stands now [to conduct interdictions].” He also stated that “there are essentially an infinite number of potential circumstances and variations and permutations where interdictions could take place.”

The initiative, Bolton emphasized, is not about painstakingly crafting new laws but taking advantage of each participant’s existing legal powers. He added that existing treaties, export control regimes, and customary international law together provide wide latitude to operate. If a scenario arises in which the authority to act is insufficient or ambiguous, Bolton said participants could seek additional powers, such as getting a “Security Council resolution that might give authority in certain circumstances.”

Some interdictions may occur in international waters or airspace where there are limits to permissible search and seizure activities, but “most [interdictions] will take place in national territory where national authorities are strongest,” predicted Bolton.

Yet, the public should not expect to hear about such seizures. Bolton said there have been successful interdictions since the initiative’s launch but that they have not been made public, nor will they be. He warned that too much publicity could impair the initiative. Presumably, the concern is that potential proliferators could become aware of how to avoid doing business with certain countries or could learn how to ship their goods without running afoul of PSI.

The full transcript is available online.