Interview With John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security

John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, discussed the Bush administration's new Proliferation Security Initiative during a November 4 interview with Arms Control Association Research Director Wade Boese and Arms Control Today Editor Miles Pomper.

ACT: Could you explain what the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) is and how it fits into the broader Bush administration strategy to prevent proliferation?

Bolton: We believe that the existing system of national export control systems [and] multilateral export control agreements were not completely effective because there's still a thriving black market in WMD components, technologies, and production materials. And what we wanted to do was to find more active ways of dealing with the ongoing trafficking in all of these WMD-related materials-not to replace the export control regimes, but to do something that would be more effective in handling all of this trafficking. And based on what we've seen with the So San interdiction1 [and] based on a variety of law enforcement and other operations that had been conducted, we felt there was a potential to have a multilateral agreement that would allow us to do that-to conduct interdiction of WMD trafficking at sea, in the air, and on land. That's why, following the president's announcement of the initiative in Krakow, Poland, on May 31, we were pleased [with the reception]. Actually the Spaniards volunteered to host the first meeting [and] we then had a series that led to the promulgation in Paris of the statement of interdiction principles2 that represented the agreement of all 11 countries on what our obligations would be as participants in the PSI and what we would then take to other nations and explain the PSI to them and seek their support for it. It is intended as a way of encouraging greater involvement by a variety of countries in stopping the trafficking in weapons of mass destruction and WMD-related materials through more vigorous exercise of the existing national and international authorities that we already have.

ACT: Following up on that, you said you did not want to replace existing export control regimes, arms control treaties, or groups. Is it simply a supplement to those? Or do you envision changing or supplanting some of those regimes?

Bolton: No, we see it in addition. We see PSI as an interdiction activity. In fact, I think it was actually in the meeting in Madrid3, we talked about what to do with the Australia Group4, the MTCR5, how they would relate to PSI and basically what we said was we were not going to reinvent the wheel, we were not going to try and redefine the commodities involved or anything like that. But that what we would do was to ask our representatives to the Nuclear Suppliers Group6, Wassenaar7, the whole range of multilateral export control regimes to see what they might do to enhance their regimes to make them more effective in ways that would complement the interdiction activities that we contemplate taking under the PSI.

ACT: Some media reports suggest that PSI involves stopping illegal trade in drugs and other non-weapons contraband. There are other reports that this is the beginning of a blockade of North Korea. Is either description accurate?

Bolton: Neither description is accurate. We've never contemplated that the initiative would involve anything other than the trafficking of WMD-related material, and it was never contemplated as a blockade of any place. We are obviously worried about some places more than others as proliferants or would-be proliferants. In fact in Brisbane8, at the meeting there, the 11 PSI participants said that North Korea and Iran were two states of particular concern. But this is something we see as a global activity. We stressed we think it is worldwide problem and it requires a worldwide response.

ACT: PSI is described as targeting "rogue" countries and terrorist groups. What about shipments of WMD-related goods to Israel, India, and Pakistan?

Bolton: What we're concerned about are rogue states and terrorist groups that threaten instability, and threaten their neighbors with the use of these WMD. 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. What we're worried about are the rogue states and the terrorist groups that pose the most immediate threat. And that's why there was consensus, as there was at the G-8 statement at Evian and the U.S.-EU summit declaration this past summer, for naming North Korea and Iran specifically.

ACT: Was it geared toward countries that are threats to the United States and other participants or those that may likely use these weapons in conflict, such as India and Pakistan, which routinely threaten each other?

Bolton: I think what we're worried about is the issue of the threats to the 11 states that are participants in the regime now, but also to others that would like to join. The issue of outward proliferation, for example, you could have cargoes that come from any number of countries that contain dual-use chemicals that could be used for chemical weapons production, or chemicals that have legitimate industrial uses, but may also be particularly important in plutonium reprocessing or something like that, that we would consider interdicting. But we certainly never thought at the outset of the negotiations, or today for that matter, that we could write an encyclopedic description of everything that the PSI would encompass. We would try and work on a case-by-case basis to see what the pattern of interdictions that we accomplished actually looked like.

ACT: Does PSI empower its participants with authority to do anything that they legally could not do before the initiative's creation?

Bolton: PSI is a political arrangement at this point, and we contemplate that's what it will be over a sustained period of time. We think we have very substantial authorities under existing national and international treaties and export control regimes to do a lot of what we're doing, and we consider also that there are aspects of customary international law that give us authority as well.

ACT: What are some of the legal constraints on possible interdiction activities? Are there any you would like to see eliminated or changed?

Bolton: Well, there are essentially an infinite number of potential circumstances and variations and permutations where interdictions could take place, and for as many different hypotheticals as there are, there are different levels of authority. We think we've got plenty of authority as it stands now. It is not the case that all of the interdictions will take place in international waters or international airspace. Probably more likely is that most of them will take place in national territory where national authorities are strongest. We understand that there are circumstances in which our authorities may be ambiguous or open to question, and there are almost certainly circumstances where authority under current national and international interpretation doesn't exist. And, under those circumstances, the 11 PSI countries have talked about the prospect for seeking additional authority, either to clarify an existing ambiguity or fill a gap where no authority exists. Right now, for example, there are amendments being considered to the Suppression of Unlawful Acts at Sea Convention, which is an international maritime organization which has over 90 states party to it, where there are provisions concerning weapons of mass destruction that are being discussed among the parties to the convention. And the 11 PSI countries also talked about circumstances where one could envision a Security Council resolution that might give authority in certain circumstances. So I think there's general agreement that seeking additional authority might be useful at some point and that we would consider it when it became appropriate.

ACT: Is there any effort now underway to go to the Security Council to broaden the mandate or to get its blessing so that you can take additional actions?

Bolton: No, I think the general view of the 11 countries was that, and I don't speak for all of them, but I think this is a fair summary: it's usually, the history of the Security Council in granting enforcement authority, has usually been in the context of a specific problem and a specific country that people were concerned about, and we thought probably it would be best to leave the evolution of that to circumstances as they develop. But there are three permanent members of the council among the 11, and I think we have a lot of common understanding of how things work, and that we would talk about it at future meetings.

ACT: How does PSI fit in or square with President Bush's proposal to get a UN resolution on outlawing WMD trafficking in general that he spoke of earlier this year?

Bolton: Well what he said in the speech in September was that he wanted to strengthen national laws criminalizing WMD-related behavior, and to bring the national export control regimes up to international standards, and we're in discussions now with other Security Council members about what that resolution would look like, but we don't contemplate at this point, nor do the other PSI members, seeking Security Council authorization.

ACT: And how is that resolution proceeding?

Bolton: We're working away on it. Consultations continue.

ACT: What are the main challenges facing PSI and how can they be overcome?

Bolton: Well, I think the first thing that we're doing now-we really started after the Paris meeting where the statement of interdiction principles was adopted-the United States went out to every country that we have diplomatic relations with, provided them with a copy of the statement of interdiction principles, and tried to explain what the PSI was about, and solicited support from the country, depending on the circumstances of the country. Some states are flag states for ships, some states are coastal states, some states have borders that are used for transshipment, some states are important manufacturing states, obviously there's overlap there as well. But we've been soliciting both public statements of support and ways of working with countries that are particularly important, some of the big transshipment countries and big transshipment centers and that sort of thing. That public outreach function is something that has consumed a lot of our time diplomatically since the Paris meeting. I think explaining the thinking behind the initiative and what the states that have become participants in it have agreed to and what might follow in the future has been the major [activity]. I wouldn't describe it as a problem so much, but a necessary next step so that we can gain broader support for the initiative.

ACT: What about intelligence and knowing what is out there on the oceans? I've seen a number of people speak to the problem of having timely, actionable intelligence.

Bolton: I think obviously before you can interdict the WMD-related shipment, you have to know about it. It is the case that much of the interdiction work that may occur under the PSI will never be publicly known, or at least not for a long time because it will be done in intelligence or law enforcement channels, and we contemplate that it won't all be dramatic interdictions at sea. But the point of the effort is to increase the amount of interdictions, whether it's done by law enforcement or it's done by other cooperating countries, customs officials, or by the military. We've had meetings of the intelligence services of the 11 countries that are participants, and they've had a lot of discussions about how to establish better communication among them, how to arrange the expeditious sharing of information when it's appropriate to support an interdiction operation and we've made a lot of progress both on that side and the operational side since we began the discussions back in Madrid.

ACT: Going back to your outreach activities, after the London meeting9, there was a statement by the British government about how over 50 countries have now voiced their support for the initiative. Can you us some sense of who those 50 are and what their support is?

Bolton: Well it's actually much higher now. In the London meeting, which was about a month after the Paris meeting, we had gone out to a lot of countries at the time, and there were countries that were very interested that said, "we'd like to study this and we don't want to react until we've had a chance to examine it." Since the London meeting, a lot more have come back in and said "this is a good idea and we want to support your efforts, how can we cooperate?" and that kind of thing. There are counties all over the world. I think one of the positive aspects of this is that there is very broad support for it.

ACT: Two countries that have expressed some reservations are Russia and China. Can PSI be effective without their active cooperation, particularly with regard to North Korea?

Bolton: Well the Russians have said to us that they have no objection to engaging in interdiction activities against WMD trafficking. We've been talking to them at all kinds of levels, both before and after the Paris meeting, and we've extended invitations to them to participate in operational meetings with PSI experts, and I think that's something that is part of the ongoing diplomatic dialogue. The Chinese have told us very clearly: they support the concept behind the initiative, and that they're prepared to engage in joint activities dealing with WMD trafficking. I think that while there are probably further conversations that should be had, I'd actually say their reactions have been reasonably positive. They've inquired about the applicability of the initiative in North Korea, and we've ensured both of them that it's not intended as a form of blockading North Korea. It's a global initiative designed to deal with a global problem.

ACT: So why have they not formally joined?

Bolton: Nobody else has formally joined. We've got 11 countries when we started out and we still have 11 participants. I think the number will go up slightly, but we're not looking for large diplomatic meetings. We're looking for operational capabilities that actually increase the level of interdictions that are taking place. And as I say in practical terms-and I've done the discussions myself, and they've been done at higher levels as well-both those countries have said that they're willing to cooperate and engage in interdiction against WMD trafficking.

ACT: The U.S. intelligence community continues to identify Russia and China as being sources of WMD-related goods and being participants in proliferation or as being proliferators. So how does that square with their general support for this initiative?

Bolton: Well, I think we have made it plain in our discussions with both countries, both in diplomatic channels and, where appropriate, through the imposition of economic sanctions, that we want enhanced performance by them in terms of outward proliferation activities by entities in those countries. But I think one can certainly square their cooperation with us in PSI-related activities with our working with them to get their own performance to be better. If we insisted that we'd only cooperate with countries that were completely perfect, it'd be a pretty small group of countries that we had been cooperating with. You know, there are companies in the United States that violate our export control laws. When we find them, we prosecute them. I mean, our record isn't perfect either, but we have a strong law enforcement response when one of our companies violates our export control laws.

ACT: You noted before, with regard to the Hague Code of Conduct on Ballistic Missiles, that it is not valuable to bring in countries or participants that may not live up to their obligations. Noting that Russia and China may be a little less than perfect, why do you have a different perspective on PSI versus the International Code of Conduct?

Bolton: Well, certainty we want everybody who cooperates with PSI activities to subscribe to the statement of interdiction principles and to the philosophy of nonproliferation that lies behind it. I think that is a substantial difference between the Hague Code and PSI. PSI is entirely operational. What we care is about is more and better interdiction efforts. I think if a country's cooperation in international interdiction efforts 1) helps the overall cause and 2) has the spillover effect of getting them to do better in their own domestic enforcement, I think that's all for the good.

ACT: Since the launch of the initiative, have there been any interdictions?

Bolton: Well, there have been some, but they have not been made public-and won't be made public.

ACT: So you won't discuss those with us?

Bolton: No.

ACT: Can you give us a number?

Bolton: No. I think President Bush made this analogous point shortly after September 11, in terms of the campaign against terrorism, is that a lot of this will be done clandestinely and has to be. There's nobody involved in PSI in the government who would be more eager to get some of these successes out in public than I would be. But the fact is, you have to recognize that that could be actually more damaging to the overall effort than simply carrying out the interdictions and keeping them necessarily confidential. That's part of the ongoing struggle against this unfortunately flourishing black market in WMD material.

ACT: In your recent speech in London, you made reference to a dangerous materials initiative. That was the first time I've heard of it. Can you elaborate a little more on what that is?

Bolton: We can get you some additional materials on that, but that is intended to supplement a lot of the activity that we've had in export controls, border controls, looking at assisting countries that have problems with chemical weapons remains or perhaps BW facilities, or radiological sources or remnants of aspects of nuclear programs. They might not be able to undertake a clean up of a facility or something like that. What we've done is taken some activities that have actually been carried out before and tried to conceptually group them together, like the Vinca reactor-the removal of the spent fuel from outside of Belgrade, somewhere in Serbia, and took the fuel back to Russia.10 If you think of radiological sources, in particular, which are unregulated, but if accumulated could be the basis for a radiological weapon. Collecting that sort of thing and neutralizing it or destroying it…These are activities we have conducted in the past, but we want to do more of it and group it together.

ACT: We should expect more funding for this initiative?

Bolton: We're probably a couple months away from saying much more in specific terms, but I think the reason I wanted to put it in the London speech was we were ready to start talking about it, to alert people that we were going to move forward on it.

ACT: Is it a Department of State initiative?

Bolton: Principally, but I think there are a lot of activities that DOE and DOD are engaged in that would fit under that rubric as well.

ACT: In that speech you also discuss North Korea a little bit and mention that we should not give inducements to reverse actions that are in violation of treaty commitments. How does that square with the president's recent statements on U.S. willingness to offer North Korea multilateral security guarantees?

Bolton: Well, I think he's been very clear that we're not going to succumb to North Korean blackmail or reward North Korean bad behavior-I think that's exactly the same thing I said.

ACT: A U.S. official [at] the First Committee said that that U.S. is reviewing its policy on the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty.11 We've been pressing for this treaty for over a dozen years. Can you give us an idea why we're conducting a review on it now?

Bolton: I don't have the statement in front of me. I think it speaks for itself. I don't really have anything to add to it.

ACT: Two prominent inspectors, Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, have come forward with some proposals recently about how new initiatives that might be undertaken by the UN and multilateral agencies. Mr. Blix talked about permanent inspectors for biological weapons and missiles. ElBaradei talked about multilateral controls and transparency of all enrichment and reprocessing activities. I was interested in your thoughts on these proposals.

Bolton: I think with respect to the latter, I think there's a lot of concern about the gaps in the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that allow countries to undertake a lot of activity that brings them closer to a nuclear weapons capability, but which don't violate any of the existing provisions of the NPT, and I think that's something we need to take a look at. In terms of inspector corps, we have the IAEA12, we have an OPCW13, and I don't see a pressing need at the moment for any other inspector corps and I don't anticipate any of that going forward.

ACT: Thank you.


1. On December 9, 2002, U.S. and Spanish forces intercepted a ship, the So San, in the Arabian Sea transporting North Korean short-range Scud ballistic missiles. The United States permitted the shipment to be delivered following Yemen's claim of the missiles. See Arms Control Today, January/February 2003, page 25.

2. The White House published the agreed statement on interdiction principles September 4, 2003, on its Web site at The Paris meeting took place September 3 and 4, 2003. See Arms Control Today, October 2003, page 24.

3. The Madrid meeting occurred June 12, 2003. See Arms Control Today, July/August 2003, page 26.

4. Established in 1985, the Australia Group is a voluntary, informal, export-control arrangement through which 33 countries, as well as the European Commission, coordinate their national export controls to limit the supply of chemicals and biological agents-as well as related equipment, technologies, and knowledge-to countries and nonstate entities suspected of pursuing chemical or biological weapons (CBW) capabilities.

5. Established in 1987, the voluntary 33-member Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) aims to limit the spread of ballistic missiles and other unmanned delivery systems that could be used for chemical, biological, and nuclear attacks.

6. Established in 1975, the voluntary 40-member Nuclear Suppliers Group aims to regulate the transfer of nuclear materials and goods for peaceful purposes to prevent them from being employed in nuclear weapons programs.

7. Established in 1996, the Wassenaar Arrangement is a voluntary export control regime whose 33 members exchange information on transfers of conventional weapons and dual-use goods and technologies.

8. PSI participants met in Brisbane, Australia July 9 and 10, 2003. See Arms Control Today, September 2003, page 27.

9. In October 2003, PSI participants met for three days in London. On October 8, they held a simulation of how to intercept an airplane suspected of transporting WMD. The following two days, the participants discussed guidelines for boarding ships and other implementation measures. See Arms Control Today, November 2003, page 38.

10. In August 2002, the United States joined with Russia and Serbia to transfer highly enriched uranium from the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences in Belgrade to Russia. See Arms Control Today, September 2002, page 18.

11. On October 27, 2003, a U.S. government official announced at a meeting of the UN First Committee, which is the forum used by countries to discuss disarmament issues, that the United States was reviewing "specific elements of our policy regarding an FMCT." See Arms Control Today, November 2003, page 43.

12. The IAEA is the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is charged with verifying that non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty are not diverting nuclear materials and goods to illicit nuclear weapons programs. The IAEA has inspectors that carry out this mission.

13. The OPCW is the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which has the responsibility of implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The OPCW has 181 inspectors to verify that countries are adhering to the CWC prohibition against chemical weapons.