Since the ascendance of terrorism as one of the major threats to international peace and security, or at least the world’s realization of terrorism as such, the potential proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has acquired a new dimension of threat. The evident interest in WMD shown by terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda has underlined this danger and given heightened urgency to strengthening the international non-proliferation regime. As part of a new non proliferation strategy, the George W. Bush administration proposed the creation of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) in May 2003. This initiative has resulted in an agreement to interdict shipments of WMD in transit through international waters.

Download the PDF


The Proliferation Security Initiative is a global security initiative with promising potential; however, future success will be dependant on acceptance and support by the international community of both the initiative’s objectives and the associated Statement of Interdiction Principles. As terrorist organizations look for new ways either to raise fear in global populations or to target countries opposed to their ideology, they will undoubtedly desire to obtain and utilize WMD as part of their overarching strategy. The international community must work together to ensure that this is never allowed to happen. If countries that support terrorist organizations are not deterred politically or diplomatically from providing the means, the only alternative is for the global community to interdict the transactions forcibly whenever and wherever they occur.

If the interdiction of uranium enrichment components onboard a German-registered ship bound for Libya in October 2003, as part of PSI global operations, was ultimately a factor in Moammar Gadhafi’s announcement in December 2003 that Libya would dismantle its secret nuclear and other WMD programs, then PSI is off to a good start. The fact that Libya, a country that had endured two decades of international isolation and U.S. sanctions, did a complete about-face and allowed inspectors from the United States and United Kingdom to inspect its programs and a number of weapons sites, should be seen as a positive sign that PSI is producing tangible results. Subsequent to Libya’s surprise announcement in December 2003, the United States has taken steps toward the resumption of diplomatic relations with Libya. This should be a signal to other countries, such as Iran and North Korea, that existing as a member of the international community is more beneficial than existing in isolation.

Several factors that would enhance the continued success of PSI have been discussed in-depth throughout this paper. The initial eleven participants must not overlook the importance of global buy-in: each participant being part of the process, to include having a representative voice. Many countries will be reluctant participants if they do not have a voice in the decision and policy making process. To think otherwise will only result in a shallow initiative – one that lacks global consensus.

In order to enforce the Interdiction Principles, the initiative must have the backing of military and law enforcement assets poised to interdict if necessary. The most effective means of enforcement should include existing security alliances that by nature are positioned to respond quickly, tried and tested, and familiar (operationally) with the other regional players. NATO is one such security alliance that would be a beneficial collective participant. Other regional security alliances could play a role also as global terrorism stretches to all corners of the world.

“According to United Nations estimates, up to 80 percent of the 6 billion metric tons of cargo traded each year is moved by ship. Of that, almost 75 percent passes at some point through one of the five main choke points in the seafaring economy – the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Straits of Hormuz and the Straits of Malacca.” As is evidenced by these statistics, there is a high likelihood that some, if not most, WMD transactions would be maritime events. Chances are they will transit through one of these regional chokepoints; consequently, one can see the active role that regional security alliances would play in supporting PSI. Also evident is that two of the choke points reside in the Mediterranean Sea where they are currently patrolled by NATO maritime assets that are positioned to respond quickly should the need arise. NATO participation would also help reduce the burden of over-stretching already constrained military assets in that region.

Last, but surely not least, is the important role that a United Nations Security Council Resolution plays in legitimizing and justifying the Principles of Interdiction. Not only would a Security Council resolution resonate globally, it would also unite the collective efforts of the global community. Most importantly, such a resolution will help clear legal hurdles that currently impede interdiction in international waters and airspace, paving the way for international agreement and consensus on such actions.

The global war on terrorism is not a battle fought solely by the United States. It is a battle being fought by the world community. The collective diplomatic, military, and law enforcement might that the world community must bring to bear to ensure that the proliferation of WMD never becomes a reality is insignificant when compared to the global effects of a WMD event. When John Bolton, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security was asked during the 34th IFPA-Fletcher Conference what his Measures of Performance were for PSI, he stated how many interdictions are conducted and how many WMD transactions are stopped. This is a precise measurement that will accurately reflect performance. In the case of WMD, the world community cannot afford to have 20 successful interdictions conducted, but 21 WMD transactions attempted by proliferators – one missed transaction could spell disaster. For this reason the international community must work through the challenges posed by this new initiative and ensure that collective efforts result in 100 percent success.