Coined by the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz in the nineteenth century, the “fog of war” metaphor illustrates how misrepresentation or a dearth or overload of information may produce uncertainty as to the current state of affairs. Combating non-state actors’ proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is still one of the battlefronts of today’s world, but uncertainty still reigns in when asking the fundamental question: are we winning or losing the battle?
Dealing with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons brings to mind another Clausewitz concept, that of “friction.” The notion of friction conveys how small events and problems add up to major deleterious effects in conflict situations. One can never anticipate those effects. According to theorists, the issue is not just that “for want of a nail the shoe was lost,” but that one can never assess in advance which nail on which shoe will turn out to be critical.
From its inception, UN Security Council resolution (UNSCR) 1540 represented a visionary approach by the Security Council to create a UN-wide, holistic system that addresses all nails in all shoes: it imposes binding obligations on all states to adopt legislation to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and their means of delivery by non-State actors—in particular for terrorist purposes—and to establish appropriate domestic controls over related materials to prevent their illicit trafficking. Moreover, UNSCR 1540 closed the tactical gap in nonproliferation treaties that pursue state-centric solutions to the WMD proliferation challenge without specific measures that view non-state actors as potential sources of proliferation.
Notably, UNSCR 1540 encouraged closer international cooperation, affirmed support for the multilateral treaties whose aim is to eliminate or prevent the proliferation of WMD, and emphasized the importance of all states’ implementing them fully. Follow-on resolutions, namely UNSCR 1673, UNSCR 1810, and UNSCR 1977, reiterated among other things the objectives of UNSCR 1540. These measures are a reminder that the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and their means of delivery constitutes a threat to international peace and security. Together they strengthened the role of the 1540 Committee in facilitating technical assistance, enhanced the Committee’s cooperation with relevant international organizations, and encouraged all states to prepare voluntary national implementation action plans and engage in active dialogue with the 1540 Committee. Governments can carry on such dialogue in part by inviting Committee members to visit their countries.
UNSCR 1540 will commemorate its tenth anniversary on April 28, 2014. This is a time to raise questions about its past and future as a nonproliferation tool: is UNSCR 1540 still relevant today, do states fulfill their obligations, and how should implementation be strengthened? Will this approach endure?
Worldwide threat assessments from intelligence services remain focused on the threat and destabilizing effects of nuclear proliferation, the proliferation of chemical- and biological-weapons-related materials, and the development of WMD delivery systems. The forces of globalization facilitate the rapid movement of chemical and biological materials, technologies, and latest discoveries in science and technology, as well as of personnel with relevant expertise to use and exploit them.
Developments in international trade, the growing number of suppliers, and sophisticated procurement networks, moreover, make concealment an easier task for illicit trafficking networks that circumvent national and international controls. Fragile states and “ungoverned spaces” with alternative authority structures can serve as safe havens for terrorists or international criminal organizations. “Lone-wolf” extremists or networks of like-minded extremists with allegiance to multiple groups continue to show interest in acquiring and using chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons and related materials, while technological advances and the rapid diffusion of information have made launching an attack with such materials more feasible than in decades past.
Indeed, at the December 2011 Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton noted that the “nature of the problem is evolving” and that an attack or “mass outbreak could cripple an already fragile global economy by cutting off the movement of people, goods, and sparking food shortages.”
When faced with challenges and threats to international peace and security of such unprecedented scope, scale, persistence, and complexity, how has the international community responded over the past decade in the context of UNSCR 1540?
Approximately 89 percent of UN member states reported at least once to the 1540 Committee on UNSCR 1540 implementation, while and 58 percent reported more than once. This is an impressive reporting record, especially since a number of states belonging to the Non-Aligned Movement disputed the use of the UN Security Council and its Chapter VII powers.
In response to UNSCR 1977, eight states shared with the 1540 Committee their national implementation action plans, while nine states received visits from the 1540 Committee. The Committee and its Group of Experts also participated in various types of outreach activities to promote full implementation of UNSCR 1540, share experiences and lessons learned, build capacity, and supply technical assistance in the areas covered by the resolution. More than 300 such activities have taken place in the past six years alone.
While demonstrating an increased worldwide commitment to UNSCR 1540 objectives, these numbers—in particular the high rate of reporting from states—may give a false sense of security and confidence in states’ capacity to deal with the threat posed by WMD and non-state actors. The 1540 Committee does not provide guidance on reporting or feedback to states on their national reports. As a result, few national reports comprehensively address the prohibitions, obligations, and recommended activities covered by UNSCR 1540 across the nuclear-, chemical-, and biological-weapons domains.
This raises the question whether “universality of reporting” has any significance as a “metric for success,” an evaluation criterion for implementing UNSCR 1540. A better indicator would be to track the numbers and quality of requests for assistance submitted to the Committee, and the speed and efficacy with which these requests have been met. Fifty-four states have open requests for assistance, while a significant number of international organizations and states have offered assistance in matching areas. Such figures offer a measure of true progress in the fight against proliferation—and a way to cut through the Clausewitzian fog surrounding this effort.
A significant development in UNSCR 1540-related history came when UNSCR 2118 was adopted on September 27, 2013, erecting a framework for the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons. UNSCR 2118 imposes an obligation on states to “inform immediately the Security Council of any violation of resolution 1540 (2004), including acquisition by non-State actors of chemical weapons, their means of delivery and related materials in order to take necessary measures therefore.”
While a verification mechanism was not envisioned when UNSCR 1540 was enacted in 2004, the UNSCR 2118 mandate to report violations puts some teeth in the international framework for preventing terrorists and other non-state actors from acquiring WMD, their delivery systems, and related materials. This is particularly significant considering that UNSCR1540 was adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which gives the Security Council the authority to determine that a threat to the peace exists, that the peace has been breached, or that an act of aggression has occurred, and to make recommendations or decide what measures (whether involving the use of armed forces or not) shall be taken to maintain or restore international peace and security.
In the current global environment, then years after UNSCR 1540 was enacted, state and non-state actors continue to seek materials and technologies for WMD. Their opportunities and incentives to circumvent international and national controls are far from diminishing. As such, strengthening UNSCR 1540 implementation remains an acute challenge for the international community, as well as the most comprehensive weapon in the armory for combating the threat to global peace and security posed by terrorists’ acquisition of WMD-related materials.
Despite the fog of war, it is plain that UNSCR 1540 will remain relevant and stand the test of time. However, uncertainty about how to measure progress will still befuddle many political leaders and policymakers. Since no one nation can meet the WMD proliferation challenge alone, international cooperation and assistance to states in need represent the pathways forward into the next decade. Identifying synergies and convergence with other international WMD nonproliferation instruments and a sustained effort to building a culture of nuclear, biological, and chemical security and safety will advance the implementation of resolution 1540 worldwide. Moreover, as noted in the U.S. National Security Strategy, building the capacity for economic growth while nurturing security and good governance are the only paths to long-term peace and security.