war on the rocks

Combating the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Success Story for the U.S.-E.U. Partnership

March 1, 2018

This week, a leaked report by U.N. experts provided strong indications that North Korea has been illegally providing components and expertise to support Syria’s chemical weapons program. This is not the first time that U.N. experts have made similar allegations. In previous reports they have revealed that North Korean shipments to a Syrian government agency responsible for the country’s chemical weapons program had been intercepted by a third country.

States are not alone in engaging in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction: There are strong indications that terrorist organizations are seeking to access them as well. ISIL, for example, has not only used chemical weapons in Syria, but also acquired the knowledge to develop them – and possibly other weapons of mass destruction. In 2014, an ISIL laptop was recovered containing documents on how to develop biological weapons, including the bubonic plague. According to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, there were a total of 143 terrorist attacks across the world from 1970 to 2014 that used weapons of mass destruction – 35 biological, 95 chemical, and 13 radiological.

Countering this shadowy threat requires close collaboration beyond any one country’s borders. This massive effort is underpinned by a global architecture of arms control and nonproliferation treaties that define the obligations of governments to prevent the illegal export or use of weapons of mass destruction. These far-reaching obligations  include tasks such as destroying chemical weapons stockpiles, developing and implementing rigorous export control laws, or implementing stringent security practices at sensitive facilities. To succeed, these efforts need a combination of well-resourced intelligence gathering, law enforcement, border controls, and preventive measures.

These efforts also need to directly engage the scientists, laboratory technicians, emergency first responders, law enforcement agencies, intelligence officers, and customs officials who are at the front end of nonproliferation efforts. Ultimately, these are the people who make the world safer. This is why over the last decade, in response to an increase in proliferation risk and use of weapons of mass destruction, the United States and the European Union have deepened their cooperation on nonproliferation. Training people on the ground in the many countries and regions around the world where weapons of mass destruction can transit builds these countries’ long-term capacities to make us all safer. The resources we invest in these programs are more effective when they are coordinated.

As the American and European Union officials responsible for managing our respective nonproliferation assistance programs, we spent five years conducting strategic dialogues in Brussels and Washington to better organize the work our respective governments do across the globe. We developed complementary approaches to working with countries in the Western Balkans, Eurasia, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and Southeast Asia to detect and defeat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

As steep cuts to U.S. foreign assistance in the Trump administration’s FY2019 budget threaten to reduce our joint ability to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, it is worth reminding ourselves of the successes that have been achieved. When the United States and the European Union have worked together to strengthen the capacity of partner nations to detect and respond to the threat of WMDs, the results have been far more effective. Despite political turbulence on both sides of the Atlantic, it is essential that these efforts continue.

The pathways through which knowledge and equipment proliferate are complex, from smugglers in the Caucasus buying and selling radiological material to make a dirty bomb, to front companies in China allowing North Korea to finance its nuclear program to unsecured laboratories from Africa to Central Asia where deadly pathogens risk being stolen and weaponized by nefarious groups. Since the end of the Cold War, illegal smuggling has flourished in the “grey zones” of the world: countries and regions with weak governance and law enforcement, or where violent conflicts have resulted in a steep rise in criminal activity and terrorist networks. The IAEA’s International Incident and Trafficking Database reports 3068 reported incidents of illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive material from 1993 to 2016.

While only a limited number of states have the capability to detonate a nuclear bomb, even a relatively minor attack with a “dirty” radiological device by a terrorist organization would have devastating physical, economic, and psychological consequences. Attacks with chemical or biological agents would have equally devastating effects, particularly if they targeted busy urban infrastructures. The proliferation risk is compounded by rapid scientific and technological advances in recent years. Increasingly, anyone with a computer can access knowledge about technologies that have both civilian and military applications.

One of the best-known examples of E.U.-U.S. cooperation came in 2013, when the United States negotiated an agreement with Russia to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. In close coordination with the United States, the European Union provided funds that enabled the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the U.N. to deploy experts to Syria in the midst of a civil war. They experts were able to oversee the destruction of Syria’s declared chemical arsenal. As of October 2014, almost 98 percent of Syria’s declared stockpile of 1,308 metric tons of sulfur mustard agent and precursor chemicals had been destroyed. The destruction was completed by January 2016. The agreement reached did not totally eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, but it significantly curtailed the country’s ability to use and transfer these weapons to other states. The implementation of the deal would not have been possible without the close coordination between the United States, the European Union and its member states, which contributed critical funding and destruction facilities. The U.S. – E.U. partnership also plays a key role in the continued success of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons program, though other nations are also involved in those efforts. The JCPOA itself would not have been possible without the close cooperation between the E.U. and the U.S.

Other U.S.-E.U. initiatives have made fewer headlines, but have also helped combat the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons by strengthening the capacities of countries to comply with their nonproliferation obligations. For example, to help partner countries locate unsecured nuclear material that might be used to make crude weapons, the United States and European Union developed several workshops at the Karlsruhe Joint Research Centre – Institute for Transuranium Elements in Germany. In that unique world-class facility, security officials from some 70 countries have shared detection technology and have honed their counter nuclear smuggling skills through realistic exercises.

The United States and the European Union have been stalwart supporters of the international science centers (the International Science and Technology Center and the Science and Technology Center in Ukraine) based in Astana, Kazakhstan, and Kyiv, Ukraine, respectively. These unique platforms were established to offer scientists in countries that previously hosted elements of the former Soviet chemical, nuclear, and biological warfare programs the opportunity to apply their talents to peaceful research and business activities. Backed by strong U.S. and E.U. resources and diplomacy, the centers help reduce the risk that highly skilled scientists might sell their expertise on the black market for want of other avenues to apply their talents. Some 75,000 scientists, engineers, and technical staff from dozens of countries have participated in projects and seminars under the auspices of the ISTC. The research by many of these former weapons scientists has helped generate advances in health, the environment, and energy.

The European Union and the United States are also leaders in border security. They have invested millions of dollars in helping partner countries strengthen their border management techniques through the use of technology and by training their border guards and customs officials. In countries ranging from Morocco to Central Asia and beyond, both the European Union and the United States help national actors draft stringent export control regulations to prevent the proliferation of dual-use technology. By keeping each other informed of these programs through the high-level dialogues held in Brussels and Washington, the European Union and United States have helped ensure that the support they each gave to third countries was complementary, avoiding duplications or inconsistencies.

For example, the State Department’s Export Control and Related Border Security program helped fund and construct a facility in Almaty to train border guards and improve the ability of Central Asian republics to detect and intercept WMD material. This facility, completed in May 2016, is one example of a common approach by the United States and the European Union to ensure dangerous material and expertise does not transit the region. In neighboring Uzbekistan, the European Union has set up one of its eight world-wide CBRN Centres of Excellence that help countries develop regional border control and incident management approaches. To date, 57 countries have deepened their cross-border cooperation and strengthened their institutional capacity to mitigate chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats thanks to joint projects facilitated by the centers. The combination of these various programs is key to building the networked security that is the only viable answer to today’s complex and multifaceted WMD threats.

Finally, the threat of weaponization of biological pathogens is another risk that requires international cooperation. The E.U. and U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak in 2013, while primarily driven by health concerns, also included a robust effort to strengthen the security at West African labs. Strengthening safety and security practices in public health facilities everywhere around the world is an essential measure to mitigate the risk of malicious actors accessing dangerous pathogens to turn them into weapons. The European Union and the United States have been leaders in advancing the Global Health Security Agenda by improving global capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to the outbreak of disease. The technical expertise and resources of the European Union and the United States are critical to leveraging investments from a number of countries with weak health care systems who might otherwise be unable to deal with fast spreading outbreaks.

These are just some examples of the close coordination between the European Union and the United States at both the strategic and operational level that has helped bolster international capacity to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The media’s intense focus on North Korea’s belligerent rhetoric and threat of nuclear conflict obscures the scale and breadth of the illicit procurement activities of countries and non-state actors seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction in violation of international norms.

Discovering and stemming proliferation requires technical skill, diplomacy, and political commitment from the international community. Neither the United States nor the European Union alone have the necessary resources to meet the nonproliferation threat. By combining their expertise, global relationships, and programs, they can to scale up their support to partner countries threatened by non-state actors on their territory or help locate and secure nuclear material outside of regulatory control. This is not the time to take our foot off the gas or to reduce funding for this important work.


Joelle Jenny was the Director for Security Policy and Conflict Prevention at the EU External Action Service from 2012 to 2016, and is currently at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs; Simon Limage was the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nonproliferation Programs at the State Department from 2011 to 2017.

Image: International Science and Technology Center