from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

PSI: A Model for Multilateral Action?

July 21, 2011

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A member of the Australian Navy searches a ship playing the role of a vessel carrying suspected materials during a naval drill of the Proliferation Security Initiative Exercise (PSI) at Yokosuka port, south of Tokyo, October 14, 2007. Japan, the U.S., Australia, France, New Zealand and Singapore took part in the three-day naval drill to improve their capability to prevent possible transport of weapons of mass destruction by sea (Kim Kyung-Hoon/ Reuters).

John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and conservative firebrand, is rarely labeled a “multilateralist.” But as godfather of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), created in 2003, he deserves credit for expanding the boundaries of multilateral security cooperation. This week, CFR’s International Institutions and Global Governance (IIGG) program released a groundbreaking Working Paper on the PSI written by Emma Belcher, former CFR Stanton fellow and now program officer at the MacArthur Foundation. The Proliferation Security Initiative: Lessons for Using Non-Binding Agreements depicts the PSI as an innovative and flexible response to an urgent global challenge—and a model of collective action that can be replicated in other realms where formal institutions are absent (or found wanting).

As Belcher explains, the PSI is not a formal organization but rather a voluntary, non-binding pledge among participating countries to interdict shipments of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and related technology in land, sea, and air. President George W. Bush established the initiative in May 2003. At the time, anxiety over illicit WMD trafficking by state and non-state actors was growing, and officials recognized that existing legal rules and international organizations were not up to the task of counter-proliferation. Interdiction of WMD material in particular was not adequately covered in international law, and could not be ignored after the November 2002 So San incident. Partly because there were insufficient legal grounds for seizure, that North Korean vessel was allowed to proceed after authorities discovered it was carrying missiles to Yemen. Revelations of the illicit black market network in nuclear technology created by Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan further sharpened these proliferation and interdiction concerns.

To address this lacuna, Bolton, then undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, crafted a novel approach. Rather than engage in cumbersome efforts to change international law or negotiate a new treaty among all 192 UN member states, the United States invited a small group of like-minded countries to pledge to collaborate in interdicting WMD and related materials, and to adhere to a common set of interdiction principles. Having secured the participation of a “Core Group” of fellow democracies, (initially, the UK, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, and Spain) the United States gradually extended participation to a wider array of countries willing to adopt the established norms.

PSI operations remain classified, rendering objective evaluations impossible, but U.S. officials credit the PSI with more than two dozen interdictions. Additionally, they claim it has had a strong deterrent effect on would-be proliferators. Early on, some Bush administration critics worried the PSI would undermine the treaty-based nonproliferation regime. Such fears were unwarranted, Belcher suggests. By 2011, the number of PSI adherents had grown from eleven members to more than ninety-five countries, and the PSI was generally considered compatible with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Moreover, UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which was passed in April 2004, implicitly endorsed the PSI’s principles. Concerned that the PSI lacked sufficient transparency and international legitimacy, President Obama in April 2009 proposed turning it into a more “durable international institution.” But the administration has since backtracked. It appears to have learned to appreciate the flexibility of an informal arrangement.

So what are the lessons of the PSI experience, according to Belcher?

  • First, non-binding agreements are useful complements to existing treaty arrangements, particularly when it comes to urgent problems where international law is either lacking or underdeveloped. Compared to treaties, such arrangements, are easier to negotiate, faster to implement, and easier to adapt. They also protect U.S. sovereignty more, since they are ultimately voluntary.
  • Second, non-binding agreements can pave the way for stronger and complementary agreements, hybrid arrangements, and subsequent legal developments. The PSI, for instance, helped inspire UNSC Resolution 1540. And it has been bolstered by a series of binding bilateral agreements between the United States and PSI members, creating in effect a hybrid counterproliferation regime.
  • Finally, despite its “non-binding” nature, the PSI experience suggests that voluntary arrangements can still exert a compliance pull on members.

To be sure, the PSI isn’t perfect. Several major countries, including maritime states like China, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and Egypt, remain outside. But the PSI model has proven its utility—and been replicated in such efforts as the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) and President Obama’s own Nuclear Security Summit of April 2010. And for this we have John Bolton, multilateralist, to thank.

More on:

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament