The result has been an impressive array of government programs staffed by committed individuals dedicated to keeping nuclear, biological and chemical weapons out of the hands of terrorists. Budgets often seemed limitless, and government logically grew to address the complexities of a new proliferation reality. Unlike other areas of nondiscretionary government spending, the security sector seemed immune from the cyclical fluctuations of the U.S. economy–until now.

A recent Gallup poll shows a growing willingness on the part of the American people to make real cuts to military, national defense, and homeland security spending. On Capitol Hill, legislators have proposed significant reductions to programs dedicated to limiting terrorist access to vulnerable nuclear weapons-usable materials around the globe. Preventing such cuts in an environment where spending on education, domestic infrastructure—and perhaps even someday soon, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security—is being reduced is a unique challenge.

If budgets are ultimately reduced, and we are to avoid backsliding on the advances we have made against the proliferation threat since 9/11, we could do well by learning some of the lessons of the last Administration, while taking President Obama’s clarion call for innovation to heart.

When President Bush arrived in Washington, it was not at all clear that the Administration would be a solid advocate for the array of government nonproliferation programs that has so effectively served to reduce the WMD threat emanating from the former Soviet Union states.

But initial budget reductions were quickly restored and ultimately enhanced following a comprehensive review spearheaded by then-National Security Advisor Condolezza Rice. More interestingly, however, this action was followed by the introduction of a panoply of innovative nonproliferation activities that sought to rethink how we undertake nonproliferation.

Billions of non-U.S. security assistance dollars were added during President Bush’s tenure to global nonproliferation activities by other donor states via the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction. New activities were developed with key allies over a set of shared nuclear security principles under the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. The Proliferation Security Initiative led to pragmatic new efforts to enhance interdiction and prevent WMD trafficking. And a new effort to empower all governments to prevent non-state acquisition of WMD under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540 was launched.

Significantly, each of these initiatives was instituted with a minimum of new budgetary needs for Washington, but each to varying degrees of success help thicken the global tapestry of preventive efforts by building partnerships of convenience with new and relevant constituencies.

It is now up to the Obama Administration to build upon this history, take its own advice to heart, and innovate the next generation of nonproliferation programs. Here are three starting points:

   1. Over the past two decades, globalization has thrust the capacity to innovate, manufacture and transship sensitive dual use materials and technologies into more hands, in more countries, in more corners of the globe than at any other point in human history.

In light of other higher order threats, many of these governments—particularly across the Global South—lack the capacity or even the willingness to engage in more robust nonproliferation activities. The US government must rethink how it can better leverage the full breadth of its thinning security and development assistance to turn these potential links on the proliferation supply chain from recalcitrant listeners to enthusiastic partners.

   2. Globalization has done more than disperse the proliferation threat geographically, it has also transferred the “means of production” of these weapons from government to increasingly private hands.

Every day, the capacity of private industry to build a WMD grows, while the ability of governments to reasonably prevent this eventuality diminishes. Better understanding the motivations of industry, and building new partnerships that mutually reinforce our goal for enhanced security and their motive for profit will be critical to ensuring that the dual-use technology, manufacturing, and/or transportation sectors remains a solid advocate for nonproliferation.

   3. Those industry sectors responsible for building, using, or moving dual use WMD items are not the only logical partners in prevention. Since 9/11, of course, the banking sector has been central to US efforts to prevent WMD terrorism. But innovative roles for the private industry in proliferation prevention are only limited by our own lack of imagination.

For instance, sufficiently incented, the insurance industry could promote important mitigative (nonproliferation) behavior on the part of a broad cross-section of insured clients across the dual-use and transportation sectors that would go far toward building no-cost market based nonproliferation benefits.

Appropriators on Capitol Hill and the American people are sending a clear message to the national security community: the salad days are over. The answer to an increasingly threatening proliferation trend can no longer be simply the development of new government programs.

We must develop new paradigms for ameliorating the threat. And like every other area of government policy, we must learn how to do more with less money. In this environment, unless the President expects (and permits) the same level of innovation from his employees that he demands from private industry, the threat of WMD proliferation will only grow.
Brian Finlay is a senior associate and director of the Managing Across Boundaries Program at the Stimson Center, a non-partisan think tank specializing on issues of international security.