Jeffrey LewisWMD Terrorism Commission Report

The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center has posted World at Risk, The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism. (By my count, this is the third Commission to style itself “The WMD Commission,” following efforts by Hans Blix and Charles Robb and Laurence Silberman.)

It ain’t exactly the 1965 Gilpatric Report, if you know what I mean.

For one thing, the Gilpatric Report turned in at trim 22 pages; This behemoth is over a hundred — and that is not counting all the frontmatter and appendices.

For another, the Gilpatric Report made an argument. Despite its slim slize, the Gilpatric Report arguably changed US policy toward the spread of nuclear weapons forever (See Schwartz, Gavin and Brands).

I can’t say the same thing about World at Risk. Henry Sokolski makes the point in his additional view that the report doesn’t really address the issue of proliferation in general. Sokolski describes the choice as one of balance, noting that the report “is imbalanced since it places a primary emphasis on nuclear and biological terrorism threats rather than on preventing nuclear proliferation to new states and the ramp-up of nuclear bomb capabilities in several existing nuclear armed states.”

The problem is worse that Sokolski suggests — the report is imblanced because it doesn’t reflect any particular explanation or insight into why the world is allegedly on the brink of what the authors call “a new era of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The Gilpatric Report expressed a distinct view of why nuclear weapons weapons would spread and prescribed remedies that flowed logically from the diagnosis.

World At Risk, on the other hand, doesn’t. It reads like a laundry list of recommendations — most of which, I hasten to add, are quite sound.

World At Risk could have selected many candidate explanations for why the world might experience a new bout of nuclear and biological proliferation. My own view is that the spread of nuclear and biological technologies, along with climate change, are part and parcel of the information revolution that is driving globalization. Dramatic advances in computing technology have made possible revolutions in manufacturing and the life sciences. These developments are mostly good things, resulting in cheaper goods and better medicines. But the spread of such technologies also increases the number of countries that can manufacture centrifuge components or develop deadly pathogens.

The urgent task, as John Steinbruner argued in Principles of Global Security, is to transform our security relationships to maximize our defense against these threats, rather than simply repeating what we have done in the past. World At Risk, on the other hand, calls not for transforming our security relationships, but rather a need to “reframe Cold War deterrence strategy to address 21st-century threats.” I am all for deterring nuclear smugglers, but it seems to me that this particular historical moment requires something a little more venturesome than reframing.

I know you are thinking — “well, Jeffrey, you are asking an awful lot of something written by a Committee!” That’s true, but that is precisely what was so amazing about the Gilpatric Report — that it contemplated a fundamental transformation in our policies toward nuclear weapons and Soviet Union, based on an insight into the nature of the shared danger we face:

We must acknowledge the importance of participation by the Soviet Union in efforts to stop proliferation. Furthermore, it is unlikely that others can be induced to abstain indefinitely from acquiring nuclear weapons if the Soviet Union and the United States continue in a nuclear arms race. Therefore, lessened emphasis by the United States and the Soviet Union on nuclear weapons, and agreements on broader arms control measures must be recognized as important components in the overall program to prevent nuclear proliferation.

We believe that the Soviet Union, because of its growing vulnerability to proliferation among its neighbors, probably shares with us a strong interest in preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons. Further, we believe that the change of leadership in the Soviet Union and the possible resulting review of Soviet nuclear policies may now provide an immediate opportunity for joint or parallel action in the near future to stop the nuclear spread.

Not bad for a report written by committee.


  1. Anoynomous (History)

    the wmd commission’s report has been available for a while on the commission’s website

  2. Robot Economist (History)

    I could sum up that whole paper in two sentences:

    “National security policy has become so risk averse that the Cold War-era paradigm of taking steps to make weaponization prohibitively difficult are no longer adequate. The only way to meet the 21st Century’s lower risk threshold is to stop or retard the global proliferation of dual-use technologies and expertise.”

    If I were feeling really snarky, I would have ended the sentence with “…regardless of point of origin, destination or the political cost of blocking the transaction.” I’m willing to give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt on that point.

  3. Robert Stump MD PhD (History)

    This report is well written, well thought out, and offers concrete suggestions for limiting WMD propagation. It is critical to the survival of our nation that we implement comprehensive plans for defense against WMD both within and outside of the US. There is much more that can be done, and must be done, to protect our American culture. This report is a good starting point.

  4. mark hibbs (History)

    All very well and good but…why is this report coming out right now? At least one of the authors is campaigning hard for a job in the new USG. His arguments are not shared by some other, equally well-known nonproliferation gurus at the other end of the Amtrak line in DC, who may also be considered for positions in the Obama administration. But will we see a food fight over this among the parties concerned? Due to the gravity of the differences, particularly over the sensitive issue of arms control and disarmament, we should. But don’t bet on it.

  5. J (History)

    After six months of study, more than 250 meetings and interviews, and eight separate hearings, this vaunted Commission published an incredible dud of a report. It is a disappointment that, given a unique opportunity to offer bold new ideas for the incoming Administration, this Commission largely recycled proposals that have been recommended countless times before over the past decade.

    I agree with Jeffrey that the proposals are sound. But did we really need a Commission to tell us that we need to strengthen the IAEA, eliminate terrorist safe havens in Pakistan, or make it a top priority to stop the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs? This report is notable for not introducing one significant new idea into the debate many of us have been engaged in in recent years.

    Even the so-called blockbuster prediction that we are likely to see a WMD attack launched somewhere in the next five years is not all that bold. If we see another repeat of the Aum Shinrikyo attack or mailing anthrax, then the Commission’s prediction will have been borne out. Nowhere close to Graham Allison’s (a Commissioner) chilling prediction that a nuclear explosion will occur in a major city sometime in the next ten years at better than 50/50 odds.

    Part of the problem was the appointment of senior Commission staff who had no particular background or expertise on WMD issues — incidentally, the same description can be applied to three of the Commissioners.

    Another part of the problem was the decision to avoid any difficult choices, in part due to the desire for unanimity among very different Commissioners. So the report dodges the critical issue of whether the U.S. should move to ratify the CTBT or discuss in any detail what an acceptable shutdown of Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs can and should entail.

    Sadly, this report will have a very short shelf life — I doubt it will make any ripples beyond this week’s burst of press reports.

  6. FSB

    Is the probability of terrorist use of WMD greater or less than that of deterrent failure (accidental, mistaken or unauthorized use of nukes)?

    Why not interact with China and Russia to reduce the huge nuke stockpiles (and HEU “civilian” Pu dumps) which would be the source of the material terrorists would likely use?

    Why does the WMD commission not recommend against RRW explicitly? — this would be a huge boondoggle that would encourage other nations to weaponize.

    Non-proliferation begins at home.

  7. FSB
  8. Robot Economist (History)

    M. Hibbs — My sense is that the administration’s strong objection to the commission when it was originally proposed following the 2006 midterm elections is the reason why it is just wrapping up now. The decision to release it post-election probably has more to do with the potential job-hunting you alluded to.

    J — It is interesting to note that this report has stepped up the Graham Allison prediction by 5 years (2013).

  9. Silvertone (History)

    Mr. Economist,

    I believe the release date was set by the bill creating the Commission. While the starting date was not legislated, the reporting period (generally, not a specific date) was.

    The Allison prediction was originally made in the 90’s. Then reiterated when his last book was released. So the date mentioned by the Commission is likely not to have been influenced by this one Commissioner—unless you are willing to give him extraordinary influence over everyone else involved in the project…


    I’m willing to wager almost every commission report, outside of the 9/11 Commission which had the emotional and political backing of the families under almost unique circumstances, has had a pretty short shelf life.