Missile Proliferation, Globalized Insecurity and Demand-Side Strategies

Tasneem Jamal

Briefing 01-4 

Ernie Regehr

For the moment, demand for weapons of mass destruction remains significant, though not overwhelming. There are at least four prominent elements to reducing demand for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and long-range ballistic missiles: promoting accountable governance, ameliorating regional insecurities, blocking ballistic missile defence, and challenging the double standard of non-proliferation.

Recent comments out of Ottawa, by the Prime Minister1 as well as the Defence2 and Foreign3 ministers, have allowed that the proposed American national missile defence (NMD) “system has to be developed in a way that will not be offensive to the Russians and the Chinese,” and should not be pursued without consultation with allies, with the implication that if direct Russian, Chinese, and NATO opposition can be forestalled, NMD will be acceptable. The most generous (and perhaps even correct) interpretation of that approach is that it amounts to a defacto Canadian “no” to NMD inasmuch as it makes Canada’s approval conditional on that of two of the international community’s most vociferous opponents of NMD (Russia and China).

But what if the main nuclear weapon states were to arrive at mutual acceptance of, or acquiescence to, ballistic missile defence, accompanied by European acceptance?4 In other words, if a key focus of popular opposition to ballistic missile defence were to be removed, namely the fear that it would upset the fragile stability of the US/Russian/Chinese nuclear relationships and re-start the arms race, should that make NMD acceptable to Canadians?

An obvious reason why it should not is that NMD represents a commitment to the long-term retention of nuclear arsenals. American NMD proponents insist and assume that Russia and China will and must indefinitely maintain enough nuclear weapons and long-range delivery systems to overwhelm any defence system that the Americans might mount. That this posture calls into question the NPT-related “unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals” hardly needs further comment.

Less obvious, but no less real, is the contribution of NMD’s nuclear retentionist assumptions to pressures toward the horizontal proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles to deliver, or threaten, them. The effective mitigation of that threat will be undermined by the pursuit of unilateral or monopolist high-cost, hi-tech protection efforts. NMD will add to the proliferation pressures, and it is only through collective international attention to the political and security issues that generate proliferation pressures – that is, through attention to the demand side of proliferation – that the threat that is said to be animating NMD interests will be successfully addressed.

Horizontal proliferation pressures

Even though NMD assumes continued nuclear threats from Russia and China, NMD advocates say that the focus of defence is not protection against those immediate and major threats. Rather, the focus of NMD is said to be on the few intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, tipped with nuclear, chemical, or biological warheads, that might one day be aimed at America from states nurturing a persistent hostility towards the US. Whether such states are defined as “rogues,” or “states of concern,” or simply as states with a will and a capacity to acquire ballistic missiles (threshold states), they exist and represent a hard reality of current and potential missile proliferation that the international community will have to confront sooner or later – namely, the reality that neither ballistic missile technology nor the capacity to build weapons of mass destruction will indefinitely be confined to only a few major military powers under what they regard as the discipline of mutual deterrence.

And if Washington’s public worrying about the likes of North Korea is indeed just a cover, as for some key American leaders it no doubt is, for its more ambitious pursuit of a robust NMD system coupled to offensive deployments in support of America’s pursuit of terrestrial and space military domination, the WMD and missile proliferation pressures, horizontal and vertical, will only intensify accordingly.

Globalized vulnerability

Even though the overwhelming majority of states that could become proliferators decide not to, the very fact that they could makes intercontinental or long-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) one of the more tangible demonstrations of the globalization of insecurity. Like instantaneous currency transfers, ICBMs can erase national boundaries and cause the weak and the powerful to shudder with equal trepidation. Surface-to-surface intercontinental ballistic missiles are designed for only one payload, weapons of mass destruction, and no corner of the world from the corridors of Washington to the savannahs of Africa can elude their reach.

It is this shared vulnerability that ultimately renders “national” defence an oxymoron. ICBMs are inimical to the military protection of national territory – a stark reality that renders the American unilateral pursuit of “national” missile defence (NMD) a costly case of collective denial. The world is irrevocably interdependent, and unilateral national military responses to globalized insecurity are unlikely to be any more effective in protecting national territory than, say, strictly Canadian pollution control regulations in protecting the Arctic environment.

NMD enthusiasts regard the struggle against proliferation as already lost. The missile threat cannot be eliminated, they say, so it’s time to build our own impenetrable fortress. But the fact that there is no such thing as an impenetrable fortress, a fact confirmed by psychology as well as physics, rests on the first principle of globalized insecurity, which is that security is not amenable to national or unilateral arrangement. It is a principle that the United States, given its continuing ambitions for unilateral “space control and space superiority,”5 does not find compelling. The rejection of unilateralism and the acceptance of mutual vulnerability are not the habits of superpowers, but it remains the case that only when the major powers join in re-inventing interdependence as a source of shared strength are they likely to set about building mutual global security regimes instead of trying to protect monopolies.

Demand and non-proliferation

A growing list of states does or could have access to those technologies of instant intercontinental destruction, and whether or not they act on that capacity depends finally on their own perceptions of self-interest and of the common interest. Israel, India, and Pakistan have thus decided to acquire both nuclear weapons and missiles of expanding range. South Africa, on the same grounds of self-interest and the common interest, has only recently decided the opposite, that is, to forgo the pursuit of such a capacity.

The proliferation or non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the ballistic missiles to deliver them to distant targets depends finally on the voluntary decisions of states. States with expanding technical capabilities – and there are many of them – will in the end not be prevented, against their will, from acquiring WMD and long-range missile technologies in a world in which there continues to be a powerful demand for them.

For the moment, demand remains significant, though not overwhelming. States with grievances against, or that regard themselves as vulnerable to interventions by, distant powers, are likely to look with considerable interest at long-range missiles with which to pose a convincing counter-threat. That interest is powerfully present in all current nuclear weapon states (NWS). And, for example, it is clear that repeated military attacks on Iraq do not serve to reduce that regime’s interest in acquiring WMD and extending the range of its missiles. And what guarantee is there that other countries, with the capability but no current interest in acquiring WMD and long-range ballistic missiles, will not change in ways that could produce conditions of intense demand for such weapons?

In arms control, demand tends to trump control. Efforts to control access to weapons that are not accompanied by measures to mitigate strong demand for them are in the long run not likely to be successful. The central insight of peacebuilding is that peace and disarmament (from small arms to WMD) do not endure through enforcement but through the building of political, social, and economic conditions conducive to restraint and stability. Regulatory and control regimes are important elements of stable security conditions, but as long as conditions produce a strong demand for weapons, it will be impossible to prevent the proliferation of WMD and ballistic missiles. And their spread to any new states promises a serious escalation of global insecurity.

There are at least four prominent elements to reducing demand for WMD and long-range ballistic missiles: promoting accountable governance, ameliorating regional insecurities, blocking ballistic missile defence, and challenging the double standard of non-proliferation.

1. Governance

It is too often overlooked, but one indispensable element of the effort to reduce the demand for ballistic missiles by states now in pursuit of them is support for the emergence of democratically accountable governments. The greatest current demand for ballistic missiles outside the acknowledged nuclear weapon states is in unaccountable repressive regimes that ignore the security of their citizens in favour of provocative policies aimed at regime aggrandizement or survival.

Strategies to isolate and demonize threshold states tend to reinforce the very vulnerabilities that produce the demand for weapons of mass destruction and the intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver them. Regimes out of step with both the international community and their own citizens are usually inclined to try to intimidate both with increasingly threatening postures and practices, internationally and domestically. While direct engagement6 of “outlaw” states holds the danger of rewarding threat with cooperation, the aim of diplomacy must obviously be to draw them into compliance with international norms and to encourage internal democratization. And a particular focus of engagement must be the strengthening of civil society and the impetus toward public participation and democracy.

In the end, the only credible long-term hedge against demand for weapons of mass destruction and the means of delivering them is an emboldened civil society that claims the right and acquires the capacity to give direct expression to alternative national interests and aspirations. States eschew extremism, not in response to external military threats, but in response to the emergence of an internal civil society that supports moderation and seeks a place of respect within the international community. In any state in which the people define public need, the demand is less likely to be for the acquisition of strategic missiles than for schools and hospitals.

That does beg the question of just who is defining national and collective needs in the United States and NATO. Some obviously think you can have it both ways – not only missiles and schools, but missiles for us and not for them, which gets us to the double standard problem (see below).

2. Regional insecurity

To date, nuclear weapons and advanced, if not yet intercontinental, missile capacity have spread beyond the traditional nuclear weapon states only in regions of intractable regional conflict. The Israel/Palestine and India/Pakistan conflicts both date back to the end of World War II and both have remained hot conflicts and involved hot wars. A call for new approaches to regional security and conflict resolution in instances such as these is both relevant and urgent, but unfortunately making the call for change is a lot easier than actually delivering alternatives. Nevertheless, the extent to which the international community and its security and peacemaking institutions can credibly address enduring regional conflicts is the extent to which we can expect real reductions in the demand for WMD and the means of their delivery.

3. NMD and demand

Any American ballistic missile defence effort promises to increase both vertical and horizontal proliferation pressures (demand). Vertical proliferation pressures will grow in Russia and China as a result of NMD, even if they were to agree to it. As the public debate on NMD regularly points out, NMD will threaten current arms control agreements and lead both Russia and China to take escalatory steps they consider necessary to maintain a credible deterrent (e.g., maintain or shift to high alert status, and increase missile numbers to overwhelm any NMD capacity to intercept them). From there the vertical proliferation pressures will cascade to India and then Pakistan.

Horizontal proliferation pressures are also destined to increase in response to NMD deployment inasmuch as NMD signals the intention of current NWS to retain their nuclear arsenals indefinitely, while insisting that everyone else disavow them. NMD, in other words, exacerbates the problem of the double standard.

4. The double standard

Even if some measure of strategic stability among the NWS were to be re-established in a strategic environment that included an NMD system, the pressures toward horizontal proliferation would still have increased. The double standard, enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, not in principle but in practice, and solemnly repeated in NATO strategic doctrine that says that in our hands nuclear weapons are agents of security, while in all others they are instruments of terror, is not sustainable.

Any state’s policies towards acquiring or forgoing WMD and ballistic missiles are likely to be varied, complex, and focussed on their own perceptions of self-interest. In other words, it’s not likely that any state will seek ballistic missiles just because the major powers have them, but the international community’s effort to preserve a double standard in these matters is not an aid to restraint or compliance. Any state that believes it is in its interests to pursue provocative, attention-getting strategies is more likely to pursue nuclear weapons and missile capability if these enjoy some level of respectability and legitimacy in the international community by virtue of the retentionist policies of major powers. The international community cannot credibly say it is illegitimate for Iraq to acquire a ballistic missile capability if others claim that right and if Iraq is not party to any international agreement that prohibits it from acquiring them. Of course, the only point of having ballistic missiles is to deliver a weapon of mass destruction.  Iraq, as a signatory to the NPT and to the biological weapons convention, and by Security Council action, is bound by international laws against any WMD acquisition.  However, states like Iraq, and like the US on the matter of the first use of nuclear weapons, may find it useful to pursue a policy of provocative ambiguity.

The challenge to the international community is thus clear: to hold all states to the same standard of behaviour, and thus to reinforce principles of interdependence and mutual security with unambiguous commitments to reduce and eventually eliminate the ballistic missiles (as well as the nuclear weapons) of the major powers.7 In the meantime, the disquietingly long meantime, during which current NWS are tasked to reduce and eventually eliminate their arsenals of long-distance mass destruction, means have to be found to make it attractive for other states to reject all WMD and long-distance delivery systems.

Multilateral missile monitoring

Just as missile control measures are destined to failure unless they are complemented by vigorous demand reduction efforts, demand reduction efforts can only be sustained and harvested through control mechanisms designed to consolidate and institutionalize an international consensus of restraint leading finally to the prohibition of WMD and their means of delivery. Current and welcome discussions within the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) are trying to encourage both supply and demand restraint by exploring a “set of principles, commitments, confidence-building measures and incentives that could constitute a code of conduct against missile proliferation.”8 These are not currently public discussions, but the fact that they are taking place should be understood as some movement towards an international consensus to reduce the number and limit the spread of ballistic missiles.

Russia’s proposal for a global missile monitoring system (GMS) is a further effort to take advantage of, and to build on, that emerging consensus. The GMS would, among other things, incorporate the MTCR’s focus on restricting technology transfers, provide security guarantees for states eschewing the pursuit of long-range ballistic missiles, and monitor missile launches.

Any mechanism to control long-range ballistic missiles faces the daunting political challenge of recognizing the current de facto, but ultimately unsustainable, monopoly on missiles, and then solidifying a commitment from all non-nuclear weapon states to themselves reject the acquisition of ballistic missiles in exchange for a commitment from the states that do have them to take discernable steps toward eliminating their long-range military ballistic missile arsenals. Sustained confidence in any arrangement by which most states agree not to acquire ballistic missiles while those with ballistic missiles for military purposes agree to reductions and movement toward their elimination9 (and, significantly, agree not to link their offensive capabilities to missile defences) will depend on the emergence of a reliable global ballistic missile monitoring mechanism with four basic roles:

• to monitor, assess, and share information on the ballistic missile development programs of all states;

• to provide surveillance and monitoring of the pre-launch status of missiles in nuclear weapon states to facilitate and verify de-alerting measures;

• to receive and share pre-launch notification of missile launches for accepted purposes, such as satellite launches; and

• to detect and track ballistic missile launches and flights and share the information in real time.

The latter two functions are central to the proposed US/Russian Joint Data Exchange Center10 (JDEC), which too should gradually be globalized.

Protection from weapons of mass destruction delivered across oceans and continents by ballistic missiles is not a national prerogative. It is a global imperative that will not be met through military defence. Protection is a common global responsibility that in this instance depends on eliminating the threat, and that in turn requires as much attention to removing the demand for such weapons as it does to restricting access to them.


1 Feb. 7, 2001, Prime Minister Chrétien told the House of Commons that he had indicated to President Bush that the NMD “system has to be developed in a way that will not be offensive to the Russians and the Chinese.”

2 Paul Koring (Washington) and Jeff Sallot (Ottawa) (2001) report that Minister of Defence Art Eggleton says Canada is “open-minded” on the NMD question.

3 On Feb. 14, 2001, Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley, in response to a question from MP Svend Robinson, told the House of Commons that “it is appropriate to give the United States … time to define what the project is that is being described as national missile defence – it has indicated that it has not done that yet – and the time it has asked for to take up what its plans are, not only with its allies but with the Russians and the Chinese.”

4 According to Michael Gordon (2001), “European officials now seem to accept, grudgingly, the fact that the new American team is determined to move ahead. … The debate is entering a new phase in which the issue is more how the United States should go about developing missile defenses, than whether it should try.”

5 On the occasion of the January 2001 Space Commission report to the US Congress, the Commander in Chief of NORAD and US Space Command and the Air Force Space Command, Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, added to the inventory of US military leaders calling for the US to control space when he counselled increased “attention to the sensitive issues of space control and superiority.”

6 See, for example, Haass and O’Sullivan 2000.

7 The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty states pledged their commitment to “the elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery” (emphasis added, see preamble to the Treaty).

8 The MTCR is an export control arrangement (voluntary guidelines among a suppliers’ group) designed to limit the spread of ballistic and cruise missile technologies. The MTCR group has begun discussions with other states on the viability of developing a broader, formal multilateral instrument to prevent missile proliferation.

9 One proposed deal would include a worldwide missile warning system accessible to all states, the provision by missile states of satellite launch facilities and other space probes for peaceful purposes for other states, permission for other countries to build missiles for space exploration and satellite launches, and a multilateral verification agency (Dean 1998).

10 The Joint Data Exchange Center is to be established under a June 2000 agreement between Presidents Clinton and Putin and will facilitate “the exchange of information derived from each side’s missile launch warning systems on the launches of ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles.”


Dean, Jonathon 1998, “Step-by-Step Control Over Ballistic and Cruise Missiles,” Disarmament and Diplomacy, Issue 31, October, pp. 2-11.

Gordon, Michael R. 2001, “News Analysis: Allies’ Mood on ‘Star Wars’ Shifts,” New York Times, February 5.

Haass, Richard N. and O’Sullivan, Meghan L. 2000, “Terms of Engagement: Alternatives to Punitive Policies,” Survival 42, No. 2, pp. 113-135.

Koring, Paul and Sallot, Jeff 2001, Feb. 2, The Globe and Mail.

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