U.S. President Barack Obama recently honored former Sens. Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, namesakes of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, and called on the Russians to renew the pact, which, in October, Russia declared an intention to end.
Renewal would benefit both nations because threat reduction is now a broader and more compelling matter.
The CTR program is credited with removing nuclear weapons from former Soviet republics, deactivating thousands of strategic nuclear warheads and eliminating huge stockpiles of nuclear missiles and chemical weapons. The program has also been criticized because it cost American taxpayers several billion dollars.
In the post-9/11 world, however, those billions may have been the best insurance policy for preventing nuclear weapons, materials and technology from falling into the hands of terrorists by stopping proliferation at its source.
The legacy CTR program was largely concerned with reducing the threat of “loose nukes” and the “brain drain” of weapons scientists from the collapsed Soviet Union to other states and nonstate actors of concern. Obviously, American threat reduction interests now extend far beyond Russia.
The Department of Defense’s CTR program is expanding into Pakistan (an obvious country of concern), Afghanistan and countries in both Africa and Southeast Asia. There the nexus of transnational terrorist threats, biosciences capacity building, infectious disease epidemics, and the materials and expertise in weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is growing.
Fortunately, CTR has rebooted itself, like the Spider-Man movie franchise.
The issue is less about eliminating weapons and materials and more about related security interests. So cooperative security engagement (CSE) may be a better description of what CTR has become. It may also be more of a quid pro quo arrangement.
A partner country’s security interests may not be identical to America’s, as was largely the case between the U.S. and Russia — reducing the threat of “loose nukes.” In the case of African countries, their bio threat interest may be more health- and medical-related, while the U.S. perspective may be more related to WMD. But if the United States is willing to work with African countries addressing the medical bio threat, they, in turn, would work with the U.S. addressing the WMD bio threat.
The future of CTR need not be limited to WMD. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs), for example, have been pervasive in Iraq and Afghanistan. IEDs are more likely to be used by terrorists because they require limited skills and can be assembled with readily available materials and components, such as fertilizer and cellphones. Indeed, the threat close to home is very real with IEDs prevalent in Colombia and an emerging threat in Mexico, largely by drug cartels.
Russia may no longer be interested in CTR because of its opposition to U.S. plans for a missile defense system based in Europe. That begs the question of whether the benefits of missile defense outweigh CTR. But even if the Russians make good on their promise to end their partnership with the U.S. next spring, prospects remain for CTR as broader cooperative security engagement.
The roughly $500 million that DoD spends annually on CTR programs is less than 0.1 percent of the defense budget. Another $500 million combined by the State Department and others is a relatively small investment — especially compared with big-ticket weapon systems — with a high rate of return upside.
An integrated whole-of-government approach to CSE can better leverage that taxpayer investment to incorporate the capabilities of all interagency partners. More important, CSE isn’t a U.S. military incursion, thereby avoiding the charge of unwarranted U.S. interference — especially in Muslim nations — as a reason for making the United States a target for terrorism.
Charles V. Peña is senior fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and author of “Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.” Christopher Fasano is an analyst with The Tauri Group, a government consultant firm in Alexandria, Va.