The war in Iraq has set the United States at odds with some allies, but the international community is strongly supporting a U.S.-led initiative to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
More than 60 nations — including Russia and France, two key opponents of the Bush administration’s policy toward Iraq — are supporting the 19-month-old Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). The global effort to halt arms proliferation has also gained favor from the United Nations.
So far, details about the small number of boarding operations of ships and seizures of illicit cargo under PSI remain secret, according to Bush administration officials.
The one action made public was the Oct. 4, 2003, seizure of the German-flagged ship BBC China that was on its way to Libya with equipment for Moammar Gadhafi’s covert nuclear-arms program.
A U.S. warship forced the ship to divert to Italy. On board, investigators found containers of uranium-enrichment equipment. That discovery led to the unraveling of the covert nuclear supplier network headed by Pakistani Abdul Qadeer Khan that stretched from Germany to South Africa to Malaysia.
The network had supplied nuclear-weapons materials to Libya, Iran, North Korea and others.
PSI, launched by President Bush in May 2003, was an outgrowth of the administration’s effort to prevent weapons of mass destruction from reaching terrorists.
Its core participants include the governments of the United States, Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Singapore, Spain, Thailand and Britain.
But more than 40 other states have signed on to its principles and have chosen to keep their participation secret or limited.
The initiative is hoped to be the first step in creating a new global system to control the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and missile systems.
One key element of PSI is the landmark agreement reached with Liberia and Panama that allows PSI operations — carried out by navies or coast guards — to conduct seizures and boardings of suspect merchant ships sailing under the flags of those nations.
Vessels flagged from Liberia and Panama account for about 50 percent of all shipping around the world.
“PSI is an activity, not an organization,” said John Bolton, the undersecretary of state for international security and one of the key officials involved in the initiative.
“Our goal is based on an equally simple tenet — that the impact of states working together in a deliberately cooperative manner would be greater than states acting alone in an ad hoc fashion,” Mr. Bolton said during a speech in October following a PSI ship-boarding simulation near Tokyo harbor.
Another major official involved in starting PSI is Robert Joseph, until recently the White House National Security Council staff official in charge of dealing with arms proliferation.
Mr. Joseph helped author a classified presidential directive on the issue that is the basis for PSI.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also has been a key administration backer of PSI. Mr. Rumsfeld views international cooperation as the key to curbing arms proliferation.
Asked about PSI, Mr. Rumsfeld said: “We’ve just got to put enormous energy behind it. We have to do it soon and aggressively and persuasively, and help the world understand that the world’s safety depends on our having a degree of success, more success than we’re currently achieving with the [nonproliferation] regimes that exist.”
Mr. Rumsfeld said in a recent interview that unless measures are taken to halt proliferation, as many as five additional nuclear-weapons powers could emerge. “There could be several more countries with chemical and biological programs, and there could be additional countries with the ability to deliver those capabilities long distances,” he said.
The growth of those armed states is made more dangerous by the fact that many of the emerging arms states are listed by the State Department as sponsors of international terrorism. “The inevitable effect of that is to make the world a more dangerous place,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.
A State Department official said there is a broad consensus among PSI states to stop arms shipments. However, how to identify the countries “of proliferation concern” is more difficult.
So far, PSI has focused on stopping shipments at sea and on land. However, authorities also are seeking ways to stop aircraft carrying deadly arms or equipment destined for rogue states or state sponsors of terrorism.
In the past year and half, Mr. Bolton, a specialist in international law, has shuttled through world capitals in Asia and Europe, in an effort to convince governments that stopping illicit shipments is an urgent need.
The work has paid off. The United Nations Report of the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change endorsed PSI. The report said that, based on the BBC China interdiction, “We believe that all states should be encouraged to join this voluntary initiative.”
A U.S.-sponsored United Nations Security Council Resolution passed in April also has endorsed the idea of a halt in the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
The one state that is holding out as far as PSI is China, which the CIA has identified as a major supplier of equipment and material related to illicit arms. China remains “reserved” toward the initiative, a State Department official said.
Several Bush administration officials said Mr. Bolton deserved to be rewarded for his role in developing PSI.
Mr. Bolton is considered a candidate for several high-level posts in the second Bush administration, including deputy secretary of state and deputy White House national security adviser.