12/21/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Throwing Out the Bathwater, but Keeping the Baby

Resisting the temptation to renounce all things Bush, President-elect Barack Obama has astutely thrown himself behind the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a Bush administration effort to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). However, he should be wary in what manner he proposes to institutionalize it, lest it lose the very attributes that make it successful.

Despite squandering widespread global sympathy and much-needed support for U.S. foreign policy since 9/11, the Bush administration quietly leveraged impressive international participation in the initiative. Participation has grown from 11 to 91 states in just five years, to include more than the usual suspects. Although it has yet to realize its full potential, the PSI has been a foreign policy coup at a time when international support was hard to come by.

Bush announced the PSI in Poland on May 31, 2003, when the United States, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom committed to work together to prevent proliferation to states and non-state actors by intercepting shipments of WMD, related materials, and means of delivery.

At first glance, the PSI looked like another example of the Bush administration engaging in selective multilateralism; another "coalition of the willing" venture. The PSI lacks the standard ingredients of traditional multilateral cooperation. It is not a treaty, does not have a charter, there is no secretariat, no formal decision-making process, and there is no review mechanism. Participants commit to "interdiction principles," which are vaguely worded and not legally binding.

Despite its shadowy nature, the PSI resonates with decision-makers worldwide. PSI states form a network, sharing information and taking action together in real time to intercept suspicious shipments, most of which take place at sea. Its informal nature allows it the flexibility to keep pace with the global trade of WMD materials. The idea is to restrict the avenues for illicit WMD trade, forcing proliferators to take increasingly risky routes where they are more likely to be discovered and, by which, their activities eventually become less profitable. The Bush administration cites over two dozen successful interdictions, including the seizure of centrifuge parts en route to Libya and denial of nuclear-related technology to Iran.

However, although the value of 91 states demonstrating their commitment to act against proliferation cannot be denied, having the numbers is no guarantee of success. One problem is that the PSI includes a number of superfluous states, such as Liechtenstein and the Holy See, whose ability to interdict illicit WMD trade is dubious at best. More importantly, however, the PSI is missing critical states, weakening the strength of its anti-proliferation network.

Among nuclear weapon states, for example, Russia, the United Kingdom, and France are in, but India, Pakistan, and China are pointedly absent. Also missing are states strategically located on the world's busiest trade routes that have the greatest potential to interdict WMD-related materials. They include Indonesia and Malaysia on the busy Malacca Straits, as well as Egypt on the Suez Canal.

Saudi Arabia's accession to the PSI was an important development because the country's strategic location on the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf increases the PSI's coverage of crucial choke points in global sea-borne commerce. Without the participation of the other proliferation-significant states, however, the PSI's network will remain patchy, and proliferators will stand a greater chance of slipping through the cracks.

The Government Accountability Office's recent recommendations (PDF) that U.S. agencies clarify policies and procedures internally, and that the U.S. develop stronger relationships with all participants, beyond the 19 they have favored to-date, are well made. President-elect Obama's calls for institutionalizing the PSI (presumably to formalize commitment and decision-making), however, could upset the balance if taken too far, resulting in the loss of significant participants who are opposed to a formal commitment, and frustrate attempts to act in real time by adding red tape.

Of greater value would be strengthening the PSI's coverage to include missing critical states. This will require a genuine effort to convince these states that PSI activities are in line with the law of the sea, which, among other things, regulates searches and seizures of cargoes at sea. Ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea would demonstrate that the PSI is not envisioned as a means to circumvent international law.

Strengthening the PSI in this fashion would make it an indispensable tool to fight WMD proliferation -- one with considerable teeth that puts would-be proliferators on notice. Despite any distaste for its origins, the PSI is well worth carrying through to the Obama administration.

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