Counter-proliferation Vs. Non-proliferation

Posted on Thu 11/20/2008 by


By Mahdi Mohammad Nia
Ph.D Student of Pune University (India)

Many people are confused about differences between non-proliferation and counter-proliferation that currently are used in the nowadays political literature

In fact, the distinction of non-proliferation and counter proliferation counted as a “strategic” difference, not a “conceptual” one.

non-proliferation refers to political, diplomatic, and economic measures, such as arms controls, arms export, inspections, and treaty commitments, to prevent the issue of WMD. WMD includes nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Unlike chemical and biological weapons, which have been prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons and Toxins Convention, nuclear weapons have had a norm created by the nuclear non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) against their proliferation and non-possession, but not a time bound commitment for their complete elimination. When the NPT entered into force in 1970, a majority of the world’s states banded together to sign the prevention of spread of nuclear weapons (Presently, all except four nations — India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea – signed the NPT Treaty. North Korea left the treaty regime in early 2003.) 1 On the line with non-proliferation, the United States and other like-minded NPT regime advocates have successfully encouraged several states (Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan) to suspend work on suspected nuclear weapons programs and other states (Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine) to give up nuclear weapons they inherited from the Former USSR. 2

At the beginning, counter-proliferation initiative was launched by the Clinton administration in 1993 under the sponsorship of the late secretary of defense Les Aspin and stemmed from the Bush administration directive on non-proliferation to the defense department to develop new capabilities to defend against proliferants including capabilities for preemptive military action3 .  Its supporters claim that the new military options will strengthen and enhance the traditional non-proliferation options.  Key DOD officials have been careful to stress that counter-proliferation will in no way replace non-proliferation, but that its purpose is to provide usable options when non-proliferation fails.4According to Wilson Heather “The principles on which the Clinton non-proliferation policy is based are misguided, and follow on the heels of a Bush administration policy which was outdated” 5. The Bush administration has acted on its belief that military force or the threat of that force can prevent the further spread of WMD. Therefore, the administration further strengthened counter-proliferation in U.S. strategy in the new strategic environment made by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In reality before 9/11 non-proliferation was not include first strike or preemptive war aimed at stopping a regime from acquiring WMD.

In the view of Pentagon, “the increased stress on counter-proliferation has translated into four objectives: first, to keep WMD technology out of the wrong hands; second to eliminate or destroy WMD capabilities should proliferation occur; third, to develop the capacity to fight in a WMD environment, if necessary; and fourth, to mitigate environmental consequences should WMD use by an adversary occur”.6

This conviction apparently spurred the United States to launch a preventive war in Iraq in 2003. (Despite the commitment of substantial intelligence, military, and U.S. inspection resources, the United States and its Coalition partners have uncovered, to date, no WMD caches in Iraq. The continued failure to find WMD in Iraq could undermine the credibility of the United States in future endeavors to use force to bring about the end goal of no WMD).7

According to the Air War College counter-proliferation may be considered “as the military component of non-proliferation, in the same way that military strategy is a component of foreign policy. Counter-proliferation refers specifically to Department of Defense activities, both in the actual employment of military force to protect U.S. forces, and in their support of overall U.S. non-proliferation policies and goals”.8

As Heather believes “Countering proliferation is not about ‘building a new consensus’ that non-proliferation is important. Rather, having accepted its importance, we must decide to use U.S. resources and influence to prevent proliferation where possible, to assist countries in a rapid and flexible way when opportunities arise to dismantle weapons and to defend against proliferants when our diplomatic efforts fail”. 9

Barry Schneider as a counter-proliferation specialist from the United Sates Air Force Counter-proliferation Center, about the essential differences between non-proliferation and counter-proliferation believes that the former “features the velvet glove of the diplomat” whereas the latter “features the iron fist of the military” .10

James J. Wirtz of the Naval Postgraduate School, writing in 2000, characterized counter-proliferation primarily as “an effort to use conventional weapons to deny proliferants military benefits from threatening to use or actually using nuclear weapons against U.S. forces or allies.” Wirtz contends that it “would be difficult, if not impossible, to convince an attentive global audience why it was necessary to use nuclear weapons to preserve the international norm against nuclear non-use and proliferation.” 11

Accordingly, some important differences between non- and counter-proliferation include:

First, non-proliferation is the full panoply of measures taken to prevent or deter states from acquiring nuclear weapons, while counter-proliferation seems, to emphasize measures to be taken -defensive and offensive- if non-proliferation fails or is perceived to be about to fail.

Second, counter-proliferation places greater emphasis on the use of military force, and threatening force to preempt acquiring WMD, while non-proliferation puts this emphasis in the diplomatic efforts.

Third, the objectives of nuclear non-proliferation measures are global or broadly regional, nondiscriminatory and hence standardized (except in cases where the activities of a country arouse suspicion); while some defensive counter-proliferation measures have a general character (e.g., improving defenses against WMD and missiles attack) and are not specifically directed against any particular adversary, many other counter-proliferation measures that can be called offensive counter-proliferation are necessarily nation-specific. 12

Fourth, counter-proliferation at the beginning was only a U.S. initiative, and therefore, only unilateral, while the non-proliferation regime, as it has been emphasized, has ever been multilateral. In this concept, the major critic was that although regimes need sanctions, and for security regimes like the non-proliferation one, sanctions are a matter for the “regime community”, not for “independent” and uncontrolled national (U.S.) actions. 13

according to The U.S. administration policy the primary concentration of U.S. counter-proliferation strategy has been on two categories of state : “proliferators,” such as North Korea, which is actively seeking to acquire WMD capabilities; and “leakers,” particularly Russia and Pakistan, – whose inadequate controls over weapons and sensitive technologies could lead to their diversion to another countries or non-state actors, like Al Qaeda. 14

the main criticism regarding counter-proliferation is that this is directed just against new proliferators or the countries that newly trying to acquire nuclear fuel and not against those that had already proliferated.15 Thus, with respect to the acquisition of nuclear weapons by another countries , the U.S grudgingly admitted their acquisition by selected allies-the United Kingdom; France; and more covertly, Israel-but sought to control their proliferation in the rest of the world. 16


Charles D. Ferguson, “Counterproliferation and Nonproliferation Backgrounder” , FORUM ON PHYSICS & SOCIETY of The American Physical Society, July 2004 ,at: However, the NPT embodies a double standard in which five nations – the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, and France – are considered as nuclear weapons countries and the rest of the states signatories are not permitted to possess or acquire nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, the treaty struck a grand bargain. The nuclear-haves agreed to pursue general and complete nuclear disarmament, while the have-nots have committed to not acquire nuclear weapons in exchange for the “inalienable right” to peaceful nuclear technology. Failure to achieve nuclear disarmament has led many have-nots to accuse the nuclear weapon states as not living up to their commitment, but the NPT does not determine when disarmament is to be completed. Similarly, Iran’s activities to build a complete nuclear fuel cycle have raised alarm among the United States and its allies that Iran, a member of the NPT, have to use its civil nuclear program as a cover for nuclear weapons production.

2Jeffrey Record, “Nuclear Deterrence, Preventive War, and Counterproliferation” Policy Analysis,No:519,(July 8, 2004),p.7

3Heather Wilson ,”Missed opportunities: Washington politics and nuclear proliferation”, in Peter L. Hays, Brenda J. Vallance, Alan R. Van Tassel (ads), American Defense Policy, (JHU Press, 1997),p.451

4 LT COMDR ANGUS MCCOLL , “Is Counter proliferation Compatible with Nonproliferation? Rethinking the Defense Counterproliferation Initiative”, AIRPOWER JOURNAL (SPRING 1997),

5Heather Wilson ,(1997),p.451

6 “U.S. Counter proliferation Policy”, January 28, 2005,at,

7Charles D. Ferguson,(2004),p.2

8“The Origin of U.S. Counter proliferation Policy”, Air War College,p.2,at:

9Heather Wilson ,(1997),p.452

10Barry Schneider, “Military Responses to Proliferation Threats,” in Schneider and Dowdy (eds),London :Frank Cass 1998) p. 306

11James J. Wirtz, “Counter proliferation, Conventional Counterforce and Nuclear War,” in Preventing the Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction, ed. Eric Herring (Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2000), pp. 6, 9.


A NEW ROLE FOR THE ALLIANCE” ,1997,pp.17-18,at:

13Vicente Garrido Rebolledo,(1997),p19;and see: MUELLER, Harald, “Counterproliferation and the Nonproliferation Regime: A view form Germany” in REISS and

MUELLER (eds), International Perspectives…, ibid., p. 33.

14“U.S. Counterproliferation Policy”, January 28,


15Vicente Garrido Rebolledo,(1997),p.18;and see: FISCHER, David, “Forcible counterproliferation: Necessary? Feasible in: REISS, Mitchell and MUELLER, Harald (eds.), International Perspectives on Counterproliferation, Working Paper Nº 99, The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, (Washington, D.C., January 1995),pp,11-12.

16Jeffrey Record,(2004),p.6