Protectionist export controls could be bad for nonproliferation

September 4, 2018
Kenshin Cho

The following is an excerpt from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

On August 13, President Donald Trump signed the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, a spending bill that includes a dense anthology of budgetary policies. In addition to funding the usual guns, missiles, and planes, this year’s bill updated export controls—an obscure tool of American foreign policy that limits exports of sensitive technologies, from pressure sensors used in centrifuges to rocket engines for nuclear missiles. The changes expand the regulations’ policy objectives to include an explicitly economic agenda and establish a mandate to explore further controls on emerging technologies, marking a renewed interest in a tool with significant implications for nonproliferation.

As discussions leading up to the spending bill revealed, influential voices misunderstand the nature of export controls, and key stakeholders increasingly disagree on their proper role. Policy makers and industry professionals are struggling to regulate disruptive technologies that defy conventional controls; to manage China as both friend and foe; and to accommodate a president who wants to use export controls as a protectionist tool.

Understanding these conversations will be critical in analyzing the ever-changing threat of weapons of mass destruction. Thoughtful debates contribute to effective policies that can mitigate proliferation and respond to China, all while minimizing economic impacts. But mismanaged, export control reforms can jeopardize American national security and spread dangerous technologies.

How export controls work. Export controls are laws and regulations designed to limit proliferation, restricting the outward flow of sensitive (military) and dual-use (civilian, but with military applications) goods and technologies. Most countries follow a similar model for regulating exports: Governments identify sensitive or dual-use goods, often relying on lists disseminated by international regimes like the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Companies apply for licenses when they want to export listed items. Countries can also implement “catch-all” controls, which define certain end uses instead of specific items, requiring companies to apply for licenses when exporting anything that may be used for such purposes.

Continue reading at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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