Non-state Actors & Weapons of Mass Destruction

Instructor: Harley Davidson

Harley has taught university-level History classes and has a Ph.D. in History

The advent of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, changed global politics forever. This lesson explores non-state actors' attempts to acquire WMD materials.

Finding an Edge in the Nuclear Age

1945 was a seminal year in world history. The United States and its allies, with the aid of nuclear weapons, won World War Two. The development of nuclear weapons fundamentally altered global geopolitics. George Orwell, in his 1945 essay You and the Atomic Bomb, argued that the emergence of nuclear weaponry would ultimately concentrate more power in the hands of massive, industrial nation-states. Smaller nations that did not have the ability to produce nuclear weapons, said Orwell, would be sidelined or subsumed by superpowers. This is exactly what happened; the United States and the Soviet Union, each possessing massive stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), divided most of the world into competing spheres of influence. But what Orwell did not foresee was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of certain non-state actors who would attempt to chip away at the advantages of superpowers. Non-state actors, broadly speaking, are international entities that are not aligned with or related to any one specific nation, but who nonetheless affect international politics and economics. Two particularly dangerous and influential non-state actors are the international black market in WMD materials and terrorist organizations.

The terrifying power of nuclear weaponry on display.
Nuclear explosion

The Fall of the Soviet Union and WMD Black Markets

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of their WMDs fell into the possession of former Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs), countries that did not have the same security infrastructure as the Soviet Union. After 1991, stories abounded of vast supplies of chemical weapons left behind in relatively unsecured facilities. These materials often found their way into the hands of the black market, where materials could be sold to terrorist organizations and nations under diplomatic sanctions seeking nuclear technology. One former SSR was Moldova, where as recently as 2011, an informant was able to buy highly-enriched uranium with ease. While the former Soviet Union was one major source of WMD materials and designs, the most controversial market in WMD materials in modern times centered on Pakistan.

One of the most extensive black markets in WMDs was created by Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani nuclear scientist and founding figure in Pakistan's nuclear program. In 2003, the United States intercepted a shipment of WMD-related materials going to Libya. U.S. investigators eventually traced this shipment to Khan. For decades, Khan led a WMD black market that provided nuclear technology and expertise to rogue nations, such as Libya and North Korea. Khan's network was an example of the ways in which non-state actors, along with rogue nations, have sought an edge in the nuclear age. In addition to rogue nations, terrorist organizations have been important customers in WMD black markets.

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