by Sophy Macartney*
Export control regimes are one of the cornerstones of global non-proliferation efforts, aiming to keep potentially dangerous technologies out of the hands of possible aggressors. Since the Cold War, export control regimes have aimed for inclusiveness and avoided targeting specific states while including states with problematic export histories in hopes they would rise to the level of responsible behavior exhibited by regime members. As a consequence, Russia has had more access to Western technology, benefiting its military and nuclear capabilities. China, while not a participant in most regimes, benefited from the non-discriminatory approach. Given the importance of Western technologies to Russia’s war effort and China’s disregard for global standards such as intellectual property protections, it may be time to reincorporate elements of the Cold War-era Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM) and block the transfer of technologies to Russia and China that could fuel military aggression and nuclear threats. This will require, at a minimum, all Western countries, plus Japan, South Korea and Australia to participate. Previously, building support for such measures would have been difficult in the face of national policies promoting engagement with Russia and China as a means of encouraging compliance with international norms, plus strong lobbying from defense industries in search of sales, but Russian aggression and Chinese military assertiveness should prompt reconsideration.
The evolving threats of nuclear war and technology proliferation coupled with the lack of matched evolving responses to such threats prompt further attention to understand what has changed, who the threats are, and how this can be addressed. The reasons why export controls are crucial to security today are not exactly the same as they were 50 or 30 years ago, particularly in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war and China’s theft-aided technological advancements. This is why it is overdue for policymakers to explore policy options that can ensure export control policy is not exploited by actors such as China and Russia. When they are encouraged to take part in global engagement and display cooperative behaviors and do not do so, it is time to readdress policy that is not achieving its intended goals.
The four remaining multilateral export control regimes do not address geopolitically focused targets, but instead have a more blanketed approach. COCOM and its targeting of the Soviet Union and its allies from 1949 through 1994 is a demonstration of geopolitically targeted export control policies, which, although flawed in its informality and lack of enforcement mechanisms, was a reflection of the Cold War and fears of nuclear escalation. With Russia repeatedly threatening to use nuclear weapons and the nuclear landscape reaching a critical point at which governments must again assess the risk of escalation; policies must evolve to reflect these heightened threats. China’s military expansion is also a cause for concern. Not only does this demonstrate a lack of cooperation with global non-proliferation efforts, but the pace of growth in China’s military, coupled with a lack of transparency, argue for economic and diplomatic measures to signal that a U.S.-China arms race is in no one’s interest.
Russia has repeatedly demonstrated aggression and lack of respect for state sovereignty in Eastern Europe, and experts have speculated that the future is going to be no different, with threats of nuclear war in danger of becoming the norm. Having a more permanent, standardized export control policy among the United States and allies will demonstrate credibility of threats to diminish Russia’s military capabilities and unity among the international community, and ensure the effect of export controls on Russia’s economic, military, and technological proliferation abilities is as durable as possible. Cooperation among Western states is crucial to ensure the strongest possible effect is made and to diminish the risk of non-compliant spoilers that continue to practice free trade with these states. Having a strong coalition will also demonstrate strong unity and dedication to the non-proliferation efforts. Amidst the heightened international opposition to Russia, now may be the most critical time that these potential hesitancies can be outweighed.
Used as a foreign policy tool of nuclear non-proliferation, export controls are enacted with the goal of weakening the ability to wage nuclear war and diminish nuclear risks. With Russia and China at the forefront of today’s nuclear threats, it is critical that the focus of export control policies become better tuned to mitigate this threat.
*Editor’s note: Writing for the Center’s new Next Up in Arms Control series, Sophy Macartney is a Scoville Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. She is a recent graduate from the University of Georgia and specializes in research on export controls and sanctions.