Playstation2 Detonation: Controlling the Threat of Dual-Use Technologies

By Re, Richard | Harvard International Review, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Playstation2 Detonation: Controlling the Threat of Dual-Use Technologies


Re, Richard, Harvard International Review


The biblical prophesy promising peace to those who turn their swords to ploughshares seems remarkably optimistic in today's world of dual-use technologies (DUTs), commercial products designed for peaceful employment but potentially adaptable to military ends. The range of recognized DUTs is too numerous and diverse to summarize, but especially remarkable examples include golf clubs, pacemakers, and shampoos for use in missile, nuclear, and chemical weapons programs, respectively. Even the popular Sony PlayStation II home gaming system--complete with a graphics card deemed fitting for a cruise missile--has been (and remains) an object of Japanese export control. It is no exaggeration to say that the war against Iraq was a war fought out of the fear of DUTs, and that similar violence might erupt in East Asia or elsewhere on their account.

The Curtain Falls

The history of multilateral DUT regulation can be divided into three stages. The first stage encompasses most of the Cold War, when advanced technologies employed in commercial products by NATO members and their allies, notably Japan and Australia, were kept out of communist countries associated with the USSR. Western efforts at DUT regulation during this 45-year period were overseen by an international organization called COCOM, or the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls.

COCOM represented modern history's most successful attempt at arresting the flow of technological diffusion. Much of its success is attributable to the geopolitical situation at the time, which provided a clear concept of what states were and were not eligible trading partners. Further, most advanced technology countries participated in COCOM's regulatory scheme, which included an enforcement mechanism as well as a rigorous decision-making procedure that produced unambiguous guidelines indicating what items were subject to regulation. Any member state seeking to export a regulated item required the unanimous approval of the other states.

Like today, primary objects of regulation during this period included electronic and computer technologies often associated with missile guidance systems. But the state of science before the mid-1980s meant that the most important products under COCOM's review were bulky and expensive, and usually manufactured by major corporations that themselves carried government contracts. As a result, oversight and enforcement were relatively easy. COCOM was by no means a perfect filter, and its success varied with the decades, but on the whole the organization succeeded to a degree that today seems enviable.

The second stage began with the easing of Cold War tensions and the beginning of East Germany's inclusion in the European Union. A unified Germany meant an end to iron curtain export control, and the subsequent dissolution of the USSR removed COCOM's raison d'etre. There were efforts in the early 1990s to include former communist states in a larger international organization built around COCOM, but it quickly became clear that these new members viewed arms and DUT trades as essential to their future economic well-being. In exchange for Russian President Boris Yeltsin's promise to halt Russia's export of weapons to Iran, COCOM was disbanded in 1994.

Individual states during this period regulated the export of DUTs for a wide variety of reasons. Many aimed to retard nuclear proliferation in the developing world, forcing states like Pakistan to turn to black market and corporate espionage to advance their nuclear programs. Export policy also reflected a tear that rising powers, especially China, might grow defiant in the face of Western economic and military hegemony, while others, like North Korea and Iran, might loan out newfound weapons to international terrorist groups. Adding to this tear was a pattern of cooperation among rising powers in the strategic assistance of one another's weapons development programs. …

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