The threat of nuclear terrorism is the pin in the American flag of national defense policy; you will never see a strategic threat assessment without it. the risk of nuclear terrorism is very real, albeit weak, and the inability to prevent an improvised nuclear device would be catastrophic. A nuclear terrorist attack would forever change the global political landscape. It is therefore not surprising that the United States spends billion every year on helping foreign partners to prevent nuclear terrorism.
But the nuclear security lessons we are trying to teach our foreign partners are not well understood. The military has long recognized the importance of understanding the language, values and customs of foreign countries. Yet our nuclear security efforts often lack cultural awareness and fail to make a difference. We need to improve our cultural sensitivity to improve the nuclear security.
The culture of nuclear security in many countries is minimal or non-existent. In some cases, interns are too low to implement real change in their organizations. In others, our help may accidentally embarrass the wrong decision-maker or the powerful bureaucrat. It seems that our nuclear security programs suffer from a multitude of cultural misunderstandings.
The National Nuclear Security Agency claimed that in 2018 it “has organized more than 100 bilateral and multilateral nuclear and radiological security workshops and participated in 67 export control workshops with foreign partners to help strengthen national export control systems.” But according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the number of incidents involving trafficking or misuse over the past 20 years appears to be completely devoid of any specific identifiable trend. Our security efforts are not making measurable progress.
We must break down the cultural barriers that prevent foreign partners from assimilating and implementing the data-based nuclear security lessons we are trying to teach. We should rethink our training efforts around a system that starts at the top and works down, adopts a “train the trainer” model and relies on cultural experts.
It is necessary to involve national leaders and gain their buy-in, but there are a large number of middle managers with powers and agendas of their own. Once executives have agreed on a commitment, we need to work with all subordinates to ensure compliance and understanding. This allows trainers and advisers to manage the different levels of leadership in non-Western hierarchies.
Instead of teaching at the lower levels, we should be certifying those same middle managers to deliver the training themselves. Once they are experts in their own right, they can then train their respective organizations. This approach would help create a sense of ownership within nuclear security programs. It would be the responsibility of these middle managers to take the training seriously and ensure compliance with the regulations. It would also encourage trainers to train within their own cultures.
The benefits of hiring cultural experts cannot be overstated. Just as the military has used socio-cultural analysts and advisers for decades, nuclear security programs can be more effective in the same way. Adding a cultural expert team member allows the team to identify and resolve cultural differences in real time. It breaks down the barriers of communication and misunderstanding. It allows the United States to engage its partners on its own terms. Students are more receptive when they don’t feel like they’re fighting just to be understood.
Obviously, an overhaul of training programs will have costs. New comprehensive training modules will have to be created, new trainers and cultural experts will have to be hired. But the extra costs incurred are ultimately worth it if they mean the global community is safer from the growing threat of nuclear terrorism.
We need to stop assuming that just because the data backs up our best practices, those practices will be quickly absorbed by non-Western countries. We need to stop assuming that throwing money at a program ensures its success. Our efforts to build the nuclear security cultures of our foreign partners must be reformed. Engaging partners in their own cultural terrain, at all levels, can strengthen our efforts to avert nuclear tragedy. If we can learn to engage with our partners in their language, we can all learn to speak the language of nuclear security.
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