How to prevent the next Viktor Bout

Viktor Bout, the notorious international arms dealer, has been extradited to America to face charges of selling weapons to some of the most nefarious strongmen and terrorist actors of modern times – including Jonas Savimbi, Charles Taylor and Mullah Omar. But while Victor Bout’s arrest in Thailand in 2008 and prospective lifetime incarceration is a win for US law enforcement, his capture is, at best, an anecdotal episode in the much larger narrative of an uncontrolled global gray market involving the trafficking of narcotics, small arms, humans, dual-use nuclear items and all manner of contraband from one corner of the globe to willing consumers in another.

Evidence suggests that a “guards, guns and gates” approach will not suffice to overcome the momentous growth of this shadow trade. Nor is any overhaul and harmonisation of global export controls likely soon. A new strategy is required to prevent future Viktor Bouts from flourishing in the globalised economy of the 21st century. Halting the inexorable corrosion of the legitimate economy, and by extension, our security, may yet prove to be one of the greatest challenges of our era.

Offshore outsourcing, supply chaining and just-in-time delivery conspire today to form the lifeblood of the global economy, together helping to generate the greatest mass exodus from poverty in human history over the last half century. Annually, more than 8bn tones of international seaborne trade and the millions of tonnes of airfreight are transported worldwide. Yet, as the rapid movement of goods around the planet has grown, so too has the trans-shipment of illicit items that threaten the very stability of this trade. In unprecedented numbers, small- and large-scale traffickers exploit legitimate carriers to transport their illegal wares undetected.

In the face of massive growth in international trade, governments’ efforts to stem the tide of contraband have proven at best insufficient, and at worst, grossly ineffective. Warlords and terrorists, for instance, were not Victor Bout’s only clients. In May of 2004, it was revealed that the US government had itself been a client of Bout’s network, using him to ship American military materiel to Baghdad in the wake Operation Iraqi Freedom. The inability of the US government to prevent subcontracting to a known outlaw suggests that traditional law and order approaches to trafficking prevention have hit the buffers.

While enhanced government intervention may be necessary in vulnerable environments, the global transportation infrastructure remains largely in private hands. And in a world economy based upon the rapid and efficient movement of goods, overzealous new regulation would be unwelcome and unproductive. So, it falls on the private sector – whose interests are equally imperiled by illicit trafficking – to take a greater role in tackling these threats.

But for governments, too, recruiting the market itself to squeeze out traffickers like Victor Bout would be an obvious win. And the United States government is one of the largest single clients of the global transportation industry. According to the Pentagon, the US Army alone procures $1.8bn annually in commercial freight services. In addition, it is estimated that the Defense Department also directly influences an additional $4bn in shipping contracts worldwide. In an overall market estimated to be $430bn, the US military alone has huge leverage. Adding the purchasing power of the US federal government and other like-minded governments and the market forces currently slanted in favour of the illicit trafficker could be bent back in favour of those willing to play by the rules.

Such state actors could help the industry to develop a voluntary “shipping code of conduct”, by which enhanced scrutiny of cargo would filter out a great proportion of contraband from the legitimate supply chain. Firms tend to resist such measures because they’re seen as additional “red tape”, slowing down transactions. Committed governments could help reinforce positive behaviour up and down the supply chain by recognising this code and dealing only with “white-listed” companies that choose to abide by it. Ultimately, rogue companies would be forced out of the industry by their buying power.

In an era of diminished government resources to combat transnational threats, the solutions to these challenges must go beyond locking up individual bad guys like Bout – whose market niche has undoubtedly been filled by the next unscrupulous profiteer. Solutions designed by industry, enforced by governments and adopted by responsible businesses everywhere are the logical next step in global counter-trafficking efforts.

Brian Finlay, a senior associate and director of the Managing Across Boundaries Programme at the Stimson Center, an independent public policy thinktank in Washington, DC.