CoCom Essay

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CoCom stands for the “Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls.” CoCom during the Cold War was essentially an economic arm of the alliance of North Atlantic countries. Set up in 1949, it served to prohibit businesses from selling arms and other sensitive products that might have dual civilian and military uses to Soviet-bloc countries. After the fall of communism and the consequent need to provide the newly democratic countries of Eastern Europe with needed technology for economic development, CoCom collapsed and was replaced in 1996 by the so-called Wassenaar’s Agreement, named after the Dutch town in which the agreement was signed. Under the CoCom regime, companies were required through their governments to notify other members in advance before exporting a listed item. Under Wassenaar’s, the proscriptions are voluntary and much more lenient.

With the rise of the threat of terrorism, particularly after September 11, 2001, governments realized that export restrictions were still critical to prevent so-called rogue states such as Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Libya from acquiring advanced technology. So Wassenaar became the CoCom for a new century. Its adherents include Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, the Republic of Korea, Romania, the Russian Federation, the Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The inclusion of such formerly “inimical” countries as Russia and Ukraine might indicate that this unlikely coalition is actually directed against the economies of the developing world.

The problem for businesses under Wassenaar is determining which product can have unintended impacts. This is especially true for so-called dual-use technologies (DUTs). These are products designed for the commercial market but which can have potential military applications. Many weapons components have legitimate civilian uses. To export DUTs, exporters must apply to national licensing authorities for an export license.

The list of dual-use technologies is seemingly unending. It includes golf equipment (used in missile development), heart pacemakers (useful in nuclear weapons), and even shampoos (for chemical weapons programs). The Japanese government, worried over North Korean missiles, once prohibited for a time the popular Sony PlayStation II home gaming system because of a graphics card that purportedly could drive a cruise missile. Wassenaar turned states like Pakistan to look toward the black market and corporate espionage to advance their nuclear programs. China is a particularly perplexing example. China is a potential Wassenaar ally in the struggle to keep DUTs out of states like India, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea. But at the same time, the United States distrusts China as a long-time violator and beneficiary of anti-proliferation efforts.

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, this situation led to a third round of controls, called the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). These are designed specifically to prevent North Korea and Iran from acquiring the component parts necessary for weapons of mass destruction and missile development programs. PSI reflects the post-Iraq maturation of a new DUT strategy that emphasizes regulation of core components of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). This includes uranium and its acquisition by a handful of the world’s most dangerous countries. Whereas CoCom and Wassenaar tended to focus on interior controls that kept technologies in a limited number of allied states, PSI reflects an awareness that the multilateral regimes of the future will most likely have to rely on exterior controls that prevent prohibited technologies from passing in or out of relatively confined target regions.

High-tech businesses with defense implications will have to watch Wassenaar’s two lists carefully. The Sensitive List includes battle tanks; armored combat vehicles; large calibre artillery systems; military aircraft/unmanned aerial vehicles; military and attack helicopters; warships; missiles or missile systems; small arms and light weapons. The Very Sensitive List includes organic matrix composites; towed acoustic hydrophones’ “space-qualified” solid-state detectors; manned, untethered submersible vehicles; ramjet, scramjet, or combined cycle engines; as well as “software” and “technology specially designed for the “development” or “production” of such equipment.


  1. Richard Re, “Playstation2 Detonation: Controlling the Threat of Dual-Use Technologies,” Harvard International Review (v.25/3, 2003);
  2. Wassenaar Arrangement, (cited March 2009).

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