WASHINGTON -- Nations around the world are understandably concerned that weapons of mass destruction -- from Syrian stockpiles of chemical weapons to growing arsenals of nuclear weapons in North Korea and Pakistan -- could be used with horrific consequences by threatened regimes or even obtained by terrorists groups.

In response, the U.S. government has invested tens of billions of dollars over the past two decades to help secure weapons, the materials necessary to build them, and the know-how to assemble them. But in an era of declining budgets and potentially growing threats, the likelihood for miscalculation, theft or even the deliberate use of a weapon of mass destruction is mounting.

What else can be done?

The American private sector can be surprisingly effective in promoting nonproliferation efforts, because countries around the world are eager to work with American companies to gain scientific knowledge and increase trade. By imbedding more rigorous nonproliferation standards into foreign activities, the private sector can make America more secure and make U.S. companies more profitable.

Experience has shown that there are substantial benefits for the private sector in helping to promote nonproliferation. In addition, industry can get things done that government can’t -- or that government does far less efficiently or effectively. The business community often has access to people and institutions abroad that government is unable to reach, and can gain trust in settings where foreign governments have difficulty establishing credibility.

Since the end of the Cold War, about 250 American high-tech companies have partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy and former Soviet weapons research institutes to develop peaceful civilian technologies and create sustainable jobs for former Soviet weapons scientists. The results have benefited both security and innovation. For instance, a small U.S. biotechnology company matched a major government grant to a former Soviet biochemical weapons institute to create more effective and inexpensive methods of detecting toxic bacteria in food and water safety.

U.S. government investments leveraged a significant investment by Boeing to build a technical research center in Moscow, providing jobs to 300 of Russia’s top aerospace engineers who otherwise might have been engaged in weapons work.

In other parts of the former Soviet Union, co-funded programs with American biotech firms have led to the development of advanced techniques for the delivery of vaccines. In Kazakhstan, such programs helped convert a torpedo factory into a profitable Western-owned firm supplying cryogenic storage tanks to the local oil and gas industry.

Some major shipping lines have discreetly aided U.S. government interdictions of suspected weapons shipments. To help sustain these firms' important role in nonproliferation, several federal agencies -- largely within the intelligence community -- have even reimbursed associated costs.

Despite these successes, U.S. government efforts designed to build these public-private partnerships over the past 20 years were seldom afforded a level of seriousness commensurate with their potential. In good times, when government agencies could count on perpetually expanding budgets, there was little need to cooperate with those outside of government.

In today’s tough budgetary climate, the Obama administration recently announced a $76.5 million cut to a key program to stop nuclear material from falling into the wrong hands. Moreover, as a result of budget sequestration, the Defense Department has been forced to make a projected $57 million cut to its share of this critical national security effort.

To prevent a dangerous regression in security as government investments in nonproliferation inevitably decline, America’s future endeavors should be guided by two principles.

First, outreach to industry must have a clarity and fit of purpose. The public purpose of the effort -- be it securing nuclear and other dangerous materials, preventing the spread of dangerous technologies, or promoting safe practices -- must be defined explicitly.

Second, incentives for private sector participation must be identified. Corporate social responsibility is an insufficient incentive for a CEO who is required by shareholders to maximize earnings.

To leverage the substantial resources and expertise of the private sector in a meaningful way, it will be necessary to create conditions in which companies can make a profit. This does not mean direct subsidies to firms. But businesses that lose money can’t stay in business.

America’s private sector has shown repeatedly that it can identify complex challenges, innovate opportunities, and provide successful solutions. American know-how is the envy of the world, and should be leveraged for the benefit of both global prosperity and security.

Identifying opportunities for industry to contribute to global nonproliferation efforts should be a top U.S. priority.

Brian Finlay is managing director of the Managing Across Boundaries Initiative at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank that studies peace and security challenges around the world. Gerson Sher is former president of the United States Industry Coalition.