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Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Unmasking a Culture of Death
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Deadly Cultures: Biological Weapons Since 1945. Edited by Mark Wheelis, Lajos Rózsa, and Malcolm Dando, Harvard University Press, 2006, 496 pp.

Jean Pascal Zanders

Deadly Cultures: Biological Weapons Since 1945 is a significant contribution to the understanding of the historic dynamics of biological armament. As such, it complements a 1999 volume involving several of the same authors, which was published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).[1] Taken together, these books sketch human interest in deliberate disease from the Middle Ages until the present. Although the SIPRI volume covered almost a 1,000-year period marked by ignorance about diseases, their causes, and ways of propagation, Deadly Cultures describes the interest in pathogens for hostile purposes after World War II.

Together, the historical perspective of these books shines a new light on current worries over biological weapons. It shows that current concerns are only the latest in a pattern of ebbs and flows in global perceptions about biological weapons. These have often had less to do with scientific or technological advances than changed political perceptions or developments affecting the alternative unconventional weapons: nuclear and chemical arms.

The post-World War II period began with policymakers, scientists, and, to a certain extent, the military ascribing to pathogens a potential for destructiveness on par with the atomic bomb. By the 1970s, however, views about the relative military utility of biological weapons had changed dramatically, enabling the international community to conclude the world’s first disarmament treaty, the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The few strategic or tactical advantages these weapons might have had over other arms, particularly nuclear weapons, evaporated in the light of the persistent scientific, technical, and logistical problems related to the development, production, stockpiling, and use of biological weapons.

A similar process occurred with regard to threat perceptions. After the BWC entered into force in 1975, chemical weapons were increasingly perceived as a greater threat. The situation was reversed following the successful negotiation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in the 1990s. The CWC’s elaborate reporting and inspection system highlighted the BWC’s weak verification and compliance enforcement mechanisms.

Suddenly, biological weapons returned as a major security issue. As with their chemical counterparts two decades earlier, new allegations of treaty violations appeared in the Soviet Union (and later Russia) as well as in Iraq and elsewhere. The threat perceptions were further magnified by a number of mass casualty terrorist incidents, some of which involved attempts at indiscriminate use of chemical and biological agents. The number of victims from bioterrorism and crime was limited, but projections of attacks with smallpox or bioengineered agents justified a major expansion of biodefense programs and nurtured a global biodefense industry. One victim of the process was the BWC. The threat inflation and the resulting institutional interests raised the demands on the verification protocol then being considered in Geneva and ultimately contributed to the collapse of the negotiations. The result is the belief that the treaty can no longer meet growing and increasingly diverse security expectations.

Another major theme evolves around the limitations of intelligence in judging whether a rival is pursuing a biological weapons program and formulating adequate policies to counter the threat. One of the conclusions in the SIPRI volume was that intelligence errors contributed to the setting up of offensive biological weapons programs in several western European countries before World War II. More recently, such judgments have become even more complicated as advanced knowledge, expertise, and application of peaceful biology and biotechnology is spreading to a rapidly growing number of states. The dual-use potential of these technologies raises questions about intent, which is extremely difficult to assess objectively.

Structurally, the book breaks down into three major sections. The first part focuses on national weapons programs of selected states: Canada, France, Iraq, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The second section describes weapon programs involving specific types of agents against crops and animals or those that are supposed to incapacitate rather than kill opponents, as well as assessments of past allegations of use and the terrorist threat. Two chapters on efforts to strengthen the norm against the weaponization of disease make up the final section.

These two final chapters are particularly welcome. A chapter by Marie Isabelle Chevrier on the politics of biological disarmament offers a most useful overview of the genesis of the BWC and the subsequent efforts to strengthen it. Having this historical overview available today is most relevant as the states-parties to the convention prepare to meet for the treaty’s sixth review conference November 20-December 8. Few diplomats and experts today know the origins and factors that have helped to shape today’s diplomatic agenda.

Nicholas Sims next expands on the development of the different types of legal constraints on biological weapons and concludes the chapter with a menu of outstanding issues, including the withdrawal of reservations to the 1925 Geneva protocol prohibiting the use in armed conflict of chemical and biological weapons, the need to strengthen the BWC, and the intriguing question of whether deliberate infestation by insect pests should be considered a use of biological weapons.[2]

The chapters on national armament programs reveal some subthemes. One of them relates to the ethical considerations by the scientists involved in the program, an issue that has assumed a more prominent position in the light of current discussions on codes of conduct for scientists and professionals among academics and BWC states- parties. Scientists appear to balance concerns about working on such weapons with other considerations, such as the notion that war as a whole is far more unethical than work on any particular biological weapons program. They also maintain an intellectual interest in being able to investigate certain questions that otherwise would not have been possible, perhaps because a weapons program would mean more generous funding or the permission to conduct certain types of experimentation.

Given the identity of some the states whose past programs are being analyzed—Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States—it appears that offensive biological weapons research, development, and deployment has not only been the preserve of some “rogue” regimes. Additionally, although Deadly Cultures is essentially a historical volume, it would be equally erroneous to conclude that such values are merely from some distant past.

Another interesting subtheme is the apparent correlation between the start-up of nuclear weapons programs in the 1950s in some NATO countries and the reduced priority placed on biological weapons. With the increasing importance of nuclear weapons in the 1950s, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom, formerly three of the players with major, offensive biological armament efforts, abandoned their programs. The United States did likewise in the late 1960s following a major review. Yet, with the exception of the chapter on France, where budget limitations came into play, there is limited discussion of the process in and motivations of these countries.

The period of the mid-1950s, however, also corresponds with the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons. This broke the monopoly of the air forces on the use of nuclear weapons and enabled the armies to assimilate a much more prestigious weapon, which moreover carried a lower ethical and logistical burden at the time. Understanding the dynamics of armament and the processes by which weapons become assimilated into military doctrine has an important bearing on understanding the future threat posed by biological weapons.

What role can they play, which types of constituencies would support their development and operational deployment and why, and under which circumstances would they offer a tangible benefit over other weapon categories? Disarmament, after all, is about the suppression of any function a particular weapon category may have in a nation’s military doctrine. I do not offer this point as criticism of Deadly Cultures but rather as a pointer to possible fresh research areas that will deepen our understanding of the processes that still seem to keep pathogens and toxins as a viable military option in the minds of some people.

Readers familiar with the history of biological warfare will recognize the gist of other accounts of the biological armament programs and the efforts to prohibit the possession and use of these weapons. The chapters, however, move beyond merely adding another little detail to a story already written. The authors have gone to great lengths to base their accounts on primary documents. In some instances, they add new information or insights, in other instances they confirm decisions and developments that had been narrated through informal or secondary sources. All the chapters have been edited to an excellent consistency and are organized in a way that makes its easy for the reader to compare relevant aspects of weapons programs or policies.

Through its balanced approach, Deadly Cultures is more than a welcome contribution to the understanding of biological armament dynamics and politics at a time when too many people have developed a vested interest in inflating the biological threat.

Jean Pascal Zanders is director of the BioWeapons Prevention Project in Geneva, Switzerland. He has published extensively on chemical and biological weapon issues and has edited two books Chemical Weapons Proliferation (1991 - with Eric Remacle) and The 2nd Gulf War and the CBW Threat (1995).

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1. Erhard Geissler and John Ellis van Courtland Moon, eds., “Biological and Toxin Weapons Research, Development and Use From the Middle Ages to 1945,” SIPRI Chemical & Biological Warfare Studies, No. 18 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

2. In the late 1990s, the states-parties to the BWC took up a Cuban allegation that the United States had released Thrips Palmi to destroy crops.