Michael KreponAfter WMD Use, Then What?

Verse of the week:

“Spell the spiel of cause and effect,/ Ride the long rail of fact after fact;/ What curled the plume in the drake’s tail/ And put the white ring round his neck?” — Wendell Berry, “For the Explainers”

The best way to extend and strengthen norms is to abide by them. The next best way is to stigmatize and penalize the norm breaker. Norms are enduring in the sense that they are rooted in humanitarian laws of warfare. How governments react when norms are broken determines whether norms become stronger or weaker. 

One of the most important but weakest norms in warfare is respect for cities and their inhabitants. This norm was disregarded during World War II, and has been reconstructed over the past seven decades.

This norm requires reinforcement. The accuracy of weapon delivery is overrated; when “accurate” weapons delivered by guided missiles and combat aircraft are targeted within built up areas, noncombatants get in the way, resulting in unnecessary and disproportionate death and injury to innocent bystanders. Purposefully inaccurate means of delivery, like unguided rockets, are designed to disregard laws of warfare, as they are instruments of terror.

I’ll dwell on this in a subsequent post. For now, let’s start with norms of non use for weapons of mass destruction.

Not all instruments of warfare categorized as weapons of mass destruction are alike. The consequences of norm breaking varies, depending on whether we are dealing with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. 

The norm I focus on most in these posts is the non-use of nuclear weapons in warfare. The longer this norm is extended, the more it becomes a taboo, to use Nina Tannenwald’s lexicon. If this norm is broken, everything depends on whether escalation can somehow be controlled. Escalation control is, however, deeply problematic because it runs at cross purposes with military imperatives and the dictates of deterrence.

The central concept of effective deterrence is the threat of punishment. When deterrence fails, great punishment is supposed to follow. One doesn’t play for a tie; the pursuit of advantage rules. Escalation control isn’t a deterrence concept; it’s a political construct. It’s also a military hypothetical.

At least so far, national leaders have acted in ways that suggest disbelief in nuclear escalation control. They have presumed that mushroom clouds – even those beginning at low yields — would make a bad situation far worse. The presumed failure of escalation control is crucial to the norm of No Use. Another crucial bulwark against use is the leadership concept of self-preservation.

Other factors are involved. Some, like William Perry, bring luck into the equation. Luck doesn’t show up very much in treatises about nuclear deterrence. But why has luck (so far) always seemed to stick the dismount?

There’s another explanation for why crises have ended without mushroom clouds: someone at the top and sometimes outside of the chain of command has had due regard for our common humanity. No leader, no matter how mentally maladjusted or under unimaginable strain, has been willing to risk the destruction of cities and the people who reside in or downwind from them. And on occasion (see Stanislav Petrov), someone hasn’t followed orders and procedures for fear of triggering nuclear use.

Allegiance to our common humanity is a powerful, if unexplored, reason for No Use, along with fear of retaliation and uncontrolled escalation, as well as self preservation and luck.

It took time for the norm of No Use to become foundational. Early on, there were close calls, but time and again, human beings have saved us from our worst traits and from the most powerful weapons we humans have devised. In moments of extremis, national leaders have rejected the idea of battlefield use. In doing so, they have chosen allegiance to our common humanity. 

We’ve come a long way since the wholesale targeting of cities in World War II. Many millions reside in world historic cities like Moscow, Beijing and New York. Human imagination is boundless, but we still cannot imagine the human costs of a nuclear war and uncontrolled escalation. These and other cities are irreplaceable repositories of human civilization. Their libraries, museums, architecture, and other traces of human advancement would be lost in the event of nuclear use and uncontrolled escalation. This recognition has been enough – and sometimes just barely enough – to prevent Armageddon. 

In the event of first use, there will almost surely be subsequent use. The most important norm we’ve got will be weakened if not obliterated. Once deterrence fails and the nuclear threshold has been crossed, fine tuning explosive yields and means of delivery become the essence of the problem, not the solution. The prevention of uncontrolled escalation would require ditching deterrence theory and plans for nuclear use. Everything would depend on nuclear-armed rivals being able somehow to agree to play for a tie at the lowest possible level of destruction.

Even if first use can be squared with the humanitarian laws of warfare, the pursuit of comparative advantage in nuclear warfare would constitute an undeniable crime against humanity. And even if escalation can somehow be controlled, first use would almost assuredly accelerate arms racing and proliferation.

The only conditions that I can come up with for the norm of No Use to be strengthened after first use is if the first user is roundly defeated by conventional means, after which norm strengtheners take diplomatic initiatives in defense of a broken norm. Because this is so unlikely, and because first use is far more likely to result in uncontrolled escalation, arms racing and proliferation, we are obliged to draw a bright red line against first use. This line requires greater illumination as deterrence strategists embrace lower yields.

The norm against using chemical weapons, as with nuclear weapons, rests on our conceptions of civilized behavior. The norm of No Use for chemical weapons, like the norm of not using nuclear weapons, is codified in a treaty, but nuclear-armed states haven’t signed the treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. Most have signed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention.

We’ve come a long way since the massive use of chemical weapons in the excruciating stalemate of World War I. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 that banned the use of poisonous and asphyxiating gases is warfare was a crucial progenitor of the CWC, which was negotiated during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. The U.S. Senate consented to the CWC’s ratification during Bill Clinton’s presidency. 

Norm building can be a very long, hard slog. It took the U.S. Senate fifty years to consent to ratify the Geneva Protocol, and the first time Clinton tried to secure the Senate’s consent to the CWC in 1996, he didn’t have the votes. He succeeded the following year after the former Republican Senate leader and presidential nominee Bob Dole shifted his position in favor of ratification. Trent Lott, who succeeded Dole as the Republican Senate leader, and other Republican fence sitters then voted “yea.” 

Unlike nuclear weapons, chemical weapons have occasionally been used since 1945. For example, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iran. One major reason why the norm against using chemical weapons has been sustained despite occasional use is because these weapons have not demonstrated military utility. 

Chemical weapons have also been used, with greater effect, against innocent civilians, political adversaries, and the occasional family member. Syrian, Russian and North Korean strongman rulers have presumably authorized such uses. A second major reason why others have not followed in these footsteps is because the use of chemical weapons is reprehensible. Revulsion remains the norm after this norm has been violated. Economic sanctions follow. 

Because these weapons do not have military utility and because their use prompts revulsion, the norm against the use of chemical weapons remains strong, even when it is occasionally broken. 

There is also a norm codified by an international compact against the possession and use of biological weapons. The COVID-19 virus clarifies why the norm established in the Biological Weapons Convention matters and why we need stronger collaborative mechanisms to reinforce it. 

The BWC was negotiated early in the Nixon administration. It has no verification arrangements. The Pentagon didn’t deem these weapons to be militarily useful and Nixon, following the advice of his secretary of defense, Melvin Laird, opted out. Intrusive monitoring only became possible fifteen years after the BWC’s entry into force. 

The Soviet Union signed up to the BWC and disregarded its provisions, as became obvious during an outbreak of anthrax after an explosion at a secret facility in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) in 1979. The anthrax outbreak killed less than 100 people. The death toll from COVID-19 is surely greater than the public count of almost four million globally – and rising. 

The BWC permits research on defensive measures, for which minute quantities of biological agents might be deemed necessary. We aren’t yet sure whether the plague that radiated out of Wuhan came from zoonotic origins or malevolent human invention. A third possibility is unforgivably lax safety procedures at a research lab. I expect that we will find out the origin story with reasonable certainty in due course. It would help matters greatly if the Government of China cooperated with this inquiry. Doing so would send a powerful message. Even so, conspiracy theories won’t go away even if and when credibly disproven.

Whatever the origin of the COVID plague, the disutility of biowarfare has again been definitively confirmed, as has the wisdom of an international convention banning these weapons. The norm codified by the BWC needs back up. Strengthening measures require more, not less, contact between experts in the United States, China, Russia, and other countries that want to lend a hand. 

Where does this leave us? First use of nuclear weapons almost assuredly would result in more use. Chemical weapons are different: they are occasionally used, but the norm of No Use can still be buttressed. Biological weapons are beyond the pale, whether purposeful or through negligence, an unwashable stain on our common humanity.


  1. Ian Anthony (History)

    “Chemical weapons are different: they are occasionally used, but the norm of No Use can still be buttressed.” Has the instrument where the norm of no use is most clearly embedded strengthened that norm? At present I think that the most we can say about this is “perhaps”.

    The recent Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention went as far as the treaty allows in applying punitive measures to Syria. However, these measures are very weak and I don’t think anybody seriously believes that they would be enough to alter Syrian behaviour. A more potent response requires action by the UN Security Council (where many CWC states parties think the issue should have stayed all along). However, Syria has a veto-wielding sponsor.

    If, for example, beleaguered fighters retreat into Idlib for a last stand in a future scenario the main barrier to the use of chemical weapons (which did have military utility in other urban scenarios in Syria) would not be the norm against CW use. The barrier would be the Turkish pledge to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Idlib (whatever causes it) and the fact that Turkey has deployed a large military force (including about 15,000 troops inside Syria) to make the threat credible. Turkish objectives are as much utilitarian as humanitarian – preventing the population of Idlib province from swelling the already staggering number of refugees that Turkey is hosting. In addition to their tactical utility in urban combat, chemical weapons have been an effective terror weapon in Syria, used to move civilian populations into or out of particular spaces and Syria might prefer mass expulsion to mass murder.

    The sponsors of action in the framework of the CWC were able to martial a lot of votes around motions of condemnation, but the tally was by no means unanimous. Meanwhile, the consequences for CW use may be seen as something easily tolerated relative to their value on the battlefield. We don’t yet know what conclusions observers will draw from the use of CW, and it is also an open question whether there is a credible strategy to buttress the norm against their use.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Thanks, Ian, for this sobering clarification. — MK


    Thanks Michael, another thought provoking and well written piece. Hopefully you might write a bit more on unguided rockets sometime, since you wrote such an excellent piece in Foreign Affairs (in 1974) on cluster munitions! Anyway, since you mentioned luck, Benoit Pelopidas at Science Po has been doing some stimulating research on luck in the nuclear context. I encourage you to check out “The unbearable lightness of luck. Three sources of overconfidence in the manageability of nuclear crises” in the July 2017 issue of the European Journal of International Security.

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