The Duck of Minerva

Biological Weapons

27 February 2010

A few years ago, a mid-career biochemist enrolled in my master’s level international relations course because he was burned out of working in academic and commercial settings in his field. He wanted to apply his background in biological sciences to his new interest in security politics. The 2001 anthrax attacks, in particular, had influenced his thinking.

Phil McCauley turned out to be a very bright and capable student and we soon figured out a meaningful way to connect our common interests. After all, I spent much of the past decade thinking and writing about the “Bush Doctrine” of preventive war. Fear of biological weapons (BW) proliferation could potentially trigger American use of force.

Many states are surreptitiously working on BW, meaning that international arms control efforts to limit proliferation are failing — or at least that perception is growing globally. In 2001, the Bush administration almost unilaterally killed a verification protocol to the Biological Weapons treaty. The taboo against BW use, however, has been strengthened in the past decade.

We wrote a paper explaining our concerns about these developments and presented it at the 2008 ISAC/ISSS conference in Vail. Here’s the abstract:

States have constructed an ill-considered and potentially dangerous biological weapons (BW) taboo that rebukes the fundamental logic of arms control. Historically, to prevent war, minimize the costs and risks of arms competition, and curtail the scope and violence of war, states embraced an arms control regime that limited both the acquisition and use of BW. However, efforts to limit BW capabilities have stalled even as prohibitions on their use have been maintained and strengthened. The new regime effectively allows states to retain suspicious capabilities that will be viewed as very threatening by their peers. This approach is particularly troublesome as many states now embrace counterproliferation strategy and the prospect of preventive war. The Obama administration seems to have preserved perilous elements of the so-called “Bush Doctrine.” The international community should redouble efforts to build a more effective and verifiable biological weapons nonproliferation regime to augment the existing taboo against use.

The Illogic of the Biological Weapons Taboo was published this week in the Spring 2010 issue of Strategic Studies Quarterly.

The paper explores Obama administration policy documents and concludes that it has not rejected the Bush Doctrine. As the news story linked above explains, it also decided in December not to reverse the Bush policy on the 2001 Verification Protocol.

Feedback on the paper would be welcome.