By John Erath
On July 7, the United States eliminated the last of its chemical weapons, ending a Cold War-era program more than 20 years after signing the Chemical Weapons Convention. Although the world is a safer place with fewer chemical weapons, the threat has not been eliminated as evidenced by Syria’s use of chemical munitions against rebel areas and Russia’s bungled attempt at assassination that endangered a small British town. North Korea, China and several others are also suspected of retaining some capacity to produce chemical agents. Despite the persistence of the chemical threat, the U.S. move is good news because of the change in thinking it represents. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s massive chemical weapons capability led Washington and its allies to invest in similar weapons. In short, the United States maintained a chemical weapons stockpile not because there was any plan to use such weapons, but because potential adversaries had them — the same sort of logic that drove the nuclear arms race.
This is not to say that because there was once a similar motivation for chemical and nuclear weapons, the elimination of one would therefore provide a model for the elimination of the other. Chemical weapons have been perceived, since the days of World War I at any rate, as having limited military value. During the Cold War, nuclear weapons formed a large element of the various nuclear powers’ war plans and were seen as likely to be used in a major conflict.
This, of course, has changed since the end of the Cold War. Nuclear weapons are no longer considered integral to warfighting plans. If an example were needed, the current conflict in Ukraine demonstrates the lack of military utility. Russia has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, including thousands of “tactical” devices and is locked into a losing war. It has shown no hesitation to inflict civilian casualties or environmental harm. Nevertheless, the Kremlin has found no use for its nuclear weapons thus far. This provides a clear and persuasive case that in any realistic conflict scenario, the circumstances in which nuclear weapons would provide an advantage are near zero and shrinking as conventional technologies advance.
According to U.S. doctrine, however, nuclear weapons are not for warfighting, but “defense and deterrence.” With potential adversaries modernizing their nuclear arsenals and in some cases increasing them, the importance of deterrence does not seem to be going away. In fact, the war in Ukraine has underlined the value of deterrence as every decision Ukraine’s friends make as to whether to provide assistance is (correctly) weighed in terms of whether it will increase to possibility of nuclear war.
So, unlike chemical weapons, nuclear weapons still have justification as deterrents and the elimination of declared chemical stockpiles has no relevance, right? Not so fast.
Although deterrence may provide immediate stability, it was never intended to be a permanent solution. As long as nuclear weapons exist, there remains a possibility, however small, that they might be used. The world would undoubtedly be safer without nuclear weapons, even if the prospects for their elimination are currently remote. At the moment, even if there is little to no momentum on nuclear arms control, deterrence is working and should continue to do so.
The lesson to be learned from chemical weapons elimination is that security is possible without reflexively trying to match potential adversaries. North Korea’s chemical arsenal is an issue of concern, but the United States and its allies have other options to deter Kim Jung Un than deploying chemical weapons of their own. Similarly, Russia announcing a nuclear torpedo or China building missile silos in the desert need not require reciprocal steps. We have now successfully shut down the chemical arms race left over from the Cold War, and we should use the example to avoid a renewed nuclear arms race while preserving national security.