Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 7 May 2008

"How arms control's past shapes its future"

Some of us took a break yesterday from the grind of the second week of the NPT PrepCom to attend a Geneva Forum brown bag lunch featuring University of Michigan historian of science Dr Susan Wright.

Susan spoke about some of her recent research, around the topic "how arms control's past shapes its future: biological disarmament as a case study". Originally trained as a natural scientist, Susan has done a great deal of research in American and British archives on how the process that led to the 1972 Bacteriological and Toxin Weapons Convention emerged - the BTWC, usually known as the Biological Weapons Convention.

The escalating nuclear arms race after World War Two had led, by the late 1960s, to schools of strategic analysis in both Britain and the US concerning arms control that viewed war as a recurrent but inevitable tragedy. This epistemic community's views were well represented by both the work of economist Thomas Schelling ('Strategy and Arms Control) and Aussie-Brit political scientist Hedley Bull's 'The Control of the Arms Race', both published in 1961. Using differing frameworks, these two reached similar conclusions - in the Cold War context, strategic stability rather than disarmament was the dominant concern. Moreover, like war, arms control was about seeking strategic advantage, according to Susan.

This concept of arms control came to dominate US official thinking during the 1960s, and was a major thread in British officialdom too. Although an Australian by birth, Hedley Bull was - remarkably - invited to head its arms control office in 1965, which he did for two years and produced a number of influential internal government reports. Moreover, Wright's archival research exposed the considerable extent of the classified work Bull did for the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office, something not generally known before.

One of Bull's special reports focused on chemical and biological weapons (CBW). At that time, the US was using chemical agents on an increasing scale in South East Asia, including riot control agents like CS gas as well as BZ agent and chemical defoliants. Many countries, including the UK and US, had active germ warfare programmes, not to mention those of the Warsaw Pact.

Against the backdrop of a burgeoning domestic nuclear disarmament movement in Britain and internal government concern about the potential harm to the UK of retaliation for allied CBW use, Bull suggested to the Labour Government that biological weapons weren't really useful. This kicked off a long internal policy debate, which eventually resulted in a UK proposal to the 18-nation Committee on Disarmament in Geneva (a precursor of the Conference on Disarmament) late that decade after much departmental in-fighting, and initial reluctance by Britain's key ally, the US.

In Susan's view, the UK's initiative to ban biological weapons was the product of its national strategic goals, rather than the pursuit of a particular disarmament paradigm. The UK government figured it and others could renounce BW without changing the balance of power with the Warsaw Pact - in fact, it would place more weight on nukes. The UK proposal (and, eventually, the BTWC agreed in 1972) didn't address chemical weapons, which at the time were viewed as the greater menace - a point the Soviet Union and Non-Aligned states were quick to point out. And, neither the UK proposal nor the eventual BTWC provided for a verification regime. The public rationale was that the Warsaw Pact wouldn't buy it. But Susan's archival research indicates, she said, that both the UK and US recognized it wasn't in their strategic interests either in case there were secret activities they had that they would prefer remained that way, alongside concerns about protecting proprietary commercial information.

In other words, the eventual BTWC's flaws weren't there by accident. And, on verification, the BTWC - and the world - are still living with this decision, as the Convention still lacks such a regime a generation later. In the NPT context, it is still painfully clear that many states use the language of disarmament while still in the mindset of strategic stability or advantage in the narrow sense. On the plus side, there is now the Chemical Weapons Convention, which is non-discriminatory and has a strong and comprehensive verification system.

The disarmament community's achievements shouldn't be underrated, but sometimes there is a tendency to impute motives to those involved in past initiatives that don't necessarily reflect what was going on behind the scenes. What people say in public doesn't necessarily reflect what they're actually thinking. Susan's research demonstrates the importance of viewing the past with a critical eye.

Just as importantly for those who feel overawed or discouraged about difficulties in current disarmament efforts, it shows that we stand on the shoulders of human beings, rather than mythical giants.

John Borrie

Image by judy_breck retrieved from Flickr.


Anonymous said...

Bull was the first head of ACDRU. The CBW report was produced by ACDRU as a whole, not just Bull. The ACDRU report was one of the factors in the origin of the UK ideas for a separate Convention, but it was by no means the only one. In fact it is difficult to establish a direct correlation between the two. The first UK 1969 proposal did have a verification regime for investigations of alleged use (IAU), which at the end of the day the US didn't support once the Soviet Union decided in March 1971 to accept a separate ban on BW. The technical view at the time was that a ban on BW was unverifiable, not that there were overriding security/commercial concerns that got in the way. IAU was seen as the best alternative and something that could be done. It was recognised that on-site inspection simply wasn't feasible politically: at that time the Soviet Union and its allies were against the sorts of intrusion that would be necessary. We should recall too that the Russians were also opposed to even OSIs for CTBT verification, having withdrawn in 1963 their earlier support for a quota of three OSIs for a CTBT. The UK BW initiative was driven largely by the need to make progress on disarmament after conclusion of the NPT. The UK fought to the end to retain an effective IAU mechanism in the draft BTWC.

Decisions about the BWC were quite independent of the UK nuclear weapons programme - the plans for the Polaris and WE177 force had largely been decided well before 1968 e.g. orders for the WE177B were placed in 1962. The only slight connection came when MOD became worried that a UK pursuit of a separate BW treaty in face of known US nervousness might impact adversely on the contemporary UK attempts to secure US assistance for the Polaris Improvement Programme. This is no where stated explicitly in MOD, FCO, PREM or Cabinet Office files on BW; there is one comment from Healy that makes sense if the reader is aware of the other much more closely held papers at the time on Polaris modernisation. These are also available The National Archives, Kew."