Nuclear outrage

In its situation report of 11 March 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) tallies a death toll of 9,961 out of 24,247 cases (41% mortality rate) in the three West-African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. While the overall rate of new infections seems to be slowing down, the numbers nevertheless continue to rise. Infectious disease is the greatest threat to mankind, far higher than any imaginable terrorist plot. According to WHO statistics from about 10 years ago, infectious diseases are responsible for over 13 million deaths worldwide each year. That is 25% of all deaths worldwide each year. Distribution across the planet is highly uneven: in developing countries that percentage rises to half of all deaths. What does more than 13 million fatalities per year represent? Well, it corresponds more or less to the number of people who died in the Twin Towers on 9/11 every two hours.

This already intolerable situation is likely to get worse with global warming. Emerging and re-emerging diseases are already wreaking havoc not just in developing, but increasingly also in developed countries. Disease vectors are migrating to what used to be more temperate zones and ever increasing numbers of people are at risk of infection. Globalisation implies more human interactions across the planet. The speed of travel today means that a person can pick up an infection at one end of the world and be back home before the symptoms begin to manifest themselves. This requires drastic action and it is a moral imperative for humanity to prevent this kind of catastrophe from materialising. We must consider drastic measures.

One tool the international community may consider are small tactical nuclear devices, not to be used in anger, but to eradicate any ground zero of an epidemic so as to prevent the further spread of the disease. The advantage is that the technology exists and that this technology is not prohibited by any treaty. Being a small nuclear device, the radiation effects would be limited to a small area and the fireball would eradicate any bacterium or virus in its immediate surroundings. While I can see that people may be shocked by my suggestion, I repeat that those nuclear devices would not be detonated as part of an aggression. Quite on the contrary, the idea actually represents the first practical application of ‘peaceful nuclear explosions’ directly beneficial to humanity. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty must be considered among the greatest successes of the international community. Many people would probably rather not even consider rescinding these conventions to proliferate such small nuclear devices. But as bad as they are, an epidemic with a highly contagious disease can be even worse, certainly much worse than anything we think terrorists can inflict upon us.

Outraged? I bet you are!

Such a scenario is exactly what Mr Seth Baum outlines in two presentations—a featured column on the website of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and a pre-print version of a journal article to be published in the April edition of Contemporary Security Policy—and defends in several replies to online comments and tweets. The only difference is his absolute desire to prevent a nuclear winter instead of a global health pandemic. To achieve his wish he proposes to replace most of the nuclear weapons in the global arsenals with other weapon categories that can equally maintain effective deterrence. Among those weapons categories he includes biological (BW) and chemical weapons (CW), despite the fact that the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) outlaw these weapon categories under any and all circumstances. Not just use, but also their acquisition and possession.

Of course, the author does not call for the abrogation of the BTWC and CWC. But he is clearly conflicted, so he frames the appeal in an indirect way, thus shirking from the consequences of his thoughts (p. 12):

The Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions must be considered among the greatest successes of the international community. Many people would probably rather not even consider rescinding these conventions  to re-proliferate these weapons.

But he immediately adds the following two sentences:

But as bad as [CBW] are, nuclear winter means that nuclear weapons can be even worse. The exception is contagious biological weapons, which could also cause global catastrophe and thus would not qualify as a safer deterrent […].

In other words, CW and non-contagious BW—Mr Baum names anthrax and ricin as examples—are fine. He even turns the CBW taboo on its head to support the deterrence argument (p. 13):

There is something extra about these […] types of weapons that give them a major stigma, to the point of even being considered taboo. To the extent that these weapons cause additional fear, as they clearly did after the 2001 anthrax attacks, it only makes them more powerful as a deterrent.

(Thanks al Qaeda; arrgh, Hatfield; oops, Ivens … well, did the FBI get it finally right? … for strengthening deterrence.)

And if you did not yet grasp his point about deterrence, Mr Baum gets an old cliché out of the cupboard: CBW are sometimes known as ‘the poor man’s atomic bomb’.

Should you still hesitate about the rationality of Mr Baum’s argument, the opening paragraph of the pre-print article must surely take any doubts away (p. 1, emphasis added):

Nuclear weapon states should pursue winter-safe deterrence both because it helps (or at least does not significantly hurt) their national security and because it is morally the right thing to do. This is ethics with strategy […].

Major failing of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

The Bulletin contribution, in contrast, is short and outlines some elements of Mr Baum’s argument. Whether one agrees or not with his nuclear winter-free deterrence concept and vision on how to realise it can be the subject of discussion, as indeed it has been in the Bulletin’s comments section.

In the penultimate paragraph he argues that ‘non-contagious biological weapons’ is one of the weapon categories that stands out to organise nuclear winter-free deterrence. Here Mr Baum does not elaborate, nor does he reflect on possible consequences of the suggestion. (CW are strangely absent from the column.) Any person dealing with BW disarmament immediately realises that the idea is tantamount to repealing the BTWC. Indeed, the prohibition in the BTWC covers all pathogens irrespective of whether they are contagious or not. Moreover, the prohibition on their application is the default position; any authorised application is limited to the listed permitted purposes in Article I. Over the years states parties have made it abundantly clear that in their common understanding of that article, deterrence is not one of the ‘other peaceful purposes’, however vague that rest category may be.

The BW angle in the Bulletin column has elicited at least two blog contributions, one by Kathryn Millett of BioSecure and one at BioChem Security 2030 . In a Twitter reply to the online discussions, Mr Baum emphasises that the BTWC ‘must be considered among the greatest successes of the international community’, as stated in his pre-publication paper. But as said above, that generous thought does not offset the basic fact that his reasoning calls for major violation of that treaty.

The other question is why during the editorial process the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists did not take exception to the author’s call for breaching a major disarmament treaty. BioChem Security 2030 challenges the publication regarding its responsibilities head on, and I support their points fully. No need for a repeat here.

The controversy, however, may point to a deeper, growing problem. Online presence is becoming a goal in its own right. For some think tanks and advocacy groups, rising above the clutter must be achieved irrespective the substance of the message. Catchy titles, vile pictures, etc. are part and parcel of the process, irrespective of the contents of a contribution. PR people or media savvy operators run that part of the show. For an online column somebody inside the organisation will perhaps give the manuscript a read through, but mostly to check that the posting will not conflict with any institutional goals or sponsors. However, a review of the substance, factual correctness of data, or deeper implications of a particular assertion is all but absent. Moreover—and this is very clear from the Twitter replies I and other critics of the column got from the Bulletin—those operators perceive the controversy as a positive thing, because it ratchets up the website visit statistics. However, the score comes at a cost, namely diminished integrity.

In this particular case: how could a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists even allow a suggestion that it is OK to violate a major disarmament treaty? Surely, the enormity of what Mr Baum proposes is clear from the intro to this blog posting.

My other question: why has thus far nobody from the nuclear arms control community challenged the proposition to replace nuclear deterrence with the threat of retaliation with bugs (and poisons)?

Outraged? You bet I am.

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About JP Zanders

Jean Pascal Zanders (Belgium) has worked on questions of chemical and biological weapon (CBW) armament and disarmament since 1986. He was CBW Project Leader at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Director of the BioWeapons Prevention Project and Senior Research Fellow responsible for disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation questions at the European Union Institute for Security Studies. He now owns and runs The Trench.

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