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A Common Mistake
posted May 15 by Ward

Jeffrey Lewis is one of the smartest (and smart-alecky-est) writers about nuclear weapons. He edits and writes Arms Control Wonk, and cross posts on Foreign Policy. He's usually incisive, funny, and right. I was reading something he wrote last October about chemical weapons and I realized that I disagree with him. Not too surprising, people disagree all the time. But I think the mistake that Jeffrey makes illustrates a common mistake that people make when thinking about nuclear weapons.

Here's the relevant piece of the article about chemical weapons.
The 1925 Geneva Protocol banned the use, but not the possession, of chemical weapons. Most of the major powers, particularly the combatants in the First World War, acceded to the Geneva Protocol in relatively short order -- France in 1926, the Soviet Union in 1928, Germany in 1929, the United Kingdom in 1930. Many signed with reservations, such as warning that the protocol would cease to be binding with regards to enemies that did not observe it. This was deterrence before Hiroshima.

The United States did not sign until 1975. (The State Department has a whiny little fact narrative that points out the United States accepted a similar prohibition on chemical weapons in the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, then blames the French for rejecting that treaty over its submarine limits. Charles Evans Hughes surely spat out his freedom toast.)

Despite the hold-outs and reservations, norms and some measure of deterrence (largely) kept chemical weapons from being used on the battlefield during the Second World War -- although let's not pat ourselves on the back when it comes to the subject of poison gas and fascism. Over time, though, we've come to regard chemical weapons as basically awful. The post-war leaders that have used chemical weapons reads like a who's who of nutjobs -- Muammar al-Qaddafi against Chad, Saddam Hussein against Iran, and now Bashar al-Assad against his own people. There are other disputed cases, but they don't change the fundamental fact that chemical weapons use is popular largely with the world's worst countries.
The problem is in his evaluation of why chemical weapons weren't used. " . . . norms and some measure of deterrence (largely) kept chemical weapons from being used on the battlefield . . ." This perfectly reflects the problem with most thinking about nuclear weapons.

When we think about nuclear weapons we limit ourselves to horror and fear.

Most people believe that nuclear weapons are these enormously effective weapons--decisive, in fact--that we only restrain ourselves from using because we have the barest veneer of civilized morality and we're terrified of them. Nuclear weapons are horrible and that is the only thing that could possibly keep us from using them. Jeffrey says that norms--moral rules that lack the force of law but which are observed because of the international equivalent of peer pressure--and deterrence kept people from using chemical weapons. Fear and morality, in other words, were the only factors staying the hand of Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt and others.

These two are certainly possible reasons, and they probably played a role, but they leave one other important possible reason out of the mix: utility. Surely one of the reasons that chemical weapons weren't used in World War II is that they are crappy weapons. You lay down a dense bank of gas and suddenly the wind changes and all your soldiers are choking and dying while the other guy's soldiers look on and wave appreciatively. You can't really aim chemical weapons very well. And they impose an enormous logistical cost--special transportation and handling methods, special equipment to deliver the gas, etc. etc. Extensive experience with chemical weapons in World War I led to the conclusion that they didn't deliver a decisive advantage, they were very expensive, and they were enormously difficult to manage.

Since most of the decisions we make in life include a relatively large slice of utilitarian thinking, why not include this in thinking about why chemical weapons were banned? Or about nuclear weapons? This is a useful angle from which to view the problem, isn't it? And yet there are very few scholarly analyses of the utility of mass destruction. People write endlessly about the horror, but the fact is that horror is not the whole story.

There have been quite important bans on weapons that failed completely--because the weapons were really useful. Pope Innocent II in 1139 banned crossbows (used against other Christians), a ban that totally failed. Not because crossbows weren't sufficiently "horrible" or the moral norm against them wasn't strong enough (what, in Medieval Catholic Europe, could be stronger moral condemnation than a prohibition by the Pope?), but because they were really useful. They were the first weapon that a foot soldier could use to reliably kill a mounted knight.

I think Jeffrey's mistake is pretty common one throughout the nonproliferation/disarmament field. For some reason we let ourselves be seduced by the emotional content of weapons. We get sucked into the emotive conversation about poison and forget to address the more prosaic question of military utility.