by Susan Wright

The emotive value of the immorality of biological warfare has long been used by Western nations, especially in relation to the putative intentions of non-Western states that are seen as hostile or irresponsible. In Western parlance, biological weapons are the “poor man’s nuclear weapons.” There is some irony in this description. Biological weapons were first developed as mass destruction weapons by industrialized countries—notably the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the former Soviet Union, Germany, Japan, and Canada. (1) These countries have advocated biological disarmament since the late 1960s, but they have continued to rely on other means of mass destruction, notably nuclear weapons, for their own defense, if not also for advancing their geopolitical goals.

The idea of an international convention banning biological weapons was raised with the United States in 1968 by the United Kingdom’s Labour government, which was seeking a way to respond to anti-war protests against Britain’s own chemical and biological warfare programs. (2) The British government chose to focus on biological weapons for two reasons. First, it knew that it could not persuade the United States to renounce chemical weapons. In any case, the U.K. military establishment had its own interests in developing novel incapacitating chemical weapons. Second, advisors to Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s Cabinet saw biological weapons as “speculative” weapons, susceptible to climatic conditions and to mutation, uncertain in their impact, and therefore disposable. The Chief Science Advisor, Sir Solly Zuckerman, bluntly dismissed them as “a pain in the neck and of no military value.”(3)

The British argued in 1968 that the West had almost nothing to lose by abandoning biological weapons since it could continue to rely on nuclear weapons, and much to gain, by depriving non-nuclear states of a cheap mass destruction option. (4) Shortly after this, the United States arrived at the same conclusion. In November 1969, President Richard Nixon decided to dismantle the American biological weapons program and to support the completion of the convention proposed by the UK. As Nixon crudely told his speechwriter, William Safire, “If someone uses germs on us, we’ll nuke ‘em.” (5)

Thus, a strategic asymmetry was inscribed into the international ban on germ weapons, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which was opened for signature in 1972. Powerful states continued to maintain their nuclear stockpiles and to protect their allies with their nuclear deterrent while weak states that signed on to the BWC had no such protection. Many of the latter were also parties to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

At the end of the Cold War, the American decision to subject states suspected of harboring biological or chemical weapons—defined as “rogues”—to tough economic sanctions deepened this asymmetry. In the Middle East, Western states applied a double standard. Compare the virtual silence of the West on Israel’s nuclear arsenal and its highly secret chemical and biological warfare facility at Ness Ziona and the intense Western criticism of neighboring states that showed signs of interest, however ambiguous, in biological or chemical weapons.

The most punitive example of this double standard is the coercive disarmament of Iraq. In the years after the Gulf War cease-fire in 1991, Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was closed down by the International Atomic Energy Agency and substantial parts of its biological and chemical weapons programs were dismantled by the UN Special Commission. But despite the considerable success of the UNSCOM and IAEA operations, the economic sanctions used to attempt to force Iraq to reveal the complete truth about its weapons of mass destruction programs continued, with terrible consequences for the Iraqi people. Those affected were not Iraq’s brutal leader, Saddam Hussein, and his supporters, but innocent civilians.

Hundreds of thousands of deaths, especially among children, have been attributed to the effects of the sanctions against Iraq. Documents made public last year show that the US government accurately anticipated the consequences of denying Iraq the means to purify its water supply. The authors of a government report predicted an increased incidence of diarrhea, typhoid, and other water-borne diseases, with a particular impact on children. (6) When former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked what she thought of the deaths of half a million Iraqi children, she responded that “it was a very hard choice” but that “we think the price was worth it.” (7)

Moreover, the United States, which insists on sanctions against “rogue states,” has shown little inclination to support the strengthening of measures under the BWC that would apply to all the parties to the treaty, including itself. In fact, both the Clinton and Bush administrations have done a great deal to weaken the treaty.

The BWC bans the “development, production, and stockpiling” of biological and toxin weapons but its fundamental prohibition has several major loopholes. In effect, the convention allows development and production, and even, perhaps, limited stockpiling of germ warfare agents if these activities can be justified for developing defenses such as vaccines, therapies, or protective clothing. Research without limits is allowed since there is no reference to it. There is no machinery for checking compliance or detecting cheating. Finally, except in the extreme case of stockpiling germ weapons, the line between defense and offense drawn by the treaty is often difficult to define except in relation to intentions—a notoriously difficult criterion to apply in practice.

In 1995, the approximately 140 parties to the Convention agreed to negotiate a protocol to enhance compliance—essentially an inspection regime requiring declarations of activities relevant to biological warfare, routine inspections, and “challenge” inspections to investigate serious charges of non-compliance. But this attempt to achieve transparency was complicated by some major problems, not the least of which were caused by the obstinate diplomacy of the Clinton administration.

Former president Bill Clinton professed strong support for the BWC. However, he also succumbed to pressure from the American biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries for a weak regime that would not place these industries under close scrutiny from international inspectors. (8) Washington’s negotiators badgered their international colleagues into accepting loopholes that drastically weakened conditions for inspections and placed control largely in the hands of the inspected states themselves. Washington also insisted on minimizing inspections of military facilities for states with large biological defense programs, a move that meant that only a fraction of the sites of American biological defense activities would be visited. Such self-serving tactics undermined commitments to strengthening the treaty. Disillusion if not skepticism pervaded the negotiations in Geneva.

By the late 1990s, many believed that given the US-imposed loopholes in the draft protocol, verification of compliance could not work. Then came the George W. Bush administration, already on a unilateralist offensive against arms control in general. On July 25, 2001, the administration rejected the draft protocol entirely. Besides arguing that the draft protocol would be ineffective (which was no doubt true, given the damage achieved by the Clinton administration), the Bush administration claimed that the protocol would jeopardize not only confidential business information but also national security. (9)

A week before the September 11th attacks, The New York Times revealed the reasons for this decision: the administration wished to shroud certain biological warfare projects in secrecy. (10) Three of these projects are especially troubling: the testing of a mock germ warfare factory using generally harmless organisms with characteristics similar to those of the dangerous pathogens used as weapons; the testing of a germ warfare bomb that lacked certain crucial components, presumably to study its dispersal characteristics; and a plan to genetically engineer a strain of anthrax capable of resisting the protection normally given by vaccination.

The second project––the bomb test––would seem to be a direct violation of the BWC, which bans without qualification the development, production, and stockpiling of equipment and means of delivery. But all of these projects are so close to the fuzzy line between prohibited and permitted activities that fine legal distinctions hardly matter. One can imagine the American response if any of the “rogues” were caught doing such things, especially at this point, when President George W. Bush has announced a concerted fight against “rogue” regimes that seek to develop weapons of mass destruction. (11)
All of these projects undermine the Convention and stimulate development of novel biological weapons around the world. One of the earliest nightmare scenarios for genetic engineering was the idea of modifying a pathogen against which there would be no protection. Fears of such uses by military agencies provoked a call for banning them in 1975. (12) In addition, the claim justifying this project, that vaccines could be designed to work against modified organisms is illusionary: nature provides too many pathogens with too many genes that can be altered for a single vaccine to provide an effective defense. As Richard Novick, a New York University microbiology professor who heads a committee to study research for biological defense, told me in December, “I cannot envision any imaginable justification for changing the antigenicity of anthrax as a defensive measure.” (13) Why, then, the interest in pursuing this work? The September 11th attacks have apparently encouraged Washington to justify these dangerous military projects in the name of “biological defense.”

On November 1st, the administration unveiled an approach to biological disarmament that follows the general “Bush doctrine” advocated by national security advisor Condoleeza Rice: Hold nations responsible for violations of international law on their own territory while rejecting cooperative international approaches to security and arms control. (14) In the context of the BWC, the Bush doctrine translates into opposing the BWC inspection regime and replacing it with punitive responses to violations that can be strongly influenced by the United States in the UN Security Council. These policies are also backed by the huge biological defense effort, which is likely to cost several billion dollars this year, (15) and the threat of massive retaliation should a “rogue” state use weapons of mass destruction.

Applying the Bush doctrine to biological disarmament is precisely what the United States attempted to achieve at the fifth BWC review conference held in Geneva late last year. A surprise proposal made by under secretary of state for arms control John Bolton shortly before the end of the conference would have rejected not only the draft text of the protocol but more fundamentally, the entire mandate for future negotiations designed the strengthen the BWC. That outcome was avoided only by the suspension of the proceedings by the conference chair until next November. (16)

Clearly, the Bush administration aims to switch the route to achieving biological disarmament from prevention through international cooperation to coercive measures applied either unilaterally or by the UN Security Council presumably in a context of strong American pressure. At the same time, the engineering of dangerous pathogens in the name of defense is treated as “normal.” The frightening irony is that this approach to “strengthening” the Convention could well lead to a worldwide biological arms race.


1. Erhard Geissler and John Ellis van Courtland Moon, eds., Biological and Toxin Weapons: Research, Development and Use from the Middle Ages to 1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

2. For details, see Susan Wright, “The Geopolitical Origins of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention,” forthcoming in S. Wright, ed., The Biological Warfare Question: A Reappraisal for the 21st Century.

3. U.K. Foreign Office, Ronald Hope-Jones to Moss, 4 July 1968, FCO 10/181, U.K. Public Records Office.

4. U.S. Department of State, American Embassy London to State Department, 30 July 1968, telegram 11305, “UK Working Paper on Biological Weapons,” 30 July 1968, classified “secret,” RG 59, POL 27-10, National Archives, discussed in Wright, “The Geopolitical Origins of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention,” n. 2.

5. William Safire, “On Language: Weapons of Mass Destruction,” New York Times (19 April 1998), section 6, 22.

6. Thomas Nagy, “The Secret Behind the Sanctions,” The Progressive (September 2001).

7. Leslie Stahl, “Punishing Saddam,” produced by Catherine Olian, CBS, 60 Minutes, 12 May 1996.

8. Susan Wright and David Wallace, “Varieties of Secrets and Secret Varieties: The Case of Biotechnology,” Politics and the Life Sciences 19(1) (March 2000), 33-45.

9. Elizabeth Olson, “U.S. Rejects New Accord Covering Germ Warfare,” New York Times (26 July 2001), A7.

10. Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William J. Broad, “U.S. Germ Warfare Research Pushes Treaty Limits,” New York Times (4 September 2001), A1, A6; Judith Miller, “Next to Old Rec Hall, A ‘Germ-Making Plant’,” New York Times (4 September 2001), A6. These articles drew on research for a book published in September 2001 by the same authors, Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001).

11. President George W. Bush, State of the Union Address to Congress, 28 January 2002.

12. Royston C. Clowes et al., “Proposed Guidelines on Potential Biohazards Associated with Experiments Involving Genetically Altered Microorganisms,” 24 February 1975, Recombinant DNA History Collection, MC100, Institute Archives, MIT Libraries, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. For discussion, see Susan Wright, Molecular Politics: Developing American and British Regulatory Policy for Genetic Engineering, 1972-1982 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 151.

13. Personal communication, December 2001.

14. Dana Milbank, “Bush Would Update Germ Warfare Pact,” Washington Post (2 November 2001), A16.

15. John D. McKinnon, “Government Boosts Spending on Defense Against Bioterrorism to Nearly $3 Billion,” Wall Street Journal (18 October 2001), A28.

16. For further discussion of the fifth BWC review conference, see Susan Wright, “Dumping the Effort to Strengthen the BWC,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (forthcoming, March/April 2002).


Susan Wright, a historian of science at the University of Michigan, directs an international research project on biological warfare and disarmament and North-South relations. She is co-author and editor of a forthcoming book, The Biological Warfare Problem: A Reappraisal for the 21st Century.

This article is a revised and translated version of “Double Langage et guerre bacteriologiqué,” published in Le Monde Diplomatique in November 2001. Reprinted with permission of the editors. Le Monde Diplomatique: 58b, rue du Dessous-des-Berges 75013 Paris, France. English website:

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