Weapons of Mass Reaction

By Falkenrath, Richard | Harvard International Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Weapons of Mass Reaction


Falkenrath, Richard, Harvard International Review


Rogue States and Weapons of Mass Destruction

The idea of "rogue states" was briefly in vogue at the beginning of the Clinton administration. By the end of the administration, however, the term had ceased to be either stylish or fitting. Like so many tacky fashions of the past, it has been relegated to the closet--and rightly so, for it is applied to a group of states that have in common only their general opposition to US presence and interests in their regions. States that fall into this category include Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Cuba, and recently, Serbia. Though each state presents specific and complex challenges to US goals and policies, the term "rogue state" complicates rather than clarifies analysis of these problems by suggesting an unwarranted identity.

Several of these states, however, share one thing in common that gives the problem they present to US policy a special character: weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Unlike the term "rogue states," the American concern with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) will never become unfashionable. Weapons of mass destruction are a technology, not a mere slogan, and are therefore a permanent feature of the international environment. For the past half-century; the various threats posed by WMD-principally nuclear weapons, though increasingly biological and chemical weapons-have occupied the highest positions on the American national security agenda. Indeed, the seriousness of the WMD threat is one of the few post-Cold War foreign policy issues on which virtually all US officials and defense intellectuals agree. This consensus breaks down, however, when the discussion turns to questions of policy prescription, as the Senate's October 1999 rejection of Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty made clear.

Catastrophic Categories

There are three types of WMD: nuclear, biological, and chemical. Nuclear weapons, the most familiar of the group, were first developed during World War II in the United States. The most basic of these weapons release vast amounts of energy by splitting the atoms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium. The HEU bomb used against the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945 caused an explosion equivalent to more than 10,000 tons of TNT and killed over 100,000 people. More advanced thermonuclear weapons, in which a primary fission nuclear explosion triggers a secondary fusion explosion, can cause explosions a hundred times larger than the simple Hiroshima bomb. Eight states are known to possess nuclear weapons capabilities-the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, India, Pakistan, and Israel-and several more are believed to be seeking to acquire such a capability-most importantly, North Korea, Iran, and Iraq (whose substantial nuclear-weapons program was set back by at least a decade by the Gulf War an d subsequent UN inspections).

The killing mechanism of a biological weapon is disease. Humankind has yet to experience the full destructive power of these uniquely odious weapons, for there have been only a few instances of biological weapons attacks, and these have involved only the most rudimentary types of weapons. However, the potential of biological weapons to sicken and kill humans (or livestock or crops) is awesome. A few grams of efficiently aerosolized anthrax, for example, could kill tens if not hundreds of thousands of people in a densely populated urban area. The deliberate release of the contagious smallpox virus, which has been eradicated in nature, could kill millions. Biological-weapons aerosols are invisible, odorless, and tasteless, and the onset of visible symptoms in the infected population is delayed by the disease's incubation period. These features make biological weapons especially well suited for covert or terrorist attacks resulting in mass casualties. Biological weapons are banned by the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. US intelligence agencies believe, however, that about a dozen states harbor some form of biological warfare program, including Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, Russia, and China.

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