Deadly Cultures: Biological Weapons since 1945

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Deadly Cultures: Biological Weapons Since 1945 Edited by Mark Wheelis, Lajos Rózsa, and Malcolm Dando Harvard University Press, 2006, 496 pp.

Deadly Cultures: Biological Weapons Since 1945 is a significant contribution to the understanding of the historic dynamics of biological armament. As such, it complements a 1999 volume involving several of the same authors, which was published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).1 Taken together, these books sketch human interest in deliberate disease from the Middle Ages until the present. Although the SIPRI volume covered almost a 1,000-year period marked by ignorance about diseases, their causes, and ways of propagation, Deadly Cultures describes the interest in pathogens for hostile purposes after World War II.

Together, the historical perspective of these books shines a new light on current worries over biological weapons. It shows that current concerns are only the latest in a pattern of ebbs and flows in global perceptions about biological weapons. These have often had less to do with scientific or technological advances than changed political perceptions or developments affecting the alternative unconventional weapons: nuclear and chemical arms.

The post-World War II period began with policymakers, scientists, and, to a certain extent, the military ascribing to pathogens a potential for destructiveness on par with the atomic bomb. By the 1970s, however, views about the relative military utility of biological weapons had changed dramatically, enabling the international community to conclude the world's first disarmament treaty, the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The few strategic or tactical advantages these weapons might have had over other arms, particularly nuclear weapons, evaporated in the light of the persistent scientific, technical, and logistical problems related to the development, production, stockpiling, and use of biological weapons.

A similar process occurred with regard to threat perceptions. After the BWC entered into force in 1975, chemical weapons were increasingly perceived as a greater threat. The situation was reversed following the successful negotiation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in the 1990s. The CWC's elaborate reporting and inspection system highlighted the BWC's weak verification and compliance enforcement mechanisms.

Suddenly, biological weapons returned as a major security issue. As with their chemical counterparts two decades earlier, new allegations of treaty violations appeared in the Soviet Union (and later Russia) as well as in Iraq and elsewhere. The threat perceptions were further magnified by a number of mass casualty terrorist incidents, some of which involved attempts at indiscriminate use of chemical and biological agents. The number of victims from bioterrorism and crime was limited, but projections of attacks with smallpox or bioengineered agents justified a major expansion of biodefense programs and nurtured a global biodefense industry. One victim of the process was the BWC. The threat inflation and the resulting institutional interests raised the demands on the verification protocol then being considered in Geneva and ultimately contributed to the collapse of the negotiations. The result is the belief that the treaty can no longer meet growing and increasingly diverse security expectations.

Another major theme evolves around the limitations of intelligence in judging whether a rival is pursuing a biological weapons program and formulating adequate policies to counter the threat. One of the conclusions in the SIPRI volume was that intelligence errors contributed to the setting up of offensive biological weapons programs in several western European countries before World War II. More recently, such judgments have become even more complicated as advanced knowledge, expertise, and application of peaceful biology and biotechnology is spreading to a rapidly growing number of states. …