Chemical Weapons and European Memories

How does U.S. recalcitrance on chemical weapons treaties appear to Europeans?

February 7, 2003

How does U.S. recalcitrance on chemical weapons treaties appear to Europeans?

What was the most terrible thing about World War I? Trench warfare? Machine guns? Artillery barrages that literally obliterated entire towns — and military units?

Perhaps, but the most inhumane thing about World War I was arguably the shameless use of poison gas — which is now usually called "chemical weapons."

In that sense, the recent arrests in London — when several people were arrested after the deadly poison ricin was found in their flat — seems to be both a sad precursor of what is to come, and a reminder of a dark past.

Although few Europeans now living actually remember the events of the war, they do have a vivid collective memory of the things that were in use then. The innovation of mustard gas, for example. (Biological weapons have been around for centuries).

The image of soldiers hunkered down in trenches with gas masks on, serving essentially as sitting ducks, is deeply ingrained in the continent’s collective memory bank.

Surely, if an al Qaeda team uses such materials in Europe — as authorities now warn — it would be a major throwback. In fact, the general level of unpreparedness for such a catastrophe makes Europeans feel that their time clock is moved back by an entire century.

Sure, al Qaeda will be blamed. Or the Iraqis. But if biological or chemical weapons are used, Europeans will also ask why the authorities — given all the high levels of taxation on the continent — were not better prepared for such a terrible turn of events.

The reaction is bound to be especially harsh because Europeans did believe that — with the demise of the Soviet Union — they had finally crawled out from under the depressive thought of being quite exposed to nuclear attacks if something went wrong.

Having escaped the nuclear "tomahawk" for 50 years, they now discover a threat from a hundred-year old weapon.

In short, instead of fearing a mid-20th century weapon, we are back to worrying about an early 20th century lethal force.

Now to return to such a depressing potential reality is not a happy thought for anybody. Especially for Europeans. And U.S. presentations in international forums have piled on the worry.

It is clear that the immediate danger lies in Iraq's biological and chemical weapons — not its nuclear threat. Instead of fearing the most modern forces of destruction, we are back to the same primordial fear that drove those soldiers in old black and white photographs.

What really disturbs Europeans, then, is this: As they view it, only an American invasion of Iraq is likely to trigger biological and chemical attacks on European cities. In contrast to the convictions of the Bush Administration, they do not believe that he would resort to such measures — unless he is provoked.

Until now, Saddam has limited his use of such weapons to his own region. By that logic, if he now changes his focus because of a U.S. attack, the United States — fairly or not — will be viewed as having contributed to creating the problem.

Implausible as this may sound in Washington's ears, the current U.S. administration needs to take all of this urgently into account. Why? Because its own policies are perceived as adding to European fears. How so? Well, the Bush Administration has taken a very public stance against the treaties aimed at outlawing the use of chemical and biological weapons.

In November 2001, John Bolton — the U.S. State Department’s Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security — announced that the United States considered the Biological Weapons Convention to be dead. Then, in May 2002, he condemned the current Chemical Weapons Convention as inefficient.

Now, the U.S. government musters various arguments in defense of its position. But two things are striking.

First, many experts in the field believe that the new U.S. approach is too self-centered. In fact, some experts argue that a major source of the U.S. opposition is that the country — and its industry — wants to protect certain commercial interests against international monitoring.

Second, try making any rational argument to Europeans about the U.S. approach to these issues.

Sober-minded Europeans realize that effective treaties for biological and chemical weapons would have no impact on the real sources of Europe's fears — like al Qaeda.

However, faced with such an unspeakable act of irrationality and/or insanity, people tend to grope for somebody — anybody — to blame.

In that sense, they expect that the major actors on the global stage to have at least fulfilled a minimum standard. That standard is to join together with the human community of rational actors to oppose the use of such weapons.

In a world desperately searching for answers at a time like that, a United States that so cavalierly rejected the biological and chemical warfare treaties would look almost as if it had aided and abetted the poison-gas using terrorists — even if it had done its utmost in other respects to fight them.