The politics of weapons of mass destruction
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The Politics of “Weapons of Mass Destruction”. The Creation of a Threat. I. Defining the Phrase. What is the best way to define “Weapons of Mass Destruction?”. A. Origins of the Phrase. Origin unknown: Possibly used as early as 1937 Increased use in 1990s. Substitute for Soviet threat?

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I defining the phrase l.jpg
I. Defining the Phrase

  • What is the best way to define “Weapons of Mass Destruction?”


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A. Origins of the Phrase

  • Origin unknown: Possibly used as early as 1937

  • Increased use in 1990s. Substitute for Soviet threat?

  • Two connotations:

    • Deadliness: These weapons can cause “mass” destruction

    • Concentration: A little WMD goes a long way

      Which weapons qualify?


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B. Recent Media Reports: Unclear

  • “Weapon of Mass Destruction” – Washington Post headline about the AK-47, Nov 26 2006














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C. US Law: Over-Inclusive

1. Definition:

  • (A) any destructive device as defined in section 921 of this title;

  • (B) any weapon that is designed or intended to cause death or serious bodily injury through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals, or their precursors;

  • (C) any weapon involving a biological agent, toxin, or vector (as those terms are defined in section 178 of this title); or

  • (D) any weapon that is designed to release radiation or radioactivity at a level dangerous to human life


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Section 921 says…

  • The term “destructive device” means—

  • (A) any explosive, incendiary, or poison gas—

    • (i) bomb,

    • (ii) grenade,

    • (iii) rocket having a propellant charge of more than four ounces,

    • (iv) missile having an explosive or incendiary charge of more than one-quarter ounce,

    • (v) mine, or

    • (vi) device similar to any of the devices described in the preceding clauses;

  • (B) any type of weapon (other than a shotgun) which will expel a projectile by the action of an explosive or other propellant, and which has any barrel with a bore of more than one-half inch in diameter…


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2. Recent Convictions (2008)

  • Hewitt said between March 1 and May 4, Carlock, Sanders and Robinson built and tested several pipe bombs and then placed two at the FedEx distribution center ... One exploded at about 2 a.m. and broke the glass on the front door and set off the alarm, according to authorities. A second, unexploded bomb, which authorities believe was intended to hurt the first responders, was also found in the parking lot and detonated by bomb technicians. Both explosives were filled with nails.


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2. Recent Convictions (2008)

  • A 24-year-old convert to Islam has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for plotting to set off hand grenades in a crowded shopping mall during the Christmas season. He had offered to trade stereo speakers for some grenades.


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2. Recent Convictions (2008)

  • The teenager accused of planning to bomb his high school told investigators he had placed several pipe bombs around his family's home, but authorities have found no explosives, a prosecutor said Wednesday. Ryan Schallenberger may have just been bragging, state prosecutor Jay Hodge said. A search that included the use of a bomb-sniffing dog found nothing Saturday, when the boy was arrested after his parents discovered he had ordered ammonium nitrate on eBay.


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3. Why such a broad definition – and why apply it to smaller attacks?

  • Previous penalties = max 10 years for attempt to injure, max 20 years for attempt to kill

  • WMD offenses = max life sentences


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4. Why not just increase penalties for all terrorism (not just WMD use) to life?

  • Prosecutors like the discretion (judges sentence within guidelines determined by offense)


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5. Conclusion: Legal definition of WMD is just WMD use) to life?political, not technical

  • Compare

    • Media (inconsistent, anything “big” looks like WMD)

    • Law (very broad definition to maximize prosecutorial discretion)

  • Is there a more logical approach?


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C. The Logic of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” just WMD use) to life?

  • Characteristics

    • Potential to cause mass casualties

    • Distinct from “conventional” weapons

    • Violate international norms

  • Logic: Definition primarily revolves around social perception of weapons rather than weapon characteristics

  • Evidence: What counts as “WMD terrorism?”


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Examples of “WMD Terrorism” just WMD use) to life?

  • 1984: Rajneeshee cult attacks in The Dalles, Oregon with Typhoid (no deaths) and Salmonella (750 poisoned, no deaths)

  • 1994: Aum Shinrikyo Attacks Matsumoto neighborhood with Sarin nerve gas, kills 7

  • 1995: Aum Shinrikyo attacks Tokyo subway with Sarin nerve gas, kills 12

  • 2001: Anthrax-laced letters kill five in USA

  • 2007: Three chlorine-laced bombs kill 11 in Iraq


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NOT “WMD Terrorism” just WMD use) to life?

  • 1824: Suspected Albanians or Wahabbis detonate armory in Egypt; perhaps 4000 killed

  • 1978: Extremists suspected of arson of theater in Iran that kills 477

  • 2001: Al-Qaeda crashes four airliners into buildings, killing about 3000

  • 2004: Russians storm terrorist-held school in Beslan, leading to 366 deaths


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D. Applying a “Social Norms” Definition: “WMD” just WMD use) to life?≠ WMD

  • Nuclear weapons – Uniquely horrifying (see many specific nuke-only agreements, fear of radiation)

  • Biological weapons – Potentially deadly and inherently indiscriminate. Again, triggers international horror

  • Chemical weapons – Little worse than conventional weapons (if at all) but images and casualties create horror (even Hitler refuses to use gas in war after being gassed himself)

  • Not “WMD” – Conventional (Cluster Bombs, MOAB, Fuel-Air Explosives, AK-47) or Unconventional but not horrific (E-Bomb)

  • Tough cases: Borderline chemical weapons (White Phosphorous, Napalm), Radiological weapons (“Dirty Bombs,” Depleted Uranium)


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E. Terminology just WMD use) to life?


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E. Terminology just WMD use) to life?

CBW (Chemical and Biological Warfare)


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E. Terminology just WMD use) to life?


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E. Terminology just WMD use) to life?


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E. Terminology just WMD use) to life?

CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear)


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II. The International Politics of WMD just WMD use) to life?

  • Benefits of WMD Programs – and associated problems

    • Deterrence – Prevent attacks by rational opponents by making costs of attack exceed benefits

      • Problem: Countries don’t like being deterred (China vs. Taiwan, US vs. Iran). May encourage preventive war.

      • Problem: Mutual deterrence strategies increase costs of war if opponent becomes irrational and attacks anyway.


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2. Warfighting: Winning Battles and Forcing Surrender just WMD use) to life?

  • Problem: Best weapons for deterrence may not be best for battles.

  • Problem: Best strategies for warfighting may prevent war termination, increasing costs of war.


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3. Bargaining: Trade WMD programs for concessions just WMD use) to life?

  • Problem: Reputation concerns mean negotiations are never strictly bilateral. Concessions encourage others to develop WMD.

  • Problem: Trust increases negotiation success – but WMD programs undermine trust.


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4. Status: International recognition and prestige (i.e. the P5 and nuclear weapons)

  • Problem: The P5 were the P5 before nuclearization. Effect mistaken for cause?

  • Problem: International efforts to curb WMD are designed to stigmatize new proliferation.


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B. Costs of WMD Programs P5 and nuclear weapons)

  • Resources / Opportunity Costs – The money, talent, leadership effort, and other resources put into WMD might be better spent on development (Guns vs. Butter theories) or conventional arms.


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2. Hostility and Arms Races P5 and nuclear weapons)

  • WMD proliferation can provoke counter-proliferation. Nuclear weapons example:

    • US develops in fear of pre-emption by Germany – Uses them to threaten USSR

    • USSR develops in fear of attack by US – Uses them to threaten China

    • China develops in fear of attack by US (and later USSR) – Becomes threat to India

    • India develops in fear of China – Becomes threat to Pakistan

    • Pakistan develops in fear of India


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3. Opprobrium and Sanctions P5 and nuclear weapons)

  • Many agreements and laws call for types of sanctions against those that try to acquire WMD.

  • Even absent sanctions, states face criticism for WMD programs. (Remember, part of the REAL meaning of WMD is the stigma attached to the weapons).


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C. When will benefits outweigh costs? P5 and nuclear weapons)

When states are HIGHLY concerned with:

  • Being attacked

  • Losing the resulting war

  • Having no allies or influence to save them

    And states are NOT worried about

  • The opportunity costs (wealthy OR insulated from public welfare concerns)

  • Arms races (rivals already have WMD or are unable to acquire them)

  • Opprobrium (state is already friendless or under sanctions)

    Which states meet these criteria today?


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III. Problems of WMD P5 and nuclear weapons)

  • Which weapons are considered WMD (already answered!) and how are their effects similar to – or different from – those of conventional weapons?

    • Chemical weapons – are they worse than high explosives?

    • Biological weapons – can they accomplish missions which conventional weapons cannot?

    • Nuclear weapons – are they just “bigger bombs” – or something qualitatively different?


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B. In what ways – and why -- do international laws and international institutions treat WMD differently from other weapons?

  • What international laws govern WMD?

  • What are the loopholes in these laws?

  • How did these laws come about?

  • How is the nonproliferation system maintained?


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C. How does the possession of WMD by nations or their adversaries affect the decisions that those nations make?

  • What doctrines govern the use of WMD?

  • What determines which doctrines a state will adopt?

  • Do states with WMD behave differently?

  • Are states with WMD treated differently?


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D. When and under what circumstances are WMD likely to be used, and what are the likely consequences?

  • Are some states more likely than others to use WMD?

  • What is the likelihood of accidental or unauthorized use?

  • What are the effects of WMD on the battlefield, political negotiation, and civilians?

  • How do wars fought with WMD end?


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