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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ratify Chemical Treaty

In ancient times, Greek city-states assailed enemies with the noxious fumes of smoldering pitch and sulfur, while Chinese warriors wafted arsenic-laced smoke screens against their foes. As we approach the next millennium, we face the prospect of regional aggressors, third-rate armies, terrorist cells and even religious cults unleashing lethal chemical agents against our troops in the field and our people at home.

A paradox of the new strategic environment is that U.S. military superiority actually increases the threat of chemical attacks against us by creating incentives for adversaries to challenge us, not directly but asymmetrically, through nonconventional means.

Dealing with this threat requires a coherent national response involving: active and passive defenses; continued efforts to limit the spread of chemical weapons technology; improved intelligence collection and threat analysis; well-coordinated civil defense capabilities; and an international standard barring the production and possession of chemical weapons. Central to this response is the Chemical Weapons Convention, or CWC.

President Ronald Reagan decided that the United States should stop producing chemical weapons and begin destroying our arsenal. The CWC, negotiated under both presidents Reagan and George Bush, would require other countries to do the same. If, however, we are to have a seat at the table where decisions about CWC implementation are to be made, then we must ratify the convention by April 29. While the United States can choose to remain missing in action, it is clear that our absence would diminish the success of the goal to force other nations to eliminate chemical weapon stockpiles and capabilities.

Critics of the CWC have made several assertions that must be considered -- and rejected.


The CWC includes the most intense verification regime ever negotiated. Some bemoan imperfections in the CWC's verification arrangements and the prospect that some countries will seek to cheat. Verification is never perfect. What matters is that large-scale violations be detectable, and the CWC meets this test. Moreover, the CWC's comprehensive and intrusive verification regime will improve our ability to monitor possible chemical weapons proliferation -- which we must do with or without the CWC.

Rogue States:

It's argued that only law-abiding nations will respect it, not those we trust least. Most industrialized nations have agreed to destroy their chemical stocks and forswear further development or production, so the CWC will reduce the chemical weapons problem to a few notorious rogues and impose trade restrictions that will curb their ability to obtain the materials to make chemical agents. If the CWC fails, we should expect chemical weapons to proliferate to even more countries than now possess them, raising the risk they could be used against U.S. troops not only by regional aggressors but even in peacekeeping and other situations.

Technology Transfer:

Critics assert the CWC obligates member states to exchange manufacturing technology that can be used to make chemical agents. In fact, nothing in the CWC requires any weakening of our export controls, and the United States would continue to work in the "Australia Group" to maintain and make more effective internationally agreed upon controls on chemical and biological weapons technology. Indeed, the CWC establishes strict trade restrictions on precursor chemicals, prohibiting state parties from helping others to acquire a chemical weapons capability.

U.S. Industry:

American chemical companies that will be most affected by the CWC strongly support it and view its requirements as reasonable and manageable -- which is not surprising because they played a key advisory role during the CWC's negotiations. And small businesses initially troubled by critics' claims that the CWC would be a costly regulatory nightmare now agree that the alarms are false. Indeed, if the United States fails to ratify the CWC, it will be U.S. industry that is penalized with trade sanctions.

Chemical Defense:

Opponents suggest that if the United States ratifies the CWC, it will reduce our support for defensive measures. In fact, the opposite is true. The Defense Department not only maintains a robust program to equip and train the troops against chemical and biological attack, but we have asked Congress to increase this program's budget by almost $225 million over the next five years. In addition, we will proceed with our theater missile defense programs and robust intelligence efforts against the chemical threat.


In the 1980s, I led the congressional fight to build binary chemical weapons to deter Soviet chemical use in Europe. With the end of the Cold War, the world has changed. Regional aggressors can be deterred by our vow to respond with overwhelming and devastating force to a chemical attack. Our military commanders agree that threatening chemical retaliation is not necessary, and they support the CWC -- as do retired military leaders such as Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf.

The safety of our troops and the security of our nation will be strengthened by the CWC. But the clock is ticking. The Senate should act now to ratify the convention before it enters into force on April 29.

William Cohen is U.S. defense secretary. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.