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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Toxic Legacy

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Despite American and Russian ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997 — a full decade after the Bush-Gorbachev Bilateral Chemical Weapons Destruction Agreement of 1990 — the specter of chemical weapons still haunts both nations and international society.

On June 8, I participated in a ceremony in the Urals Mountains town of Shchuchye at one of seven former Soviet chemical weapons arsenals marking ostensible progress in Russia's chemical demilitarization efforts. On that same day, in my home community of Anniston, Alabama, a comparable ceremony marked construction of a demilitarization facility at the second of eight stockpile sites in America. Appropriately, optimistic speechifying filled the air at these simultaneous, uncoordinated ceremonies.

However, after spending the last five years as an academic observer and active adviser to the chemical weapons nonproliferation and demilitarization movement, I must report that a cloud of mounting questions and declining confidence hangs over the CWC and the bilateral destruction agreement. More fundamentally, several stubborn realities continue to confront these arms control regimes and obstruct our efforts toward eliminating chemical weapons.

First, and most important, is the fact that despite almost universal condemnation of chemical warfare among CWC signatories there is abiding interest among national and nonstate entities in cheap, clumsy, mass-dispersal weapons that indiscriminately burn human flesh and destroy the human nervous system. Jonathan Tucker, who runs the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Monterey Institute of International Studies, says progress under the convention has been mixed and indefinite. "On the one hand," he says, "a few CW states-parties that had previously denied possessing a CW capability have come clean and begun destroying their stockpile. On the other hand, a number of known or suspected CW proliferators appear to be enhancing their CW capabilities to include more sophisticated nerve agents and delivery systems."

Second, the Chemical Weapons Convention itself is experiencing significant difficulty. Despite some admirable accomplishments, the CWC's Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is finding operational implementation and financial support more problematic than expected. Alexander Pikayev of the Moscow Carnegie Center says Russia, which possesses the world's largest chemical weapons stockpile, missed the first treaty deadline to eliminate 1 percent of its weapons by April 29, 2000. "Moreover," he writes in a recent publication of the Monterey Institute, "prospects look bleak for meeting the second original deadline in the CWC: destroying 20 percent (8,000 tons) of the Russian CW stockpile by April 29, 2002."

Ironically, the United States over the past few years has turned from moral champion into political truant. "Overall, Washington's treatment of the CWC has had less to do with a particular conception of the U.S. national interest than with political expediency and lack of high-level government oversight," says Amy Smithson of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Project at the Stimson Center.

Third, the bilateral destruction pact, a now critical correlative element of the CWC, is in disarray. Despite ceremonies such as those at Shchuchye and Anniston, technological disputes, environmental concerns, and growing reservations in the various stockpile communities have afflicted chemical demilitarization programs in both countries.

Fourth, is the sagging spirit of the international peace community and environmental movement. Some nations, groups, and individuals — such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Ted Turner, and former Senator Sam Nunn — have stepped forward with political and financial support for chemical weapons initiatives; but the urgency and energy and drive for arms control seem to be declining in the post-Cold War era.

Fifth, American and Russian political leaders (except for a few exceptions such as Senator Richard Lugar) are insufficiently inclined toward such costly endeavors that have little demonstrably compelling constituency. Competing policy inclinations, shifting financial priorities, and apparent public apathy have undermined attention to chemical arms policy and similar international issues as we enter the new century.

Of course, it would be irresponsible to proclaim the Chemical Weapons Convention a failure at this point. As Brad Roberts of the Institute for Defense Analysis says, "The interesting test comes over the next five to 10 years when the treaty regime will either get stronger or visibly begin to unravel."

However, it is now clear that things are going seriously awry. A number of countries have not passed requisite CWC implementing legislation; some have diluted key verification provisions. Some have not paid their normal assessments; some refuse to reimburse the costs of verification activities; and a variety of difficulties have plagued the promised destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles.

So, despite impressive sounding arms control regimes, the continuing realities of our Cold War toxic legacy are stark and ominous. The Russians, until recently, did not seem serious about their chemical weapons treaty responsibilities; and the United States bears particular blame for some of these problems.

Fortunately, there are some encouraging signs of late. President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin seem to be reviewing these problems; and Russia has reorganized its chemical demilitarization program under Zinovy Pak, who appears to be making headway.

What we need now is for both the United States and the Russia — the White House and the Kremlin, the Congress and the State Duma — to declare the elimination of chemical weapons as our continuing, mutual, national and international interest; and America and Russia, along with the world community, must insist on real compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention and the bilateral destruction agreement.

Dr. Glen Browder, a former member of Congress, is eminent scholar in American democracy at Jacksonville State University and distinguished visiting professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.