While powerful nations maintain a degree of equilibrium through mutual deterrence and shared interests, less powerful elements may find in biological warfare opportunities to harm their enemies. Under current levels of preparedness (e.g., physical facilities and organization and operational doctrines), biological warfare is probably the most perplexing and gravest security challenge we face.
President Nixon’s abjuration of biological warfare as a U.S. military weapon in 1969 set in motion the most important diplomatic and legal steps towards its eradication globally, laying the groundwork for the Biological Weapons Convention treaty. The treaty lacks robust verification mechanisms, mainly for reasons intrinsic to the technology. However, verification is not the foundation of the U.S. stance; the United States has long since abandoned the idea that it would respond in kind to such an attack. Were it not for the Biological Weapons Convention, a gradually escalating technology race would have amplified even further this threat to human existence. The treaty does set a consensually agreed-upon standard of behavior: it has become institutionalized into international law, and infractions open the door to enforcement.
Although further provisions for verification would do little to enhance our knowledge of those infractions, they would nevertheless have important symbolic value in reaffirming international commitment to the principles of the treaty. Creative leadership is needed to develop other ways to strengthen that reaffirmation. The real problem with the Biological Weapons Convention is enforcement, not verification. We have all-but-certain knowledge that Saddam Hussein has continued Iraq’s biological weapons development program. To convince our allies, much less neutral nations and potential adversaries, of what is at stake, we may have to elevate the priority we give to this threat. We must also become more knowledgeable about the local political and cultural terrain and more ingenious in designing sanctions that will not impose undue hardship on the Iraqi population. Our public diplomacy is predicated on the stated proposition that use of biological weapons is an offense to civilization. This major accomplishment of the Biological Weapons Convention needs to be reaffirmed both in the attention we give to our own defense and in our stern responses to substantial infractions from any quarter.
Unlike the aftermath of nuclear or high-explosive bombardment, attack with biological weapons is amenable to interventions for some hours or days after the event, depending on the agent used. With the most publicized agent, anthrax, administration of appropriate antibiotics can protect the majority of those exposed. The other side of the coin is recognizing the syndrome within hours of the earliest symptoms. Biosensors are being developed to confirm suspicions of anthrax. We will have to rely on early diagnosis of the first human (or animal) cases to provide the basis for focusing those sensors. Because a wide list of diseases must be considered, this surveillance entails reinvigorating our overall public health infrastructure. In contrast to the explosive rise of health-care expenditures, public health funding has been allowed to languish, boosted only