U-M researcher calls for new approach to biological disarmament

November 14, 2002

ANN ARBOR, Mich.---Just as nuclear war was seen as the major international threat of the 1950s, biological warfare looms over the 21st century.

Where the threat is coming from, who actually has biological weapons and the role the U.S. is playing in the development and control of such weapons are addressed in a new book edited and co-authored by Susan Wright, a researcher at the University of Michigan's Institute for Research on Women and Gender.

Wright is the project leader of an international team of scholars, journalists and members of non-governmental organizations whose research has culminated in the publication of "Biological Warfare and Disarmament: New Problems, New Perspectives." Their work takes a fresh look at the problem of biological warfare and proposes new approaches to mitigating the threats it poses.

For example, Wright says, a general problem with the conventional Western view is that it divides the world into two kinds of states: responsible countries (essentially, the U.S. and Europe) that can be trusted with weapons of mass destruction, and the rest of the world, which can't. The biological weapons problem is then defined as a threat to the West rather than in terms of the regional military and political interactions that encourage interests in weapons of mass destruction.

"This 'rogue state' discourse, for example, helped form the extraordinarily punitive treatment Iraq has received since the Gulf War," she said.

Wright compares the treatment of Iraq with the treatment Russia has received since the end of the Cold War. "The former Soviet Union had a huge biological weapons program in the 1980s that clearly violated the Biological Weapons Convention. These facilities still existed in Russia in the early 1990s. In contrast to the punitive treatment accorded Iraq, Congress passed the Nunn-Lugar Act of 1991, which provided funding to help the Russians dismantle their facilities. This process continues today in a generally cooperative way, despite the fact that several Russian facilities remain closed.

"It certainly has proved to be a more productive approach than the harsh sanctions imposed on Iraq. We seem to have forgotten the lesson of Versailles, when the harsh sanctions imposed on post-World War I Germany encouraged the rise of Nazism and Adolf Hitler," she said.

Wright sees the Middle East as the area most at risk for biological warfare. Apart from Iraq, she points out that Israel also has an advanced chemical and biological warfare research facility, which conducts much secret work, as well as nuclear weapons. "It's unlikely that interest in weapons of mass destruction will disappear until Israel and its neighbors settle their territorial disputes and agree on their respective rights to exist---and we're about as far away from that situation as we can get. But in the long run, the problem of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East can only be resolved regionally, not through the punitive treatment of a single state," she said.

Wright also says it seems unlikely that the next terrorist attack will utilize biological weapons. "It's difficult to develop these weapons," she said. "You need trained people, modern facilities, and equipment, and all those things leave traces. I think it's more likely that the next terrorist attack would follow the pattern of Sept. 11 and would attempt to turn our own advanced technology against us, for example with an attack on a large chemical facility or a nuclear plant."

Meanwhile, on Nov. 11, international talks on the Biological Weapons Convention (which the United States signed in 1972) reopened in Geneva after failing to reach agreement last year on an inspection regime designed to strengthen the treaty. Given strong resistance from the Bush Administration, the most that is expected is a series of annual meetings that keep multilateral discussions alive. "It's ironic that the country most worried about biological warfare should be the one to take this kind of stand," Wright said. Certain aspects of the United States' own biological defense program come very close to the line between defensive research and programs that could be used offensively, she said.
For more information about Susan Wright, visit www.umich.edu/~spwright. To inquire about copies of "Biological Warfare and Disarmament," visit www.rowmanlittlefield.com or contact Susan McEachern, smceachern@rowman.com.

University of Michigan
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