A Costly U.S. Mistake on Germ Weapons

Once again, with critical global interests at stake, the Bush administration has blocked action by the rest of the world, this time on a vital treaty to monitor the ban on biological weapons. After nearly seven years of negotiations, what was intended to be the final session to complete the treaty ended last week in disarray. The Bush decision reverses a bipartisan drive to augment international biological weapon controls beginning with President Nixon and running through the Ford, Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, and Clinton administrations. The reversal comes at a time when biotechnology is pouring forth powerful discoveries that could be misused to tailor new diseases for deliberate spread as weapons.

Rejection of the biological weapons treaty follows an administration pattern of arrogance in conducting foreign policy that seems almost designed to create antagonism. To avoid another publicity fiasco like the one that followed its rejection of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the White House announced that the U.S. delegation would remain after rejecting the biological weapons treaty until the negotiating session disbanded, in order to prevent other nations from reaching a biological weapons agreement among themselves.

U.S. officials say they regard biological weapons as the nation’s most serious security threat. But while repeatedly insisting on their support for the ban on biological weapons, they refused to strengthen it with means for testing compliance. The chief U.S. negotiator admitted during questioning at a Congressional hearing last month that some U.S. government agencies conduct biological activities that “raise ambiguities” regarding their purpose. Is it possible that Washington thinks it more important to avoid embarrassment than to monitor potential biological threats?

There is no substitute for the information the rejected treaty was intended to provide. Legitimate biological functions could potentially be misused for weapons development or production; therefore they need to be declared and monitored, as the treaty would require. National intelligence has a poor track record on biological threats. Provisions for safeguarding confidential biodefense and business information are necessary, of course, and their adequacy in the draft treaty is attested to by the strong support of every U.S. ally and all of Europe, Latin America, Japan, and many other countries. By blocking the treaty, the United States has made it easier for rogue states to pursue biological weapons in secret.

Americans, as citizens of the lone superpower, will be a prime target if these weapons are ever used either strategically or as an instrument of terror. Even if they are never actually used, the proliferation of biological weapons could lead to the escape of deadly genetically engineered germs from laboratories, and the permanent establishment of new and uncontrollable diseases in the biosphere. There are no military weapons that can “take out” an epidemic, nor are there any defensive measures for protecting the public from biological weapons. Although preparations for limiting the spread of or responding to a biological attack are important, we can’t afford to turn down any measure that would contribute to prevention. Unilateral actions alone won’t do it. Refusing to join the rest of the world may turn out to be a costly U.S. mistake.