On November 13, 2023, the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) held the first in a series of quarterly fireside chats focusing on weapons of mass destruction issues. This first event provided an opportunity to celebrate the final destruction, on July 7, 2023, of the last weapon in the legacy U.S. chemical weapons stockpile, thereby satisfying U.S. obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). While the event was an opportunity to hail one of the most successful international arms control regimes in history, the panelists also explored ongoing challenges with CWC compliance and highlighted ways in which the current administration is approaching those challenges.
The panelists included some of the nation’s top leaders in addressing weapons of mass destruction risks: the Honorable Deborah Rosenblum, who currently serves as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs; Mr. Pranay Vaddi, who serves as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Arms Control, Disarmament, and Nonproliferation at the National Security Council; and Mr. Marc Shaw, who serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Arms Control, Deterrence, and Stability. Longtime leader in international security and CSR Chair of the Board, the Honorable Sherri Goodman, provided opening remarks; Ms. Christine Parthemore, CSR’s Chief Executive Officer, moderated the event; and the Honorable Andy Weber, Senior Fellow at CSR’s Nolan Center, provided closing remarks.
This summary highlights several key points and themes from the conversation to accompany our release of the event video. CSR will also post a full transcript of the event in the coming weeks.
Watch the Full Event
Chemical Weapons Threats
One purpose of this event was to help shine a light on chemical weapons threats for public and policymaker audiences, as unfortunately they remain a feature of the international security landscape.
The speakers highlighted lingering threats from those few countries not yet parties to the CWC, notably North Korea, the compliance challenges presented by Russia and Syria, and the concern around non-state actors acquiring or using chemical weapons. The international community continues to work together to hold accountable those who violate the CWC. Marc Shaw highlighted the U.S. State Department’s annual report on States Party Compliance (10c report) as a key tool in calling out those not fulfilling their obligations. The most recent 10c report assesses that Russia retains an undeclared chemical weapons program. The report documents Russia’s use of chemical weapons at least twice in recent years—in 2018 against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the United Kingdom and in 2020 against Alexei Navalny in Russia. The report also highlights detailed concerns over reports of Russia’s wrongful use of riot control agents against Ukrainian armed forces in their illegal and unjustified invasion of Ukraine.
Mr. Shaw indicated that Syria has used chemical weapons at least 50 times since joining the CWC in 2013. Given these violations, the United States is working hard with other nations on accountability within international organizations. For example, Syria’s rights to vote and hold office within the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have been suspended. The United States has also imposed sanctions on at least 300 entities. Together, these actions show that the United States is employing many tools of national power in coordinated efforts against those who use chemical weapons.
Given these dynamics, the OPCW continues to maintain the capability and capacity to guide nations in eliminating chemical weapons if future needs emerge. So long as there are chemical weapons or the threat of the use of chemical weapons, the OPCW focus on elimination missions will persist.
With this general threat picture in mind, much of the discussion focused on the myriad ways that the U.S. government is seeking to respond.
Meeting the U.S. Stockpile Destruction Commitment
The United States fulfilling a treaty obligation to destroy its pre-CWC chemical weapons stockpile showcases the nation’s continuing commitment to the treaty. The destruction of all U.S. munitions was lauded as the result of the hard work and dedication of thousands of people from multiple disciplines across the federal, state, and local level, public and private sectors, and international organization representatives. We chronicle this achievement in a trilogy of papers released for the November 13th event.
While the challenges were formidable, the speakers highlighted the ways in which a wide range of stakeholders worked together to complete the mission. The effort spanned presidential administrations and took place at multiple locations across the country. Alternative destruction techniques were developed in lieu of incineration to meet the health and environmental concerns expressed by the local communities, along with regulatory and zoning delays. This effort, while challenging and time consuming, was hailed as a great example of how a democratic society is able to address local needs, national requirements, and technical challenges.
With destruction complete, the Department of Defense is now working to responsibly close the facilities in Kentucky and Colorado that were used in the destruction.
Integrated Deterrence & International Partnerships
Panelists discussed the integrated deterrence approach that the U.S. government is taking to address threats, as outlined in the 2022 National Security Strategy and the 2022 National Defense Strategy. By leveraging all of the tools of national power, the U.S. government is working to ensure that the costs for using chemical weapons remains high. The speakers showcased this in sharing the stage together, and they described many ways that U.S. deterrence is advancing in an integrated way to address the threats presented by those who seek to manufacture or use chemical weapons.
In addition to many measures to protect the U.S. homeland, enhancing international cooperation is clearly a key component of the way the nation is pursuing integrated deterrence. The speakers highlighted that nearly every country in the world is a party to the CWC, and must continue to unite in telegraphing that no actor will achieve its goals by turning to banned chemical weapons. Along these lines, the international community must keep working together to hold Russia and Syria accountable for violations of their CWC commitments. Marc Shaw highlighted efforts by the State Department to work with the Conference of States Parties to uphold the integrity of the CWC. Some of these efforts include taking additional steps to address the Syrian threat and increasing transparency on the movement of any Schedule 1 chemical pursuant to declaration requirements of such chemicals.
The speakers outlined multiple lines of effort being pursued by the U.S. government to build the capacity of other nations to deter and, if necessary, respond to uses of chemical weapons. Assistant Secretary of Defense Rosenblum noted, for example, the continued relevance of the ongoing chemical security mission of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. She additionally pointed out that the Department of Defense maintains technical expertise regarding the destruction of chemical weapons to ensure it can address future challenges and safely dispose of remnants of chemical weapons from previous conflicts should they be found, and help allies and partners to do the same. Marc Shaw highlighted the work being done across the U.S. interagency, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation efforts with partner nations to build the capacity to respond to chemical weapons threats by conducting training exercises and developing response plans. He also highlighted the capabilities resident in the national labs, namely Lawrence Livermore National Lab, through the Department of Energy, which contributes unique expertise in chemical agent testing and response capabilities. Additionally, the Department of Defense continues working to ensure military personnel have the protective countermeasures needed in the event of a chemical incident. These are just some examples of ongoing U.S. efforts to deter and prepare for chemical weapons risks.
Strengthening Long-held International Norms
As Pranay Vaddi noted, building norms takes time. Current norms against chemical weapons have been developed over more than a century. This has served the security interests of all nations well, and it is therefore important to keep these norms strong.
Norms against the use of chemical weapons have held relatively well compared with other agreements and frameworks (e.g., nuclear arms control agreements that have ended). The CWC is nearly universal, with 193 states parties and just four countries (Egypt, Israel, North Korea, and South Sudan) that have neither ratified or acceded to the CWC. The United States and international community continue to encourage those few countries not yet a party to the CWC to sign on. There is hope that South Sudan will soon accede to the convention, which its internal challenges and limited capacity have hindered in the past. Additionally, the OPCW has proven adaptable to emerging threats, as was exemplified in 2019 when it adopted by consensus (eventually including Russia) a change to include several chemicals associated with the Novichok family of nerve agents as a Schedule 1 banned toxic chemical or precursor. And certainly the complete elimination of 100% of the world’s declared stockpiles of chemical weapons is one of the greatest disarmament stories of our generation.
Despite these achievements, a clear-eyed look reveals fissures to these norms. Assistant Secretary of Defense Rosenblum characterized the situation as a glass half full and half empty. On the one hand, the norms have mostly held. On the other hand, a wide variety of tools are being used to assault these norms, notably the proliferation of disinformation and lower threshold of uses of chemical compounds, such as in the 2017 targeted assassination in Malaysia of the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Chemical weapons continue to be used, even by two parties to the CWC, Syria and Russia.
Keeping Pace with Advances in Emerging Technology
In speaking to CSR’s audience, the U.S. government leaders all stressed the importance of the OPCW’s new Centre for Chemistry and Technology (Chem Tech Centre), which aims to ensure OPCW capabilities keep pace with developments in science and technology.
Advances in machine learning and generative artificial intelligence make the work of the Chem Tech Centre all the more critical to ensure the OPCW is able to quickly identify properties in new toxic chemicals. Biotoxins also present novel threats for which the OPCW must be prepared to respond. Thus far, the United States has provided a third of the funding for the Chem Tech Centre. These investments will help ensure the OPCW is able to successfully carry out its mission and help train other countries to do the same.
Additionally, the speakers highlighted work within the U.S. government to understand the convergence of emerging technologies and chemical risks. This includes how tools of disinformation have emerged as a vexing challenge for the OPCW and CWC member states, which are just beginning to address the situation. For its part, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency has created a new information assurance unit devoted to addressing the enduring challenges created by the proliferation of disinformation. Additionally, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in coordination with the State Department, is working to build capacity for advanced chemical detection and analysis with other governments. And the national labs, especially Lawrence Livermore National Lab, provides crucial technical expertise in chemical analysis and helps to screen potential labs for affiliation with the OPCW. These are just a few of the efforts being undertaken by the U.S. government.
The United States must continue working with partners and allies to ensure the world is free from the scourge of chemical weapons. It is promising that over 190 countries are not pursuing chemical weapons and just four countries have not acceded to the CWC. Despite such overwhelming success, it remains important to continue showing the few countries that have not joined the CWC, or that are not abiding by it, that there is tremendous value in upholding the norm against using chemical weapons. And, for those states parties in violation of the convention, it’s important to demonstrate that the international community will continue to hold them accountable, and ensure that costs are incurred for violating one of the most successful arms accords to date.