Ky’s destruction of chemical weapons an important step in long battle

Opinion By Amy McGrath and Dr. Emma Belcher

On a warm summer day in central Kentucky, with no fanfare, the last US shell of sarin gas was destroyed at the Blue Grass Army Depot. The sarin rocket shells were a part of the once enormous arsenal of chemical weapons the United States maintained throughout the cold war. Today, in a huge success for international security, all global stockpiles of declared chemical weapons have been destroyed.

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was signed in 1993 by President George H.W. Bush and then ratified by the Senate under the Clinton administration in 1997. At the time, naysayers claimed the treaty was worthless and unverifiable and would lead this nation into a false sense of security. Yet, here we are in 2023 participating with 192 other countries comprising over 98% of the world’s population in compiling and destroying the entire stockpile of these heinous weapons. It took us 30 years, not the 10 originally hoped, but we and the rest of the world should celebrate this achievement for the betterment of mankind.

The CWC is the most successful disarmament treaty eliminating an entire class of weapons of mass destruction. But there are still challenges ahead. Three nations have neither signed nor ratified (Egypt, North Korea, South Sudan) and Israel has not ratified. North Korea, in particular, is believed to have a large stockpile of chemical weapons. Syria, a member of the CWC, reportedly used chemical weapons on its own people in violation of the treaty as recently as 2019. But the development, production, and use of chemical weapons by the rest of the world remains prohibited. This has improved world stability and reduced the potential for incalculable human suffering.

There are many reasons to fret given the trends in international security today. North Korea is testing longer-range ballistic missiles. China appears to be doubling its numbers of nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapon state of Russia has aggressively invaded its neighbor, starting a war of immense destruction, enabled by its nuclear threats. Iran remains on the brink of gaining a nuclear weapon of its own, should it choose to do so. These are real causes for concern to be sure. Identifying and restricting weapons of mass destruction, including biological agents, nuclear weapons and the possible destructive forces of artificial intelligence will remain an ongoing challenge. The magnitude of the threat can seem overwhelming. Many will be tempted to respond by creating more of these types of weapons on their own, or by ending continued transparency and dialogue.

However, shaping norms and international cooperation still has a place. It has a proven track record. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has limited the number of nuclear states to nine, after dire predictions that there would be dozens of nuclear states by this time. The US-Russia New START Treaty has significantly reduced nuclear weapons deployed under the agreement. But without international support, these agreements can weaken. New START, for example, will expire in three years unless the two sides agree on a replacement. Such talks have been disrupted by Russia’s war in Ukraine. As a result, we could be on the brink of a new nuclear arms race.

It is important to recall that arms control talks have, and still can, play a useful role bridging US-Russian rivalries. During the Cold War, when the two sides had little to agree on, they could still agree that nuclear war, nuclear proliferation, and an uncontrolled arms race should all be avoided. And today, despite rock bottom US-Russian relations, the shared interest in preventing nuclear catastrophe should provide cause to bring the two nations together.

As we celebrate the final destruction of American chemical weapons in the United States, we should remind ourselves that treaties resulting from international cooperation and agreement can be successful while at the same time, in our own national security interest. In spite of the lack of fanfare, the significance of the destruction of that last canister in quiet central Kentucky is enormous and should be widely applauded.

Amy McGrath is a decorated Marine Corps veteran and is a member of Ploughshares Fund Board of Directors. 

Emma Belcher, PhD is the President of Ploughshares Fund, the only fund singularly focused on reducing the threat of nuclear weapons.

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