December 15, 2016 | By

#TBT: That Time We All Feared Chemical and Biological Weapons

In the spirit of Throw Back Thursday, Running Numbers is digging out its archived polls to look back at America’s foreign policy feelings of old. This week, we’re looking at Council data on Americans' perceptions of the threat posed by chemical and biological weapons in the late 90s and early 00s.

From 1998 to 2004, Americans were intensely concerned about the threat of chemical and biological weapons (CBW). Majorities of Americans named CBW as critical threats to vital US interests for three Chicago Council Surveys in a row – 1998 (76%), 2002 (86%), and 2004 (66%) - enough to make it the second most named threat for those years. This ranking would not be surprising in, say, 1945—when many of the players of World War II developed and experimented with CBW—but by 1998 few states saw strategic value in CBW. This diminishing perception of their strategic value led, in part, to the establishment of the Biological Weapons Convention (1975) and Chemical Weapons Convention (1997), banning their possession and use amongst member states.

That isn’t to say they haven’t been used. Iraq used chemical weapons on Iran continuously towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. In 2013, Assad used sarin—a nerve agent—on his own citizens, appalling most of the world. Since then, Assad’s regime and ISIS have both been accused of using chemical weapons, though this has sparked less of an outcry than the 2013 attack outside of Damascus.

Non-state actors have also, on rare occasion, used CBW to limited effect. In 1984 a cult in Oregon contaminated salad bars with salmonella. In 1995, members of a techno-fetishist group Aum Shinrikyo walked onto a train in a Tokyo subway and, using sharpened umbrella points, punctured bags of sarin. The attack left 12 dead and resulted in six thousand people seeking medical attention. The 2001 anthrax letters sent throughout the US, coming just months after the 9/11 attacks, sparked fears of broader CBW attacks. We also know that both al-Qaeda and ISIS have looked into acquiring CBW as well as nuclear and radiological weapons. And for whatever reason, right-wing terrorists in the US have an obsession with ricin.

Were CBW really a threat to US vital interests from 1998-2004? Probably not - they’re just really scary. The period was also one in which the phrase “Weapons of Mass Destruction” ran rampant, lumping nuclear weapons together with chemical and biological ones. Indirectly, the use of CBW could have dragged us into a decade-long military quagmire that would last over a decade with devastating regional and global repercussions. But we in the US managed that without CBW, thank you very much.

Are CBW something Americans consciously worry about? While it seems unlikely, when put on a list of other threats, CBW do stand out as particularly frightening. In 2007, the Trust for America’s Health conducted a national survey of health risks in the US. Coming in third, with 12 percent of Americans named it their most concerning health risk, was chemical terrorism. It was ranked above diabetes (15.5 million Americans were diagnosed with diabetes in 2007) and obesity (from 2007-2008 roughly 34% of Americans were obese), both of which are far more pressing national health issues. 


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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