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. 

About

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.

Archive


| By Jack Benjamin

6 Ways in Which Liberal and Moderate Democrats Diverge on Key Issues

Democratic primary season is well under way, highlighted by recent debates and battleground fundraising by the large field of presidential hopefuls. As candidates deliver their pitch to voters, party supporters are not in lockstep on every issue.


| By Ruby Scanlon

The Generational Divide Over Climate Change

America’s young and old are split on what to do about climate change, presenting a major hurdle for the country’s youth to attain serious and immediate action.









| By Bettina Hammer

Americans Aren't Fans of Arms Sales

The United States has long been the tops arms supplier in the world. Yet public opinion data shows that Americans aren’t fans of U.S. arms sales.


| By Bettina Hammer

Little Admiration for the United States among MENA Publics

Most Americans believe that respect and admiration for the United States are instrumental in achieving US foreign policy goals. But a new poll finds publics in the Middle East and North Africa continue to view the United States unfavorably. 


| By Bettina Hammer

Peace to Prosperity Misses the Mark with Palestinians

At the June 25-26 Bahrain Peace to Prosperity Workshop, Jared Kushner presented the first component of a U.S. peace plan for the Middle East. But how does this plan sit with the Palestinian public?



| By Dina Smeltz, Brendan Helm

Scholars vs the Public: Collapse of the INF Treaty

In early February 2019, the United States withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty following President Trump’s October 2018 (and the Obama administration’s July 2014) accusations that Russia was failing to comply with the treaty. Russia withdrew from the treaty the next day.

Findings from a February 2019 Chicago Council on Global Affairs general public survey and a December 2018 Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) survey of International Relations (IR) scholars around the world illustrate how these different populations perceive the collapse of the INF Treaty.