In some ways, the fight to reduce threats from biological and chemical weapons looks like a roaring success. Chemical weapons have been prohibited by international treaty for more than 20 years, biological weapons for more than 40. The vast majority of the world’s nations are party to both treaties, and not coincidentally, these weapons are shunned. The international community has effectively devalued them as military options. Contrast that to nuclear weapons, which are considered status symbols to be paraded around on national days of celebration, and which major powers say they require for national security. By comparison, the fight to eliminate chemical and biological weapons looks quite successful.
On the other hand, the threat posed by these types of weapons is growing greater. While chemical weapons remain widely considered unacceptable, the international taboo against using them has weakened in the last five years. We have seen repeated use of unconscionable weapons on the battlefield and against civilian populations, particularly in the Syrian civil war, with both the government and ISIS deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure, including schools and hospitals. Assassination attempts in Malaysia and the United Kingdom have involved unprecedented use of sophisticated nerve agents. These recent chemical weapons attacks have considerably weakened disarmament principles and the international institution—the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—set up to support them.
At the same time, advances in science and technology are changing the nature of chemical and biological warfare, in many cases making these weapons easier and cheaper to develop. Individuals, states, and non-state actors have new opportunities to exploit readily available technology. For instance, the range of malicious uses for synthetic biology is rapidly expanding, as a 2018 study ordered by the US Department of Defense highlighted.