The Battlefield Use of Chemical, Biological and Nuclear Weapons from 1945 to 2008: Structural Realist Versus Normative Explanations
39 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 29 Aug 2010
Date Written: July 31, 2010
How can we best understand the role of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in international politics? In contrast to much of the current literature in international relations, which focuses on the role of ideas in international politics, I argue that the material characteristics of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons are a fundamental determinant of the role played by these weapons in international politics. In particular, this paper argues that structural realism, with its focus on military utility, offers a better explanation of state use of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons than do explanations that focus on norms. The focus is on explaining the pattern of use of these weapons on the battlefield or as a strategic deterrent, not on explaining individual cases. In addition, I compare across chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in order to increase the number of cases and generate variation in military utility and norms.
The first step in the argument is to develop a structural realist analysis of the military utility of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. This provides one approach for explaining the pattern of use and non-use. After this, I investigate the norms governing the use of CBN weapons. The basic expectation is that a weapon with greater utility will be used more than a weapon with lesser utility; a weapon governed by a strong norm against use will be used less than one with a weak norm against use. Third, I establish the pattern of use across these weapons, and then analyse its correspondence with the expectations derived from structural realism and norms. I find that the pattern of use is corresponds best with the expectations derived from structural realism and its focus on military utility.
The arguments made thus emphasize the importance of material constraints in international politics. The intention is not to dismiss the role of ideas and normative factors, but to provide a realist, material analysis of CBN weapons and then to examine the comparative utility of material versus normative factors. The long-term aim is to gain a better understanding of what structural realism and norms can best explain and how they might work together to increase our understanding of international politics.
Keywords: structural realism, norms, chemical weapons, biological weapons, nuclear weapons
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation