In recent times, chemical weapons have taken an increased role in warfare. In Syria, government forces were said to have used chemical weaponry on civilians, and in Salisbury, a nerve agent was used with the intention of the assassination of a deflected former spy. According to international law, these weapons are banned, however, I believe that the existence of nuclear weapons makes chemical warfare easier, and limits consequences.
First of all, looking at the response to the attack in Salisbury. The international response against the accused Russian government was strong, with the mass expulsion of diplomats across the globe with tariffs being put on the table as an additional option. However, many people do not characterise this attack as what it truly is. Rather than an independent, rogue actor working against a foreign power, the evidence makes out the culprit to be the Russian state, making the attack a technical act of war. In the past, the response would have been significantly harsher, especially given the repeat nature of these attacks with former spy Alexander Litvinenko being poisoned with polonium in 2006. However, the Western response was muted as a stronger response could potentially escalate into a state of violence.
Recent actions in Syria also prompted a response from the West. The Russian-allied Syrian government took place in chemical attacks in their civil war, which additionally affected citizens. In response, the UK, France, and the USA committed to airstrikes on Syrian weapons factories, effectively engaging in a proxy war. However, this response is not enough. For a leader to poison their own people is a war crime, thus actions greater than simply taking weapons away after they have been used would be more proportionate. However, the aforementioned alliance with Russia is key in this situation.
On the subject of nuclear weaponry, there is a clear struggle with responding to crises with weapons of mass destruction available. Where Russia initially committed an act of aggression, Western states then have to measure responses so as to not provoke the use of WMDs. This means that a certain amount of leeway has to be given to the aggressive state, or the responders risk provoking a stronger attack. This leeway leaves space for yet another act of aggression, and the cycle continues. The development from Litvinenko to the Salisbury attack is arguably evidence of this, as there wasn’t adequate deterrent to prevent more action.
Ultimately, although nuclear weapons act to prevent global warfare, in terms of minor acts of aggression they seem ineffectual. They provide a severe step up from most acts of aggression that would be seen as insane for states to use as a response, thus small acts such as the previously mentioned poisonings are given space to take place with little adequate deterrents in place. In a world with minimal direct warfare, nuclear weapons are quickly losing their effectiveness as deterrents, thus their necessity is really brought into question.
By Joe Blackburn