ROME — While arms-control negotiations between Washington and Moscow focus mainly on nuclear problems, chemical weapons have recently been the subject of discreet talks between the two major powers.
A disturbing trend has been confirmed: Toxic agents have become available not just to the United States and the Soviet Union, the known possessors, but also to Third World countries. In its report to the President last June, the U.S. Chemical Warfare Review Commission stated: "The best available estimate is that 16 countries, including the United States and the Soviet Union, now have chemical weapons, a historical peak."
Two decades ago, a similar situation involving nuclear weapons induced the U.S. and Soviet governments to propose to the world a nuclear non-proliferation treaty and to convince their respective allies to adhere to it. In exchange for the other signatories' commitment to renounce atomic weapons, the five nuclear nations in 1968 made a solemn commitment to reduce their arsenals. But, sadly enough, the five nations have instead enormously increased the number and quality of their weapons.
A chemical non-proliferation treaty is out of the realm of current possibility. So, what to do? The U.S. government imposed severe export controls on chemicals that could be turned into chemical-warfare agents, following Iraq's use of poisonous gas in the conflict with Iran. Some European countries have adopted similar measures. Experts caution, however, against excessively high expectations about the effectiveness of controls. With very few exceptions, the chemicals used to make such weapons also have peaceful industrial or agricultural uses; commerce in those products cannot be banned altogether. Ethylene, for instance, a harmless substance produced on a huge commercial scale, in the past has been converted into mustard gas.
Export controls are likely to become even less effective in the future. The structure of the world chemical industry is changing at a rapid pace. While the largest companies are now concentrated in the advanced industrial countries, the increasing availability of chemical technology will greatly improve the position of developing countries and lead to a much greater dispersion of chemical production. The implications of these findings were the subject of a recent meeting at the Stockholm Institute for Peace Research. A group of world experts, including the Soviets, analyzed the industrial potential for chemical warfare.
Ultimately, an international treaty banning the production and transfer of chemical weapons is the only satisfactory answer. But many participants at Stockholm felt there is an urgent need for an initiative by the developed countries. This might take the form of a declaration stating that the country undertakes neither to conduct any activities in preparation for use of chemical weapons nor to assist anyone else in doing so.
Such a declaration would be a point of departure. It would certainly not be enough to stop proliferation. But even a generally worded commitment would be a step forward; the ominous reality is that no international norm now prevents a country from producing or assisting anyone else in the production of chemical weapons. The European nations and Japan, the world's main chemical producers outside the United States and the Soviet Union, have renounced chemical weapons. There should be, therefore, no major objection on their part to such a voluntary declaration.
U.S. and Soviet officials who took part in the Stockholm meeting indicated they had no doubt that such an initiative would be seen with favor by their governments. The two superpowers have had bilateral discussions for years on the reduction of their chemical arsenals. As of now there have been no appreciable results, but the proliferation of chemical weapons has become a matter of mutual concern for Washington and Moscow, much the same way proliferation of nuclear weapons concerned them in the '60s.
Coming arms talks, conditioned by the recent summit meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev, offer a rare opportunity for the two major powers to agree on measures for control and reduction of chemical weapons. At the same time, any non-proliferation initiatives by other countries must also be strongly encouraged.