Home / Articles / Biden’s Bombs: The Dance of Ethics and Interests
On the same day in July 2023, the Biden administration destroyed America’s last chemical weapon, and also, controversially, announced the supply of cluster bombs to Ukraine.
The story of the two bombs shows how America’s view of ethics in war is shaped by an underlying strategic logic.
The focus on humanizing war by banning certain weapons may do more to help America on the battlefield than to protect civilian lives.
On July 7, 2023, at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky, operators carefully placed an M55 rocket filled with nerve agent onto a machine that drained and neutralized the deadly material. America destroyed its last chemical weapon—the final chemical weapon of any declared stockpile in the world—and fulfilled US obligations under the international Chemical Weapons Convention. President Joe Biden said, “we will not stop until we can finally and forever rid the world of this scourge.” On the same day, however, the Biden administration announced that it would provide Ukraine with M864 cluster bombs that release dozens of small grenades over a large area. Over 100 countries banned these weapons under the Convention on Cluster Munitions because they can leave dud bomblets that endanger civilians. “Transferring these weapons,” claimed Human Rights Watch, “would inevitably cause long-term suffering for civilians and undermine the international opprobrium of their use.”
The tale of two bombs—the chemical weapon and the cluster munition—might suggest that America is a fickle moralist, enforcing international law one moment, and then violating widely held norms the next. But the two bombs reveal something deeper: America’s view of ethics in war is often guided by an underlying strategic logic.
For decades, the United States has cultivated a norm against the development and use of chemical weapons, known as the “chemical weapons taboo.” In 1997, Washington ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development, stockpiling, or use of chemical weapons. The treaty is backed by 193 countries, leaving only Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan as holdouts (as well as Israel, which has signed but not ratified the convention).
And Washington doesn’t just talk the talk. The United States destroyed its arsenal of thousands of tons of chemical agents. America signaled the gravity of the threat by including chemical weapons along with biological and nuclear weapons in the category of ultimate danger: “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD). In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq in part because of Saddam Hussein’s alleged WMD programs, including chemical weapons (these programs turned out to be vastly exaggerated). In 2012, Barack Obama said the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War would be a red line for US military action. When Damascus gassed Syrian civilians in 2013, Obama stepped to the brink of war, then pulled back over concerns about starting another American military intervention in the Middle East, as well as doubts from Congress and some allies. The president negotiated a deal where Syria gave up its chemical weapons stockpiles and acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Four years later, in 2017, Donald Trump launched dozens of cruise missiles against the Syrian regime when it again used sarin nerve gas.
US officials portray the prohibition on chemical weapons as a righteous campaign against a vicious weapon that poisons people and indiscriminately targets civilians. Trump called chemical weapons “very barbaric.” Biden said the destruction of America’s last chemical weapon had brought us “one step closer to a world free from the horrors of chemical weapons.”
The United States certainly cares about the ethics of war. The US military is governed by the Law of Armed Conflict, including prohibitions on mistreating prisoners and deliberately targeting civilians. US military schools routinely teach courses on international law and the morals of war. A cadre of military lawyers weigh in on targeting decisions. Washington will even incur some material costs in pursuit of ethical goals. For example, in 1969, President Richard Nixon sought to boost the administration’s image at home and abroad by destroying US stockpiles of biological weapons—even though American generals wanted to keep them. This effort led to the Biological Weapons Convention in 1975, which banned the development, stockpiling, or use of biological weapons around the world. (The Soviet Union signed the convention and then secretly built the world’s most advanced biowarfare program, with an industrial-scale production of pathogens responsible for smallpox, plague, anthrax, and other diseases.)
Moral force also breathed life into the chemical weapons taboo, as grassroots activists, the scientific community, and members of Congress pushed for a US ban, as part of a global effort against chemical weapons that stretches back to the late nineteenth century.
But American views of morality in war are often underpinned by strategic self-interest. When US officials draw the boundaries between morally acceptable and unacceptable forms of violence, they try to stake out terrain in which America will always win. The United States is an immensely powerful country with unmatched conventional forces that can destroy almost any identifiable target. Washington wants to limit “good” war to a traditional model of fighting where each army lines up on the battlefield, everyone wears uniforms, and whoever seizes territory is the victor—almost like a football match. If this is what a war looks like, America will be the undisputed champion.
And so, Washington sees weapons and tactics that are useful in battle as morally appropriate, even when they raise troubling ethical issues, for example, drone strikes, or the “mother of all bombs,” the Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb, a 21,000-pound brute that the United States dropped on Islamic State positions in Afghanistan in 2017. But weapons or tactics that deviate from the traditional battlefield, or help weaker actors to dodge American power or erode the US tactical edge, are often deemed to be beyond the pale—like weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, insurgency, and assassinations.
America’s opposition to chemical weapons is driven by interests as much as values. The United States isn’t giving up much by forswearing the use of them. America’s conventional weapons can achieve almost any military mission. In extremis, the United States also has thousands of nuclear weapons, and Washington explicitly reserves the right to respond to an enemy’s chemical weapons attack with nuclear retaliation.
If chemical weapons became normalized in war, it would only complicate life for the US military, which would need to shield American troops with cumbersome protective gear. Meanwhile, the strategic benefit would mostly fall to weaker actors like terrorists and rogue states who use chemical weapons for shock value.
It’s striking that US officials backtrack on the chemical weapons taboo when these weapons turn out to be helpful. During the Vietnam War, for example, the United States employed tear gas and herbicides like Agent Orange, and claimed they weren’t covered by existing prohibitions on chemical agents because they were supposedly harmless to people—even though Agent Orange had a major health impact on the Vietnamese population and US soldiers. Looking ahead, if the United States invented a new and useful chemical capability, US officials might suddenly change their tune about the ethics of these weapons, and argue that there are “good” chemical weapons versus “bad” chemical weapons.
Another clue that interests undergird the chemical weapons taboo is that Washington castigates enemies for using chemical weapons—while giving a pass to friendly states. During the Iran-Iraq War, for example, the United States saw Iraq as a bulwark against the dangerous “Mad Mullahs” in Tehran. When Saddam Hussein gassed Iraqi Kurds in Halabja in 1988, Washington cast a blind eye. It was years later, when Saddam became a US adversary, that Washington described the Iraqi dictator’s use of chemical weapons as the epitome of evil.
Indeed, America’s pious language about chemical weapons might cause observers to roll their eyes. Trump condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria against a “child of God”—but this was the same child of God that Trump banned from entering the United States as a refugee.
How does the United States view cluster bombs? At first glance, they seem to check many of the same boxes as chemical weapons. They can indiscriminately kill civilians, including children playing with unexploded ordnance. They’ve been banned by the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which was signed by over 100 countries, including US allies like Britain, France, and Germany. In 2021, the United Nations General Assembly voted to promote the convention by 146 votes to one, with thirty-seven abstentions (Russia was the lone dissenter).
This time, however, the American response to a controversial weapon was very different. Washington refused to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and then agreed to deliver these weapons to Ukraine. The main reason for the diverging attitude is that, unlike chemical weapons, the United States sees cluster bombs as strategically valuable. US officials maintain that America’s “national security interests cannot be fully ensured consistent with the terms” of the Convention. In 2023, Ukraine’s counter-offensive stalled in the face of Russian mines and other defenses. Cluster bombs are effective against entrenched troops. Kyiv also faces a shortage of artillery shells, and the United States has plenty of cluster ammunition. Interests trump morals.
The tale of Biden’s bombs might imply that American moral posturing is straight out of Machiavelli’s playbook in The Prince—where Washington sees international conventions are mere pieces of paper to be followed or ignored as it suits US interests.
But there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the United States protecting its security. Russia and Ukraine never signed the cluster bomb convention. Neither did Russia’s close neighbors like Finland, Estonia, and Poland, who are democracies and NATO allies, and see cluster weapons as vital to defend against Russia. South Korea also declined to sign the convention, saying that it shares the humanitarian concerns about cluster weapons but cannot ban them, “owing to the security situation on the Korean peninsula.”
It would be wrong to succumb to cynicism about American motives. As with many countries, US policymaking is a dance between interests and ethics. Washington worried about being out of step with global norms on cluster weapons, and after 2008, created special rules for their use—requiring approval by a high-ranking official before any employment of cluster weapons with a greater than one percent dud-rate. Since 2003, the United States has only used cluster weapons once, in Yemen in 2009. Biden described the decision to provide cluster bombs to Ukraine as “a very difficult decision.” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that Kyiv had offered assurance that it will use the weapons responsibly, and implied the provision of these arms might be a stopgap move until enough non-cluster munitions become available.
Indeed, both of Biden’s bomb decisions are arguably defensible. Sending cluster bombs to Ukraine is a limited moral breach in a scenario of extraordinary need where Ukraine is fighting to defend itself from imperial conquest. Any death is a tragedy, but cluster bombs are probably responsible for much less than one percent of deaths in war. According to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, cluster munition remnants killed fifty-nine people around the world in 2021 (with 23,000 total deaths and injuries from these weapons since the 1960s). The UN reported 11,000 civilian deaths in war in 2021 (likely understating the real figure). One study estimated over 5.4 million deaths in war from 1955–2002 in just thirteen countries.
Ultimately, the best judges of the moral and strategic calculus are the Ukrainians themselves. This is not a case where the United States endangers foreign civilians to help US interests, like drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Instead, Kyiv understands the risk to its own civilians from cluster bombs and considers this risk to be worthwhile.
Biden is also right to back the global prohibition on chemical weapons. Working to eliminate chemical weapons through peaceful negotiations has little downside and could be a model for other disarmament efforts. The norm against chemical weapons is valuable even if it’s also convenient for Washington. If a mixture of self-interest, ethics, and a psychological disgust with poison galvanizes a global coalition to act—well, it’s better than nothing.
But we should be under no illusions that prohibiting chemical weapons (or cluster bombs) will transform the prospects for civilians in war. The dance of ethics and interests can lead to missteps. For one thing, advancing an ethical frame for war, even if genuine, can actually make war more likely. In his book Humane,Samuel Moyn described how, after the Vietnam War, the US military pushed a vision of lawful war that served to sanitize military operations and allow them to be prosecuted indefinitely. Ethics can smooth the operation of the forever war machine.
Furthermore, the global community is too focused on stopping particular means of harming civilians and soldiers, and not focused enough on curtailing the amount of injury. People often see chemical weapons as uniquely awful, but the real weapons of mass destruction in modern war are guns and artillery. In Syria, chemical weapons have killed around 2,000 civilians, whereas conventional weapons have killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. It’s like trying to reduce the murder rate by stepping up the punishment for strangulation—we’re ignoring the real problem.
Trying to humanize war by banning marginal weapons is worthwhile, but it may do more to help America on the battlefield than to protect civilian lives.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.