What Americans (Really) Believe About Chemical Weapons

The US Marines during a training exercise through a chemically gassed area. Photo courtesy of the Marines.

By Joshua A. Schwartz, Jonathan A. Chu, and Christopher W. Blair

The norm against the use of chemical weapons has not had a good decade. The Syrian government has repeatedly used chemical weapons against its own people, and the Russian government has used deadly nerve agents to poison political opponents around the world. But at least the norm is strong in democracies like the United States—right? On the surface, it does appear to be strong. For example, the US Army recently announced that it has almost completed destruction of the United States’ chemical weapons stockpile ahead of a September 2023 deadline set by the Chemical Weapons Convention. But public actions like these may mask waning private commitment to the non-use norm.

One of the primary ways to measure the strength of norms among the general public­––like norms in support of democracy––is to directly ask people about their attitudes in surveys or polls. The problem with this approach is that sometimes people conceal their true beliefs when asked directly. People are particularly likely to hide opinions that might be embarrassing or unpopular. For instance, sexist and racist Americans often lie about their beliefs on direct-question surveys.

In a new peer-reviewed study, we show that a significant proportion of the American public also hides their private support for chemical weapons use. Specifically, we demonstrate that about 15 percent of the US public is privately willing to use chemical weapons in war but will conceal their true beliefs when asked directly in a conventional survey question. About 10 percent publicly support the use of chemical weapons. Therefore, in total, about a quarter of the US public either privately or publicly supports using chemical weapons in war. We uncovered these hidden preferences using a list experiment, a polling technique designed to ethically elicit truthful responses about sensitive topics.

Although a strong majority of Americans currently reject the use of chemical weapons, which is heartening, this majority could erode in response to a security shock like 9/11, which might increase the military utility of chemical weapons use. Moreover, while our studies asked about general support for using chemical weapons in war, approval might be even higher if proposed against specific people that some Americans perceive as out-groups, like Muslims or non-white people.

Public support for norms matters. Research shows that mass attitudes can impact government policy and serve as a stopgap—preventing counter-normative actions from leading to broader norm erosion.

Even though people who conceal their true beliefs are undetectable in the kinds of traditional, direct-question polls that political decision-makers tend to care about, they can still impact public policy. For example, secret ballots allow people to anonymously express their preferences in elections. Sexist Americans may vote against female candidates, and supporters of torture might vote for pro-torture candidates. Consequently, the surprisingly high percentage of Americans who support chemical warfare could back a future US president who advocates for using chemical weapons.

And norms can change. This process by which a norm dies often occurs in the wake of security shocks. Just as 9/11 motivated the Bush administration to erode the anti-torture norm, a future security shock could prompt the US to violate its commitments under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Insincere norm-holding is not just restricted to members of the public: it also applies to political leaders. For example, even though Syrian President Bashar al-Assad authorized the use of chemical weapons against his own people and thus privately opposes the norm against the use of chemical weapons, he has publicly supported the norm. In one interview, Assad claimed, “Even if we have [chemical weapons], we wouldn’t use them… We wouldn’t have the will, because morally this is not acceptable.” In another, he said, “[The use of chemical weapons] is despicable. It is a crime.”

Claiming fidelity to widely held norms, even in the wake of clear violations, can provide tangible benefits to leaders. Despite strong evidence that the Russian government attempted to poison Alexei Navalny, a political opponent of Vladimir Putin, Russian leaders denied the attack took place and Putin explicitly supported the norm against the use of chemical weapons in public. As a result, half of Russians are skeptical that Navalny was actually poisoned.

Although insincere norm-holding can erode the robustness of norms, it is still preferable to not agree with the norm at all, both privately and publicly. This dynamic was on display in World War I, where over ninety thousand people were killed and one million were injured by the use of poison gas. Germany was the first to use lethal chemical weapons on a large scale during the war. Instead of denying chemical weapons use, they readily admitted to it and actually argued poison gas was more humane than other types of weapons. The fact that many people who privately support the use of chemical weapons today feel the need to publicly oppose these weapons suggests that the norm is (thankfully) stronger than it was during World War I.

Nonetheless, the fact that 25 percent of Americans support using chemical weapons in war means the norm is less entrenched than previously thought. While recent efforts to uphold and strengthen the chemical weapons norm have mostly focused on countries like Syria and Russia, activists and policymakers should also devote resources to strengthening this norm in the United States. Furthermore, when measuring the strength of other norms, the limitations of traditional, direct-question polling should be taken into account. This is especially the case in an era when norms surrounding democracy, nuclear weapons, and landmines are being challenged around the world. People’s tendency to conceal unpopular beliefs means that seemingly strong norms may actually be quite brittle under the surface. 

Joshua A. Schwartz is a Grand Strategy, Security, and Statecraft fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in the Harvard Kennedy School and a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. You can find him on Twitter @JoshuaASchwartz. Jonathan A. Chu is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs and Presidential Young Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. You can find him on Twitter @whoisjonchu. Christopher W. Blair is an incoming Assistant Professor of Politics at Princeton University and a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. You can find him on Twitter @Chris_W_Blair.

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