Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2008

The emperor has some clothes on: fairy tales, scary tales and Weapons of Mass Destruction

July 2003

Finnish Institute for International Affairs


The debate on the invasion of Iraq revolved around so-called “Weapons of Mass Destruction” (WMD). Thousands of lives were lost, hundreds of billions of dollars spent, alliances fractured, and international relations thrown into turmoil. The debates raged over whether WMD were there or not; whether the UN inspectors should have more time to find them or not; whether Iraq having or seeking WMD justified invasion or not, amongst other issues. There were a myriad of differing positions on the value of the war, but the idea that WMD are a distinct and special class of weapons has remained essentially uncontested.

It was the innocence, and perhaps ignorance, of a child that saw through the emperor’s new clothes. In the case of WMD it is the reverse – only when we have a basic understanding of what these weapons are, how they work and what they can do, can we start to assess the value of the term “WMD”, and – I will argue – see the fundamental problems it causes for policymakers, and for electorates of democratic countries in knowing how to react to those policies. This paper also suggests that the classification “WMD”, as it is now used, has allowed the development, deployment and usage of terrible weapons that are deemed for arbitrary reasons not to be WMD.

The technologies behind many of the weapon-systems that have become known as WMD may be complex, but the principles are not. They can be explained to nonspecialists, as this paper aims to do. Once this is done, the ramifications of conflating what will be shown to be very different weapons under one title become clearer.