The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is an inconspicuous little body established to help verify implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Although not part of the United Nations, it functions much as U.N. specialized agencies do, right down to its system of assessed contributions, under which the United States annually pays the largest budget share. The OPCW has 190 members now that Syria has graced it with its presence, almost the same as the U.N. itself.
Being nearly identical to U.N. agencies lies right at the heart of why the OPCW appealed to the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee. Over the years, the Peace Prize has gone to the International Atomic Energy Agency and its director general (2005), the United Nations and its secretary general (2001), U.N. peacekeeping forces (1988), the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (1981), and the International Labor Organization (1969), among others. Some of these awards were well deserved, some were intended as slaps at the United States, and some were merely fatuous. Jay Nordlinger’s lucid study, Peace, They Say, definitively examines Peace Prize foibles, including the quirky tilt toward international bodies.
The Norwegian politicians composing the Peace Prize committee are fascinated by international organizations, believing in a stolid, burgherish way that having more global bureaucracies enhances the prospects for peace. This depressing and completely erroneous vision does not comprehend the defects of multilateral organizations, or why those defects are inherent in their creation and structure. When they go awry, their actions do not constitute a “problem” to be solved, or a temporary aberration, or a bad day at the office, but merely the natural outcome.
Their principal dysfunction resides in the very DNA of the OPCW and U.N. bodies, which see member states as fungible, one being pretty much like another. Article 2 of the U.N. Charter embodies this notion: “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.” And while, abstractly, “sovereign equality” may sound unexceptional, it amounts in practice to moral equivalency for rogue states and substantial voting majorities against most American positions. Fixing the problem would require very different kinds of organization — non-bureaucratic, non-parliamentary, and much less structured.
This alternative paradigm exists in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), established under George W. Bush to prevent illicit trafficking in weapons of mass destruction, now with over a hundred adherents. The PSI and the OPCW are two entirely different animals, and the PSI is never likely to win a Nobel. (Of course, most PSI-style activities are classified, which, with luck, means they rarely become public.)
Not that media coverage reveals it, but the OPCW actually has a minimal role in implementing the CWC. National governments are responsible for declaring the extent of their chemical-weapons programs and then destroying them consistently with the CWC. The OPCW monitors and purportedly verifies this work, but as an observer, not an actor.
Even as an observer, the OPCW has been far from successful. Russia has violated the CWC from the outset: filing an incomplete, inaccurate baseline declaration; developing new generations of chemical weapons; and assisting rogue states such as Syria and Iran in establishing their own programs. Both Moscow and Washington are behind schedule in destroying their chemical-weapons stockpiles, demonstrating both the complexity and the danger of handling these deadly substances and, in Russia’s case, studied obstructionism.
Components of chemical (and biological) weapons have an almost inherently dual-use character, making them easy to camouflage. None of this bodes well for OPCW success in Syria, a Russian (and Iranian) client state. It exemplifies the inherent implausibility of an OPCW Nobel Peace Prize even under the loosest “aspirational” criteria, i.e., those used to justify Barack Obama’s 2009 award. (By contrast, key elements of nuclear-weapons programs have no dual-use applications; if uncovered, they are very difficult to explain, as Iran and North Korea repeatedly demonstrate.)