New Technologies and Norms of War | 2020 | Events

New Technologies and Norms of War: Submarines and Poison Gas in World War I
Jennifer Erickson
Jennifer Erickson
Associate Professor, Boston College
February 26, 2020
E40-496, Lucian Pye Conference Room


New defense technologies often challenge existing international laws and norms, raising complex questions about whether new weapons should normalized or banned. This paper examines how great powers have sought to manage the adoption of new weapons. It compares the introduction of submarines and poison gas to battle in World War I and the consequences for postwar regulations. In both cases, the new weapons were condemned as barbaric and inhumane, even as belligerents sought to manipulate existing rules of war to justify or condemn their use. Yet, after the war, only attempts to ban poison gas succeeded, while the submarine has become an accepted defense technology. What explains this variation? I argue that differences in weapons use and rhetoric during World War I had long-term and unexpected consequences for norm creation. Wartime rhetorical strategies and sustained postwar domestic campaigning about poison gas, in particular, inadvertently raised and prolonged public fears that were not sustained in the case of submarines. The paper also suggests lessons for current policy debates, as well as insights into the political processes behind the development of norms of war.


Jennifer L. Erickson is an Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Boston College. Her research deals with new weapons and the creation of laws and norms of war; sanctions and arms embargoes; and the conventional arms trade. Her book, Dangerous Trade: Conventional Arms Exports, Human Rights, and International Reputation, explains states’ commitment to and compliance with arms export criteria articulated in the UN Arms Trade Treaty and related multilateral initiatives. She has previously been a Nuclear Security Faculty Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University; a faculty affiliate at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University; a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College; and a research fellow at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik and the Wissenchaftszentrum in Berlin. She received her Ph.D. in Government from Cornell University.