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WHY DISARMAMENT CONFERENCES FAIL
There are many reasons for the failure of disarmament and arms control conferences and negotiations. The causes of the seemingly unstoppable arms race - like the causes of its almost inevitable outcome, war - are many and inter-related. Some of the difficulties have been known for a long time, while others are more recent or have become more prominent.
An important factor is the context in which disarmament negotiations take place - negotiations involve a number of countries and for the last 100 years such multilateral negotiations, leading to the simultaneous and balanced reduction of military forces of all participants, have been the preferred approach.
Of course, not all disarmament decisions are like this. The parliaments of Sweden and Canada, for example, decided unilaterally not to produce or acquire nuclear weapons, and some countries are relatively strict in applying arms export policies, again on a unilateral basis.
Multilateral disarmament is, in a sense, the ideal approach: nations arm because they are insecure and want to protect their independence and sovereignty (among other reasons). If all agree to limit armaments, the security of all might be maintained at lower cost. But if just one state does not participate in negotiations then others may be unwilling to proceed, believing that partial disarmament will jeopardize their security.
There are parallels with modern attitudes in the 19th century. A leading advocate of peace and disarmament, Elihu Burritt, argued in 1861 for the 'simultaneous and proportionate disarmament of nations'. Exactly 100 years later the Soviet-American McCloy-Zorin Agreement on Principles for Disarmament stated that 'All measures of general and complete disarmament should be balanced so that at no stage. . . could any state or group of states gain military advantage, and that security is ensured equally for all'.
The concepts of mutuality, reciprocity, simultaneity, balance and proportionality occur again and again, and may be one explanation for the lack of success in disarmament negotiations.
The negotiations for Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR) in Europe, for example, which involved 19 NATO and WTO countries accepted in principle the limiting of the size of ground forces to 700,000 for each side, but could not reach agreement on the present size of WTO troops! When such a relatively simple agreement cannot be obtained, reaching agreements on limiting highly sophisticated weapons, where qualitative characteristics are important, is likely to be doubly difficult. But there are also more fundamental problems.
Technological progress can seriously hamper arms control and disarmament: often at the same time that negotiators are trying to control existing weapons, more advanced versions and completely new ones are being developed and even prepared for deployment. Any arms control agenda is thus out of date by the time it is drawn up - one step forward and two steps back!
No approach, however, will succeed unless the political will for success is present. Far from restraining technological momentum, arms control talks often have the opposite effect, with states being unwilling to go 'naked into the conference chamber’, preferring to negotiate from a position of strength.
This kind of negotiating from strength, wanting to start discussions from a position of superiority rather than equality, hides the reality of wanting to dictate terms to the opponent and thereby leave the conference chamber still in a position of strength. This is the 'dual track' approach - talking disarmament but, at the same time, introducing new weapons with the aim of making the negotiations more successful.
The peculiar logic of the traditional dictum 'if you want peace, prepare for war', has thus been transferred to the arms control arena - 'if you want disarmament, build up your armaments' - and may well help to explain the failure to achieve peace and disarmament.
A closer look at the causes of the arms race suggests that the armaments industry in its widest sense has a crucial role, the convenient shorthand of the 'military-industrial complex’, first used by President Eisenhower in his farewell address forty-five years ago, being appropriate.
Whilst recognizing 'the imperative need' for the development which had led to 'this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry', he drew attention to its grave implications:
'In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.'
Eisenhower went on to warn of a subtler and perhaps more fundamental alteration which had occurred in American society - 'Akin to, and largely responsible, for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades'. He spoke of the 'danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite'.
A similar view was persuasively argued by Lord Solly Zuckerman, Chief Scientific Adviser to the British Government and head of the Government's Scientific Civil Service in the 1960s. The scientists, technologists and engineers, in stimulating change and promoting new techniques, have not simply been acting as the servants of politicians and military chiefs, the main argument runs, but
‘. . were themselves the ones who initiated the new developments, who created the new demands. . . . They were the ones who, at base, were determining the social, economic and political future of the world’.
Hence: The nuclear world, with all its hazards, is the scientists' creation; it is certainly not a world that came about in response to any external demand. . . . So is the world of missiles. So is the unending arms race by which we are all now threatened.'
This phenomenon - 'the unplanned and unrestrained technological exploitation of new scientific knowledge’ - was the root of the problem. In the field of armaments and defence policy, the relationship between the politician, the military adviser and the scientist traditionally thought of as forming a hierarchy in that order in the decision-making process - has been turned upside down. Zuckerman argues that 'military, chiefs, who by convention are the official advisers on national security, merely serve as a channel through which the men in the laboratories transmit their views'. And he goes on to say that it is he, the technician, and not the commander in the field, let alone the minister, who starts the process of formulating the so-called military need.
As a result,
. . . the men in the nuclear weapons laboratories of both sides have succeeded in creating a world with an irrational foundation, on which a new set of political realities has in turn had to be built. They have become the alchemists of our times.
Focusing attention on the technological impetus of the arms race brings out its self-generated momentum. It is, in part, a race to keep up with and put into practice the technical developments and breakthroughs achieved in one's own laboratories and weapons research establishments; it is a race to turn the possible into the actual. The arms race contributes to and exacerbates international political tensions which themselves generated the arms race in the first place.
The armaments policies of a state are determined, in the first place, by those of other states, particularly those it regards as its greatest rivals, but stimulated by the internal factors mentioned above. Each fuels the other. In a world of independent states, where no international or supranational authority exists to settle peacefully situations of conflict and, if need be, forcefully implement any decisions made, all states rely on their own military force to safeguard their security and survival. As long as this international disorder persists, individual states will maintain and strengthen their capacity to survive and compete in this 'anarchic' world society. Mutual suspicion and hostility are endemic in this society; tensions may rise, conflicts resulting in war may become inevitable.
To prevent this from happening and to ensure that if such an eventuality occurs the country will be victorious, its armed might is of paramount importance. In such a system total disarmament is a distant dream. 'The problem of disarmament,’ said Salvador de Madariaga, a disarmament expert, ‘is not the problem of disarmament. It really is the problem of the organization of the world community.’
Advocating disarmament and, more modestly, genuine and effective arms control, need not imply an ignorance, or denial of these ultimate realities.
Given the massive overkill capacities and the many trends leading us to war, we have to propose solutions which do not require an immediate and effective reordering of the world political system, although movement towards the solutions may also be a step towards approaching the wider issues.
Unilateral initiatives should now be considered as complementary to, if not instead of, multilateral negotiations as a way of contributing to breaking the deadlock which has characterized the latter.
The defence and security debate must also be expanded from its narrow traditional confines. There is much more to defence than weapons and brute force; indeed the nuclear age has brought us to the stage where they are no longer compatible.
Despite all the above, to believe that the failure of disarmament and arms control so far is only to be expected, and that the future will not be much different, is a counsel of despair which is neither morally nor intellectually justifiable.