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Types of disarmament

The negotiating process

Direction and phasing


Enforcement and protection

Research and policy


From the time that men first organized them-selves into exclusive social groupings, they have relied upon the threat or use of physical violence as a major means of influencing the behavior of neighboring groups. As the size of the group controlling the tools of violence increased, so did the destructiveness of these tools; thus, by the mid-twentieth century, that group was the national state, and its tools included nuclear warheads, intercontinental missiles, and biochemical weapons. However, the acquisition and maintenance of national armaments is never a wholly attractive enterprise, and some incentives for the absence, reduction, or elimination of such capabilities always exist. Since the considerations affecting decisions to arm and disarm are highly interdependent, it might be useful to examine them in sequence at the outset.

Incentives to arm. First, the traditions of the international community make it clear that armed forces are the most tangible evidence of a nation’s independence and sovereignty. Second, armed forces at the disposal of the governing elites can be, and often are, used to impose and maintain domestic order. Third, their establishment provides jobs (and training) for otherwise underemployed people and legitimate economic activity for the nation’s industry and technology (Benoit & Boulding 1963).

In addition to these symbolic and domestic considerations, political elites may arm their nations in order to secure and enhance the nation’s position in the still ungoverned international community. Legal norms, moral restraints, and political institutions at the international level may all impinge on such efforts, but a nation’s power remains the most effective basis for pursuing its self-defined interests. And though there is increasing evidence that other components are beginning to replace military capability in a nation’s power equation, arms are still the primary component. Thus, national leaders will seek to develop and maintain military capability not only in order to use it but to threaten to use it. The actual employment of such capability could be for the purpose of weakening or destroying another nation, or of defending or counterattacking if such action were undertaken in the first place. More often, however, military capability exists in order to be brandished or alluded to in the normal processes of diplomatic confrontation and bargaining; the objective is to back up demands and requests or to resist those made by others. Finally, armed forces may be used or kept in readiness for such disparate purposes as carrying out enforcement obligations under international organizations, such as the League of Nations or the United Nations, or for occupying the territory of a defeated nation.

Incentives to disarm. Normally, there is a sharp discrepancy between the number of weapons and men that nations retain in peacetime and the numbers deployed in wartime. Since the diplomatic and military effectiveness of a country’s armed forces is a function of the size and quality of one’s allies and one’s adversaries, there is little incentive for a nation that supports the status quo to arm up to full capacity unless the potential adversaries are doing so or are expected to do so. This tendency toward modest levels of military preparedness is reinforced by two essentially domestic considerations. First, voluntary enlistments in most societies are relatively low, and conscription is usually unpopular in peacetime. Second, the designing, testing, building, and maintaining of military hardware are quite costly, and unless it is acquired from outside, under a military aid program, the money must be raised by some form of public or corporate taxation. Lower taxes are always preferable to the public, and if taxation is relatively high, the general preference is for its application to services of a more socially useful nature. Finally, in many societies there is a deep suspicion of, and hostility to, the military establishment on ideological grounds.

Given this combination of incentives and disincentives, it becomes clear that the size and quality of a nation’s armed force represent a compromise between the two sets of pressures. Only within the context of these two types of pressure can a nation’s tendency to arm or disarm be under-stood. Even in periods of extreme diplomatic tranquillity, there will be serious pressures toward an increase in capability even in nations having no aggressive designs; likewise, pressures for arms reduction often exist even in nations at, or over, the brink of war. It is in response to these contrasting external and internal forces that nations get caught up in both armament and disarmament “races.”

Arms races. The cost and danger of an arms race, or the actual consequences of one, usually produce the incentives for disarmament. If we bear in mind the contrasting economic, political, and military considerations at work, it becomes evident that an arms race is a highly reciprocal social process, involving interaction not only between the governments of the nations involved but also conflicting factions within and across the national boundaries. In the absence of effective international government, nations have no real source of security other than their own power. In seeking to maximize such power vis-à-vis others that might threaten their security, nations compete with one another for prestige, markets, raw materials, water-ways, territory, allies, and spheres of influence. The pursuit of such goals by one nation is often detrimental to the interests of another, which can resist by using various diplomatic, economic, and psychological techniques. Most often, these clashes of interest are temporarily resolved by tacit or negotiated compromise, but occasionally both parties commit themselves to goals that are clearly incompatible and not susceptible to such settlement. The goal seems important enough to one to justify an abnormal allocation of its resources to military capabilities, and thwarting that effort seems equally important to the other. At this point, the normal level of internation competition is exceeded, and one or both parties try to improve their bargaining position by seeking temporary allies, by increasing their individual capabilities, or by some combination of the two. Once either party does this, the other must either make serious concessions or try to counteract by increasing its own bargaining power. As each invests further in its own strength, its decision makers feel justified in increasing their demands, making the cost of capitulation that much higher for the other. If that cost then seems prohibitive, its decision makers must improve their capacity to resist or to win.

Whether increases in power are sought in arms or in allies, the domestic sector must be increasingly mobilized. In order to produce the manpower, money, and material for such bargaining, the population must be persuaded that its vital interests or its very survival are at stake. Gradually, this propaganda program succeeds in associating compromise with treason and conciliation with capitulation.

Thus, even while there is still time to turn back, the policy makers seldom can afford to do so; the public—or at least the political opposition—would raise the cry of treason. At this point, the process is largely out of the hands of those who initiated the arms race in the first place, and serious diplomatic bargaining becomes increasingly difficult. While the conflict may terminate in a gradual deceleration of weapons procurement, eventual public disenchantment, the appearance of new and more pressing conflicts, or negotiated settlement, the odds increasingly favor war as the likely outcome.

The above is a highly simplified and abstract treatment of what seems to have been the pattern of arms races over the past two centuries or so. Unfortunately, no scholar has yet attempted a comprehensive and comparative study of arms races in the modern international system. But some useful studies do exist and could provide a solid basis from which to proceed. A Study of War (Wright 1942, appendix 22) provides data for the major powers from 1820 to 1937, and “A Mathematical Study of the Present Arms Race” (Smoker 1963) covers the 1949–1960 period. A less quantitative but more theoretical effort is “Arms Races: Prerequisites and Results” (Huntington 1958), which offers a penetrating verbal analysis from the Franco-British naval race of 1840–1846 to the post-World War ii race between the United States and the Soviet Union. In Arms and Insecurity (Richardson 1960) we find the nearest approximation to a comparative, quantitative analysis, but it covers only the races preceding both world wars [seeRichardson]. Finally, there are studies of individual arms races (Hirst 1937; Sloutzki 1941). Thus the interpretation offered here must be recognized as tentative and prescientific, resting as it largely does on incomplete data, anecdotal recollection, and theoretical deduction.

Types of disarmament

No formal definition of disarmament has been offered here since the phenomenon may take many forms. In the light of historical experience as well as logical possibilities, it is useful to classify the types of disarmament along two particular dimensions. One such dimension is the degree of arms reduction, and the other may be called the reciprocity dimension. The first refers to the quantitative and qualitative extent of a nation’s military reductions, the second to the extent to which its reductions are matched, or in some fashion reciprocated, by other nations.

Degree of arms reduction

The “degree of dis-armament” continuum is not, in fact, limited to disarmament measures in the literal sense. In accord with diplomatic custom and scholarly usage, we include arms control as well as a number of intermediate restraints that fall well short of reduction.

Total disarmament. At the upper end of the continuum is total or complete disarmament, involving the elimination of all military capability beyond that defined as necessary for the maintenance of domestic order. That minimal level may include local and national police, border guards, or perhaps even a modest paramilitary force for antiriot types of duty, depending on the treaty provisions, the requirements imposed by other nations, or the unilateral decision of the disarming nation itself. Complete disarmament has been proposed frequently (most recently in the partially compatible Soviet and American draft treaties on general and complete disarmament of March 22 and April 18, 1962, respectively) but it has never been achieved by formal negotiations among the major powers. It has, however, been imposed on defeated nations by victorious ones at the close of war, but seldom with lasting effect. As commitments shift according to the vagaries of international alignments, the victors either acquiesce in gradual rearmament, as after World War i, or even encourage it, as did the United States and the Soviet Union soon after World War ii.

Arms control. At the opposite and lowest end of the degree continuum are arms control measures. These are provisions that may not call for reduction or prohibition of any weapons, yet have the effect of inhibiting a nation’s full development of a given weapon category. Arms control measures do not directly prohibit the production or possession of that weapon type but rather seek to work indirectly by limitations or prohibitions on the testing, deployment, or use of it. Leaving out the last (once weapons are made and deployed, any commitment not to use them is unlikely to survive even the mildest temptation after hostilities begin), we note that limits or prohibitions on testing may well prevent, retard, or diminish the quality of the weapon’s production. Or, for a variety of political, military, or technological reasons, it may be desirable to permit production (and thereafter possession) but to restrict or ban their deployment within a given geographical region. One of the rare successes in negotiating a reciprocal ban on testing was the August 5, 1963, Treaty of Moscow, which prohibited the signatories from experimental detonations of nuclear weapons in outer space, in the atmosphere, or under water. Although a number of demilitarized frontiers have been arranged in the past, today’s major powers have been unable to negotiate any regional deployment prohibitions.

Arms control also may be applied to certain less obvious measures having no effect at all on the quantity or quality of a nation’s armed forces. Normally, they deal with information about military capability rather than the capability itself and generally require more information than is available through normal military intelligence channels. In the past, much emphasis of this sort was on publishing military budgets, war college curricula, manning and organization tables, results of weapon experiments, inventories, and war plans; often observers were invited to attend maneuvers or to verify published information. As the advance of military technology enhanced the offense at the expense of the defense, however, surprise attack became an increasingly serious concern for the defenders of the status quo. As a consequence, much of the information exchanged (or proposed for exchange) in earlier days has become a potential aid to the aggressor; the types of information exchange proposed in the post-1945 era are intended to redress that imbalance and to aid the defender (more accurately, the retaliator, since effective strategic defense has become nearly impossible). For example, it has been proposed that information regarding the location of land-based or sea-borne retaliatory weapons be kept secret and that the potential adversary commit himself not to seek out such information. In a similar vein, but tending toward more information, foreign observation posts and limited aerial inspection within a nation’s boundaries have been discussed as a means of improving the early-warning system of its neighbors.

Closely related to such techniques for reducing the advantage of the attacker are those intended for crisis control. In 1963 the Soviet Union and the United States installed a direct communication line between their two capitals, so that prompt and reliable information might be sought and transmitted during crises; the objective here was to mitigate the ever-increasing probability of accidental war because of erroneous reading of intelligence reports or radar and sonar displays. As in prior periods, the intent is to reduce the incentive to attack by reducing the fear of being attacked, and the objective remains one of preserving the relative military status quo.

A final form of arms control (liberally defined) is neutralization. In such a case, the neutralized nation or region is not necessarily prohibited from acquiring or maintaining armed forces but is prohibited from joining a military alliance. Generally, the neutralized region is either outside the sphere of influence of two potential enemy coalitions or in an area in which they overlap; hence such an arrangement usually requires formal or tacit negotiation between major powers. Although the enforcement of neutralization may be assigned to an international organization or an ad hoc multinational commission, its continuance depends on the major powers’ willingness to merely deny the region to the other rather than acquire it for themselves [seeDisengagement].

Partial disarmament. In the middle of the continuum are those measures known as partial disarmament. They may cover (a) incomplete reductions in all weapon categories or (b) complete reductions in some categories, or (c) some combination of the two. In the first case, the tendency has been to seek across-the-board cuts or limits based on a budgetary or a manpower ceiling, the idea being that adherence to such a ceiling will compel nations to keep their armaments down. Normally, the plan is to permit each nation to allocate its military resources, within the budgetary restriction, to whichever weapon types it sees fit. The monetary maximum for any given year or period may, in turn, be based on average expenditures during a prior period, on the highest expenditure during a given prior period, or on some ratios among the signatories, to preserve their relative power positions. If a mobilized manpower ceiling is contemplated, similar baselines or else a percentage of each nations’ total of male population or of males in a given age bracket, may be used. Normally, a manpower ceiling prescribes numerical and age limits not only upon active duty personnel but on reserves of different categories, and it will also set minimum periods of active duty in order to prevent the rapid training of many reserves by high turnover in a relatively small active force.

Another version of the across-the-board, but partial, measure is that based on real or hypothetical war-making units. A German periodical in 1909 proposed, for example, that each nation be allotted one unit for each 700 in its population and that 10 army men or 50 tons of ship be thought of as one unit. Thus, under this scheme the 63 million Germans would have been entitled to 90,000 units and the 45 million British to 64,300, to be allocated among ships and men as the decision makers of each country thought best.

When the second type of partial reduction—complete prohibitions in a few categories—is attempted, the prospective signatories are left free to arm fully in the nonproscribed categories; such partial provisions are also referred to as qualitative disarmament. This type may be negotiated, imposed, or unilaterally undertaken in order to (1) avoid the expenditure for more elaborate or costly weapons, (2) eliminate the more inhuman ones if war occurs, (3) make the soldier’s burden lighter in weight, (4) strengthen the defense vis-ãvis the offense in order to make aggression less attractive, or (5) compensate for the asymmetries arising out of the different geographical or technological security needs of particular nations. All of the above considerations have been explicitly noted either in formal proposals or in actual agreements. Qualitative measures might embrace the prohibition, elimination, or a ceiling upon mobile artillery, rifles above a certain caliber, bullets under a certain weight, railroads within a certain distance of a border, ships above a certain length or tonnage, ships capable of submerging, armor plates of a given thickness or hardness, aircraft capable of carrying bombs, chemical weapons, nuclear weapons on board space satellites, delivery vehicles of given range, and so forth; they may also embrace certain classes of trained personnel. The incentives may not be completely pacifistic, and the results may actually be to increase a nation’s over-all military capability, but these partial measures clearly belong under the rubric of disarmament.

Reciprocity of disarmament measures

Turning to the second dimension—reciprocity—the major question is whether a given nation disarms uni-laterally and unconditionally or receives (or expects) reciprocal behavior from one or more other nations as a condition of its own limitations or reductions. There are many possible positions on this continuum, five of which will serve to explore and define it.

Unilateral disarmament. At one end is a nation’s elimination of its armaments and demobilization of its military personnel without any quid pro quo at all. Such a unilateral move might be prompted by the decision makers’ conviction that: (1) the maintenance, threat, or use of armed force is morally wrong; (2) the domestic economy cannot afford the cost of the military establishment; (3) public opinion strongly favors such a move; (4) war is extremely unlikely in the relevant future; (5) diplomacy does not require the threat of force behind it; (6) alternative sources of influence, such as wealth, skill, or prestige, are more effective; (7) other relevant nations are, or have finished, disarming unilaterally; (8) others will probably follow this example; (9) others will not exploit a disarming or disarmed nation; (10) third parties will intervene to prevent any attempted diplomatic exploitation of the disarmed nation; (11) others will defend it in case of attack; or (12) alternative responses to invasion, such as nonviolent resistance or noncooperation, will be more effective than military resistance. Although not exhaustive, this list suggests the possible attractions of unilateral disarmament, even in a largely ungoverned world. When and if the political and military efficacy of global organization increases, such incentives would tend to be magnified.

Multilateral disarmament. At the opposite end of the reciprocity continuum would be the disarmament agreement embodied in a bilateral or multi-lateral treaty, following formal negotiations. In such a situation, every reduction undertaken by one nation is conditional upon the reductions accepted by others. The primary objective here is to assure the preservation (or, if possible, the improvement) of one’s relative military power position vis-à-vis the other signatories, both during and at the end of the disarmament process. Normally, such negotiations involve nations of approximate military parity which are already in partial conflict with one another, and although some or all of the unilateral incentives may be motivating the negotiators, the inevitable lack of trust between some of the parties creates serious domestic and international inhibitions to success. The propensity to compromise is generally low, the bargaining is hard, and the treaty (if ever concluded) tends to be full of detailed procedures, contingencies, and exceptions.

Somewhere between the pure unilateral and the pure reciprocal type of disarmament is imposed disarmament. Although usually the consequence of formal negotiation, it is negotiation between nations of extremely disparate power, however impermanent that disparity may be. And although it may be nearly unilateral in its effects, the dominant bargainer normally accepts certain limited restrictions on its own armed forces. The extreme form of imposed disarmament is the one accepted by the defeated nation following a war whose conclusion is close to unconditional surrender, such as the disarmament of the Axis powers after World War ii. In its milder version, it is a form of demilitarization that is demanded by one or more major powers and acquiesced in by minor ones.

At an intermediate point between the unilateral and the imposed forms is a semivoluntary process, undertaken on the premise that failure to do so voluntarily might require the nation to disarm later under duress. This usually occurs in minor powers which are clearly within a major power’s sphere of influence. At the other intermediate position, between the multilateral and the imposed forms, is the tacitly negotiated arrangement, in which the political realities make it mutually evident that the nations are overarmed for their security purposes. As the perceived need for armed forces diminishes, one nation may express that perception by some minor reductions, and others may respond in kind, thus setting in motion a reciprocal process of apparently voluntary disarmament. However, if one party levels off at a certain state of preparedness or reverses the process and begins to rearm the others are likely to follow suit.

The negotiating process

Of the five degrees of reciprocity outlined above, the one that is most frequently attempted, most frequently unsuccessful, and yet most relevant to the search for international stability and peace is the formally negotiated, highly reciprocal agreement; hence this article’s emphasis on it at the expense of the other forms. Before turning to certain other considerations in, and obstacles to, negotiated disarmament, let us examine the effects of the forum or setting within which these negotiations might take place. Two dimensions are most relevant here: (a) which nations participate and (b) under whose auspices?

Since reference here is not to an imposed arrangement, it is understood that at least two of the negotiating nations are powerful enough to resist dictation by one another but are not sufficiently in agreement to dictate to third parties. Consequently, the locale and composition of the negotiations is itself a subject for bargaining. The party whose position is most likely to be politically attractive to third parties or who wants to bring extra pressure to bear on the negotiating partner will tend to advocate a larger number of participants and may urge that the sessions be held at the seat of, or under the auspices of, the relevant international organization, such as the League of Nations or the United Nations. On the other hand, preference for smaller, isolated sessions may reflect either a nation’s unwillingness to bargain seriously or a conviction that the technicalities and sensitivities of disarmament require private negotiation among the major powers only. During the post-World War ii period, the Soviet Union and many of the nonaligned nations have favored the large and open conference, while the United States and its allies have tended to prefer private negotiations among a small number of major powers. As a consequence, both approaches have been used, but with equally limited success.

Despite the advantages of quiet and privacy that the smaller session affords, the larger forum is generally to be preferred. First, when the key nations are ready to parley in earnest, their representatives can easily meet in private. Second, the sharp bilateral cleavages become blurred by the involvement of third and other parties, with the key protagonists under pressure to satisfy their demands. Third, while some of these pressures will be purely nationalistic ones, many will create new incentives for compromise on the part of the major protagonists. Fourth, relations between the representative and his home government become more complicated by the injection of unexpected people, and he may be given more bargaining latitude. Finally, even if one side is more interested in propaganda than diplomacy, the other side has an opportunity for face-to-face education of those third parties who might otherwise be easily misled at a distance.

A final point in regard to the negotiation of dis-armament concerns the composition and latitude of the separate delegations. Generally speaking, if they arrive with rigid instructions and are required to clear all departures from them with the foreign office or defense ministry, the prospects for success will not be good. It is equally unsatisfactory for a negotiator to be sent under quite flexible conditions only to discover that the bargains he has struck will not be honored by his government, owing to his lack of effective support at home. In this same vein, a government can easily paralyze negotiations by sending delegates who may have considerable bargaining freedom but whose personal interests and associates are opposed to a treaty. At the first Hague conference, for example, the United States was represented by Admiral Mahan, the British by Admiral Fisher, Germany by Colonel von Schwarz-hoff, and so on; such men could not be expected to bargain away the basis of their careers and prestige, and they were quite adept at discovering and articulating technical and tactical reasons for rejecting the tsar’s proposals. It is one thing to have military experts on hand and quite another to give them a dominant role in the negotiations. More recently, the difficulty has been compounded by assigning engineers and physical scientists to the delegations (or to the groups responsible for instructing the delegations)—the careers and prestige of these men are often dependent upon the very weapon programs whose termination the delegates are allegedly trying to negotiate.

Studies of almost all conferences and negotiations have been made by historians, political scientists, and lawyers. Perhaps the two most useful general analyses of the several interwar negotiations are Madariaga (1929) and Tate (1942). Among those concentrating on the post-World War ii efforts are Bechhoefer (1961), Spanier and Nogee (1962), and Jacobson and Stein (1966). [SeeNegotiation.]

Direction and phasing

Up to this point we have made two simplifying assumptions. One is that there is no essential difference between reducing armament levels down to some specified level and permitting increases up to such a level. The fact that in one case a nation begins with more than the agreed capability and must therefore come down to it and that in the other case the nation begins with less than the ceiling and is free to go up to it must obviously have some important implications. The other simplification is that the rate at which a nation moves up or down to a given threshold in a given weapon category need not be a source of concern and that the nature of the limit or prohibition is of major, if not sole, concern. It is equally evident that phasing can be profoundly important to both the disarmament process and its outcome.

With regard to the matter of direction, experience and logic both point to the advantage of negotiating or deciding upon a ceiling or prohibition before it is breached, rather than after. First, for every weapon developed and produced, national decision makers have had to invest a certain amount of money, national prestige, and their own personal reputations. Thus, these weapons have a high symbolic as well as security value and they will not be given up without a high price. Second, the technicians who developed the weapons, the manufacturers and laborers who produce them, and the military personnel who maintain them have profited financially and psychologically in the process; they are not only interested in continuing such profits, but they are likely to have more political influence after performing these roles than they had before. Third, due to the inspection problem, there is less certainty that the potential adversary is reducing his weapons than not adding to them, creating serious risks in the security realm. Fourth, the decision makers will be uncertain how many of a given weapon type the others have and will therefore be reluctant to engage in reductions that possibly increase the others’ numerical advantage.

Conversely, negotiations are likely to be more successful when material and psychic investments are low, the antireduction lobby has not yet been created or strengthened, the military risks are lower, and the inspection requirements are minimal. To put it another way, it is less difficult not to arm than to disarm.

Closely related to the direction of arms limitation is its phasing, or the relative speed with which all or certain classes of weapons are to be limited, reduced, or eliminated. The critical nature of this problem is manifested when we recall that no two nations have precisely the same security requirements, even if neither is interested in aggression. From the first Hague conference of 1898 through the pre-World War ii negotiations, for example, Britain’s heavy reliance on sea power posed certain difficulties quite distinct from those facing France, Germany, Russia, and other land-oriented powers. Likewise, in the Soviet-American negotiations of the post-1945 period, the discrepancies in the two powers’ needs and capabilities made successful bargaining especially difficult. There is not only the hoary problem of quantitatively equating battalions and battleships, tanks and submarines, bombers and missiles, but the fact that even successful equating of them can be dangerous to one party or the other. Thus, if one side is superior in long-range strategic forces and the other in localized conventional forces because of differing location, technology, demography, and military doctrine, it may feel justified in demanding the elimination of all or most of the other’s forces before proceeding to any reduction of its own. Or one may require overseas bases more than the other, making negotiation about bases nearly impossible.

But even if these were not such complicating qualitative differences, the phasing problem would pose awkward obstacles to negotiated disarmament. On the one hand is the necessity to reduce personnel, budgetary, or weapon levels fast enough to (a) make it clear that there is a disarmament process under way; (b) escape from the instability of a heavily armed world; and (c) take advantage of and perpetuate the temporary period of mutual confidence that would probably accompany the signing and ratification of the treaty or convention. On the other hand are the fears of reducing one’s capabilities before (a) there is assurance that others are doing likewise; (b) there is evidence that the others have given up their “aggressive” designs; and (c) alternate modes of national protection have been developed. Further complicating the timing and phasing problem is the likelihood that some signatories, seeking revision of the global distribution of influence, will have developed and are prepared to use nonmilitary or other indirect techniques of waging international conflict; the nations that support the status quo may, therefore, insist on a very gradual and prolonged disarmament schedule. Finally, all parties will have some fear that whatever inspection and control agencies are created will be unduly influenced or dominated by the others.

It is probably safe to say, on the basis of the few available analyses of disarmament negotiations, that the issue of phasing has been as much a historical obstacle to success as has the question of which weapons should be reduced or limited to what levels.


Given the likelihood that disarmament negotiations will generally take place, if at all, within an atmosphere of moderate to high distrust and fear, it is reasonable to expect suspicion regarding compliance of whatever agreements might be reached. To weaken one’s major source of security without some assurance that the others are doing likewise is so unattractive a prospect that inspection is generally considered an essential adjunct of arms reduction or limitation.

Such inspection may be carried out by other signatories, by ad hoc international commissions, or by international organizations, and the objects of such inspection may be budgets, war plans, training facilities, weapon installations, factories, transport junctions, or entire regions, depending upon the activities proscribed by the agreement. Just as in the reduction schedule itself, the problem of phasing in inspection is often a major source of failure: how much inspection is necessary and safe at which stages of reduction? In order of increasing intrusiveness, inspection may focus upon (a) the destruction or dismantling process to ensure that the reduction schedule is being followed; (b) test or production facilities to inhibit or prevent the acquisition of a weapon type; or (c) present inventories (or a sample thereof) to ensure that a given ceiling has not been exceeded.

Often the negotiations reveal a marked difference in attitude toward the rate at which inspection should be introduced, and its intensiveness or extensiveness, once established. The dilemma is dramatized when we consider that a nation may refuse to consider any reductions or limitations until it knows the size and quality of the other’s inventories, while inspection for such purposes would be the most far-ranging, onerous, and costly. Yet the demand for even a modest form of pre-reduction surveillance, before any arms reduction, may well be interpreted by another nation as motivated by espionage intentions only. These basic difficulties can be mitigated if the negotiations and early reductions occur in an environment of moderate trust, permitting each side to tolerate more inspection and demand less. Or high inspection requirements can be mitigated by remote surveillance techniques, made increasingly possible by such advanced technology as intercontinental radar and orbiting camera satellites, or modern computer-based analysis of full production, inventory, and cost records.

Although the above principles of inspection may continue to hold, the rapidity of technological innovation produces constant change in both the problems encountered and the techniques available. There is already a rich literature covering inspection and its technological aspects (Melman 1958), legal aspects (Henkin 1958), and psychological aspects (Milburn et al. 1961); many anthologies deal with the interplay of politics, strategy, and technology (Brennan 1961; Frisch 1961; The American Assembly 1961; and Singer 1963). The many hearings and reports of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Disarmament, the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, and reports of the various United Nations conferences are highly informative and detailed.

Enforcement and protection

Whether a disarmament agreement provides for on-site or remote, human or machine, or adversary or international inspection, one problem always remains: how to respond to suspected or verified evasions?

At one extreme is the emphasis on unilateral abrogation, and at the other is the demand for punishment by some international or supranational agency. Neither seems feasible. In all past, present, and future processes of arms reduction or limitation, many evasions can be expected; some will be intentional, some will be accidental, and many more will merely be suspicions of an evasion. If the purpose of inspection is to generate mutual confidence, responses must be graduated and appropriate. Thus, suspected violations should produce increased inspection, not a renewed arms race or premature punishment; extreme sanctions would be relevant only as evasions become patently intentional and serious. When such a situation develops, of course, the signatories are at a critical turning point, the outcome of which will depend on the intentions and fears of the respective decision makers, the distance already traveled toward fulfillment of the agreement, and the strength of the international institutions established in conjunction with the arms arrangements.

Considerations of enforcement, of course, go to the very heart of the disarmament problem. Recalling the earlier discussion of the incentives affecting a nation’s armament policy, we note that the major source of national security has been and largely remains that of military capability relative to potential enemies. If the decision is to limit or reduce such capability, it is usually on the assumption of reciprocal measures by other nations. But even if reciprocal reductions were to carry most of the world’s nations down to complete disarmament levels without any upset by violation—and this has so far never occurred—there would still remain not only the problem of inspection and enforcement in a disarming world, but also that of conflict control and protection in a disarming and a disarmed world. Put another way, nations require supranational agencies both to help in carrying through any disarmament process and to protect them at the end of the process. Incompatibilities among nations might well be as serious and dangerous after disarmament as during it, and conflicts all along the way are inevitable. Without supranational institutions, no disarmament process of any significance is likely to be completed, and without them in a world of already disarmed nations, the rearmament process would be nearly inevitable.

If and when nations disarm, therefore, they need to arrange, in a cautious and gradual manner, both the diminution of their own capabilities and the accretion of the international organization’s capabilities. These shifts of relative capability must, of course, embrace both the military and the political realm, requiring the gradual build-up of supranational peace-keeping facilities. Implicit in such shifts is an inevitable modification, however slow and imperceptible, in the structure and the culture of the international system, and although all the specifics need not be negotiated in advance, the major powers and many of the minor ones must be quite aware of the transition they are setting in motion. Therefore, there must be agreement on the rules by which the rules will be made and modified, even though the concrete future is only dimly perceived.

There may be less radical paths to disarmament, but they are unlikely to be irreversible ones. Historically, nothing approximating global disarmament has been successfully negotiated, and the more restricted attempts have tended to be short-lived. With no alternative means of self-protection and conflict resolution, the nations have consistently returned to armament, regardless of their peaceful intentions.

Research and policy

Although much of the analysis presented here may convey an impression of certainty, such an impression would be misleading; the above discussion is based almost entirely on “trained intuition” and impression. The same must be said of almost all the writing on the subject: whether the study is by university scholars, governmental or inter-governmental agencies, journalists, or private research organizations, the results fall well short of the most modest scientific criteria. Where hard comparative evidence, gathered by visible and replicable observational procedures, is called for, we find haphazard impressions or highly selective recollections. Where an explicit and disciplined theoretical framework is called for, we find inconsistent and incompatible arguments based all too often on the immediate demands of a highly ephemeral political “reality.” Because few of those who conduct research bearing on disarmament and national security are trained in or committed to social science methods, most of the writing on the subject cannot be taken as a reliable guide to policy. In no nation of the world today (as far as can be ascertained) is any significant amount of rigorous research on the political, social, or psychological aspects of disarmament under way. As indicated above, however, some high quality work on economic obstacles to, and consequences of, disarmament, has been completed, and on the technological side some excellent research has been and continues to be undertaken. Under the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency—which in general has shown little scientific competence or political courage in the social science research it has conducted or supported—several dozen studies of high quality on inspection and verification have been completed to date.

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that most of the political and strategic problems fall in the domain of political scientists and lawyers, and neither field has a strong tradition of scientific method. And when scholars from the more rigorous social sciences (such as psychology and sociology) or from the physical sciences and engineering move into this research realm, they tend to leave their methodological norms behind, while responding more to their ethical values or the demands of role and career.

Admittedly the research problems are difficult and complex, given the lack of historical precedents and parallels to the contemporary situation, but several options are nevertheless available. One would be the systematic examination of those aspects of diplomatic and military history which are comparable to the present, and there are many such partial parallels waiting to be identified and described. Another would be the search for basic principles in governmental decision making, public opinion formation and its change, internation bargaining, etc. A third might be the systematic examination of analogous situations in such other empirical domains as intranational politics, labormanagement relations, racial conflict, small group experiments, and the like. Finally, there is the possibility of rigorous simulation of real world situations using role-playing human subjects, more formal computer simulations, or some combination of men and machines for the replication and analysis of present and projected situations. Some progress in the application of this latter strategy has been made, but the validity of such simulations is highly dependent upon inputs derived from the other three approaches, and they have not yet been provided in the quantity and quality that is necessary. [ SeeSimulation, article onPolitical processes.]

The prospects for disarmament are not promising. The combination of domestic and foreign incentives and constraints tends to inhibit political elites that might want to negotiate arms reduction agreements. National citizens, propagandized as they are by the elites, lack the information and motivation that might permit them to modify the domestic incentives of the elites. And even if these obstacles could be overcome, the policy makers themselves have so weak a research base upon which to make their political judgments that they are unlikely to make the correct decisions even if they want to. An effective combination of good will, courage, knowledge, and luck is required if the nations are to move toward meaningful disarmament, and at this writing we seem to be considerably short of achieving that combination.

J. David Singer

[See alsoDiplomacy; Peace; War. Other relevant material may be found inInternational Relations; Military.]


The American Assembly 1961 Arms Control: Issues for the Public. Edited by Louis Henkin. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Bechhoefer, Bernard G. 1961 Postwar Negotiations for Arms Controls. Washington: Brookings Institution.

Benoit, Emile; and Boulding, Kenneth E. (editors) 1963 Disarmament and the Economy. New York: Harper.

Brennan, Donald G. (editor) 1961 Arms Control, Disarmament and National Security. New York: Braziller.

Clark, Grenville; and Sohn, Louis B. (1958) 1960 World Peace Through World Law. 2d ed., rev. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Frisch, David H. (editor) 1961 Arms Reduction: Program and Issues. New York: Twentieth Century Fund.

Henkin, Louis 1958 Arms Control and Inspection in American Law. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Hirst, Francis W. 1937 Armaments: The Race and the Crisis. London: Cobden-Sanderson.

Huntington, Samuel P. 1958 Arms Races: Prerequisites and Results. Public Policy: A Yearbook of the Graduate School of Public Administration (Harvard University) 8:41–86.

Jacobson, Harold K.; and Stein, Eric 1966 Diplomats, Scientists and Politicians: The United States and the Nuclear Test Ban Negotiations. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

Madariaga, Salvador de 1929 Disarmament. New York: Coward-McCann.

Melman, Seymour (editor) 1958 Inspection for Disarmament. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Milburn, Thomas W. et al. (editors) 1961 Non-physical Inspection Techniques. Boston, Mass.: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Noel-Baker, Philip 1958 The Arms Race: A Programme for World Disarmament. London: Stevens; Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana.

Richardson, Lewis Fry 1960 Arms and Insecurity: A Mathematical Study of the Causes and Origins of War. Edited by Nicolas Rashevsky and Ernesto Trucco. Pittsburgh: Boxwood; Chicago: Quadrangle Books. → Published posthumously.

Schelling, Thomas C.; and Halperin, Morton H. 1961 Strategy and Arms Control New York: Twentieth Century Fund.

Singer, J. David 1962 Deterrence, Arms Control, and Disarmament. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press.

Singer, J. David (editor) 1963 Weapons Management in World Politics. Journal of Conflict Resolution 7, no. 3. → Also published as a special issue of the Journal of Arms Control.

Sloutzki, Nokhim M. 1941 The World Armaments Race: 1919–1939. Geneva Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1. Geneva Research Centre.

Smoker, Paul 1963 A Mathematical Study of the Present Arms Race. General Systems: Yearbook of the Society for General Systems Research 8:51–59.

Spanier, John W.; and Nogee, Joseph L. 1962 The Politics of Disarmament: A Study in Soviet–American Gamesmanship. New York: Praeger.

Tate, Merze 1942 The Disarmament Illusion: The Movement for a Limitation of Armaments to 1907. New York: Macmillan.

U.S. Department of State 1960 Documents on Disarmament, 1945–1959. Publication No. 7008. Washington: Government Printing Office.

U.S. Department of State 1961 Documents on Disarmament, 1960. Publication No. 7172. Washington: Government Printing Office.

Wright, Quincy (1942) 1965 A Study of War. 2d ed. Univ. of Chicago Press.


views updated May 29 2018





The elimination of all weapons and armed forces, typically known as disarmament, was a widespread but elusive goal in the twentieth century. It should not be confused with arms control—the limitation of the numbers and types of weapons—though the two terms are often used synonymously. Disarmament enjoyed the support of many statesmen and a number of important mass movements, but self-preservation and the logic of great-power relations repeatedly undermined its idealistic foundations and prevented serious progress. Technological development and the proliferation of ever-more-deadly varieties of weapons—especially biological, chemical, and nuclear—also meant that far more and far deadlier weapons were available worldwide at the end of the century than at its beginning. Yet despite this record of failure, there have been a few major successes, offering advocates lessons and hope for the future.

The most common argument used in favor of disarmament is that it reduces the likelihood of war. The fewer weapons states have, the logic goes, the fewer their means to attack their neighbors and the lower their chances of winning a war. Similarly, disarmament's supporters argue that without restraints on weapons and armed forces, states can easily fall into arms races, which further increase the chance of war. The classic example here is the Anglo-German naval buildup in the first decade of the century, which, by straining relations between the two countries, helped set the stage for the First World War. Particularly since the development of nuclear weapons, some advocates have taken a moral position in favor of disarmament, arguing that it is unethical for states even to possess weapons capable of killing millions and destroying entire countries.

Disarmament's opponents take issue with these positions. In their view the causes of wars run deeper than the numbers of weapons on both sides. In fact arms races are the result, not the cause, of the international tensions that can lead to war. Moreover, given that the state's primary goal is to protect its citizens, it would be foolish to disarm in the face of real threats. This logic was especially powerful in the Cold War, when nuclear deterrence provided the foundation for the period's "long peace."

Even after the Soviet Union's collapse, the debate about disarmament continued apace. Advocates expanded their focus to include small arms and other weapons less lethal but more widespread than nuclear weapons, winning a major victory with the 1997 Ottawa Treaty banning antipersonnel land mines. Controversially, the U.S. government used disarmament as one of its major arguments to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. At the beginning of the twenty-first century the debate about the wisdom of disarmament—in Iraq and beyond—rages on, and so long as states have armed forces, it will continue to do so.


The disarmament of Germany was a major feature of the Paris Peace Conference (1919–1920), which the victors convened to end the First World War. In the aftermath of the bloodiest war in history, politicians, journalists, and academics argued that the prewar Anglo-German naval arms race had been one of the chief causes of the conflict. It was therefore essential to limit or reduce the size and scope of states' armed forces in order to prevent future wars. But rather than proceeding with disarmament multilaterally, the victors decided to impose it on the defeated powers, particularly Germany.

Germany had invaded France twice in the fifty years prior to the peace conference, which meant its ability to act aggressively in future had to be reined in. The Allied politicians who led the conference—David Lloyd George of Great Britain, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Woodrow Wilson of the United States, collectively known as the "Big Three"—agreed that measures to constrain German military power were necessary but disagreed about their severity. Clemenceau took the most extreme position. Like many of his compatriots, the French premier believed that the very existence of Germany posed a serious threat to French and even European security. In his view Germany had to be dismembered. Failing that, he wanted Germany's industrial heartland, the Rhine valley, to be amputated from the rest of the country and transformed into an independent republic. Lloyd George and Wilson took a far less aggressive line. The British prime minister firmly believed that a stable, unified Germany was essential to the Continental balance of power. Imposing a Carthaginian peace on the defeated country would destabilize the Continent and potentially open the door to French domination. Wilson, uninterested in the "old diplomacy" of the balance of power, likewise sided against Clemenceau, offering the League of Nations instead as the guarantor of post-war peace.

They eventually reached a compromise. The Treaty of Versailles imposed an elaborate system of shackles on German military power in order to destroy the country's capacity to wage aggressive war. During the war the Imperial Navy had numbered more than seventy ships, but the vast majority of these had been scuttled in 1919 during their internment in Scotland. According to the treaty, Germany's postwar navy could have no more than twenty-four ships, including, at most, six battleships. Submarines, which had proven such an effective weapon against the Allies, were forbidden outright. The army, four million strong during the war, would be capped at one hundred thousand, down even from its prewar strength of seven hundred thousand. Germany could have no tanks, heavy artillery, or general staff. The Rhineland would be demilitarized and occupied by Allied troops for fifteen years. The Allies would control the Saar and its rich coalfields for the same period. Finally, in order to prevent a large segment of the population from acquiring military training, conscription was banned. These were tough measures indeed, and despite early acquiescence, Germany resisted them with increasing ferocity as time went on.


Two years later the United States convened an international conference on the military and political situation in East Asia and the Pacific. The conference opened in Washington, D.C., in late 1921, the first conference in history whose primary goals were disarmament and arms control. It was also the first international conference held in the United States, testament to the country's ascent to world-power status. Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes used the rhetoric of disarmament and peace in his invitations, but his goals were more pragmatic than idealistic. Above all, he wanted to check British and Japanese power in the Pacific, and this is exactly what he achieved.

Besides the United States, eight countries took part: Britain, Japan, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and China. Between November 1921 and February 1922 they produced three major agreements. The most important of these was the Five-Power Treaty, also known as the Naval Limitation Treaty. According to its terms, the United States, Britain, and Japan would maintain a 5:5:3 ratio in capital ship tonnage, and the French and Italian navies were each allowed an absolute maximum of 175,000 tons for their capital fleets. As a consequence, twenty-six U.S., twenty-four British, and sixteen Japanese ships (either already built or under construction) were scrapped. This was a major change for British policy, given London's long-standing faith that naval superiority was the only way to ensure the security of Britain and its empire. The formal acceptance of naval parity with the United States amounted to an acknowledgment that the British simply could not afford to compete with the Americans in any kind of naval arms race.

The same group of countries, minus Italy, also negotiated the Four-Power Treaty, further confirmation of U.S. strategic ascendancy in the Pacific. They agreed not to expand their Pacific possessions and to consult each other in the event of any disagreement about them. This rhetoric was soothing, but it imposed no binding obligations. The agree-ment's real significance lay in the fact that it ended the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, a mutual defense pact dating from 1902. Concerned about their rivalry with the Japanese in the Pacific, the Americans had insisted on the cancellation of the pact in order to avoid a confrontation with the British should war break out with Japan. London preferred to maintain the alliance, which eased the burden of its Pacific commitments, but it feared being dragged into a U.S.-Japanese war on Tokyo's side. The British therefore bowed to U.S. demands and accepted the Four-Power Treaty, even though it offered nothing like the firm security guarantees of the old alliance.

The final agreement, which involved all of the countries present at the conference, addressed the problem of foreign possessions in China. The Nine-Power Treaty obliged its signatories to respect Chinese integrity, independence, and sovereignty and to consider the future of extraterritoriality. But like the Four-Power Treaty it required no serious action. Echoing the United States' longstanding open door policy, it also gave the countries the right to do business in China on equal terms.

With the unsurprising exception of the Chinese, everyone involved deemed the conference a success. To varying degrees, it was. More importantly, it reflected not an idealized vision of disarmament or pacifism but rather the realities of great-power politics.


The London Conference of 1930 continued the work begun in Washington. The Washington Conference had limited the construction of capital ships, but the great powers continued to compete in building midsize warships, known as cruisers. By 1930 the pressure on governments to disarm had increased substantially, not least because of the necessity of cutting spending. In these conditions cruiser competition was scarcely sustainable. British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald therefore invited the Americans, Japanese, French, and Italians to London to discuss limits on mid- and small-size warships and to review the agreements they had signed in Washington some eight years before.

The conference opened in late January 1930 and ran for three months. Negotiations were hotly contested and quickly reached an impasse. Benito Mussolini's Fascist government insisted that it would reject any proposal that did not grant it at least parity with France. France, concerned as ever about foreign attack, refused to accept parity with Italy unless a naval version of the 1925 Locarno Pact—in which Britain guaranteed France's eastern border—were signed to protect its Mediterranean coast. The British in turn dismissed any thought of undertaking new security commitments when it could not afford to maintain its preexisting ones. Besides, Britain's major interests in the Mediterranean—the Levant and Suez Canal—lay in the east, not the west. If this was not enough to sink any hope of agreement, the British and French both insisted that any new security pact would require U.S. support, something that was hardly forthcoming.

Despite the failure to include the French and Italians, the British, Americans, and Japanese managed to conclude a three-way settlement. They extended 1922's 5:5:3 ratio to cruiser, destroyer, and submarine tonnage and declared a five-year moratorium on battleship construction. In addition, the British yielded to a U.S. demand that neither country be allowed more than fifty cruisers. In practice this meant that the British fleet would be pared down to match the size of the U.S. fleet rather than requiring the Americans to build up to the British level. Washington achieved full naval parity on the cheap, and the British made progress toward financial solvency, even if at the cost of security.


Disarmament was one of the chief objectives of the League of Nations, which the Treaty of Versailles had established in 1919. Article 8 of the League's Covenant committed members to reducing armaments "to the lowest point consistent with national safety," but by the early 1930s none of the members had acted on this pledge. A general disarmament conference had first been proposed for 1925, but it did not actually meet until 1932 due to a lack of enthusiasm. Even after its opening in Geneva in February of that year its prospects for success were slim.

Its rationale was the same as that of the Washington and London Conferences, but its scope extended beyond strictly naval questions. Due to continued economic woes, most governments were under serious fiscal strain. In these circumstances, the prospect of curbing spending on ground, sea, and air forces was most welcome. Strategic concerns played a role too. Germany, under the increasingly unstable Weimar Republic, was determined to throw off the remaining shackles of Versailles and reestablish itself as a full and equal European state. Many in the British government sympathized with these demands, feeling that German rehabilitation was long overdue. From London's point of view a strong and stable Germany was essential as a counterweight to France. Naturally the French could not tolerate the security threat that German equality would pose and so were reluctant to agree to any limitations at all. On top of this basic conflict, disagreements about the definitions of the various kinds of armaments made progress extremely difficult. Having reached a standstill, the conference adjourned in June 1933. When it reconvened in October, Germany—led by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party—withdrew, refusing to consider any limitations on German power. The conference effectively collapsed, though officially it limped on until 1937, by which point all hope of disarmament was lost thanks to the increasing likelihood of another major war.


The arrival of atomic weapons at the end of the Second World War raised the stakes of disarmament to levels that had previously been unthinkable. Even before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the prospect of weapons able to destroy cities caused serious apprehension, including among those working to build them. The first atomic weapons were developed in the strictest secrecy through a joint U.S.-British-Canadian wartime effort known as the Manhattan Project. In 1939 Albert Einstein, a pioneer in the field of nuclear physics, urged U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish the project. Einstein feared that without a concentrated, government-directed Allied effort, the Germans might develop the bomb first. But once the bomb had been built and the war won, he worried that nuclear weapons could cause untold future damage if not properly controlled. He insisted that scientists had to make "governments aware of the unspeakable disaster they are certain to provoke unless they change their attitude towards each other and towards the task of shaping the future" (Einstein, p. 200). Atomic war was too terrible to contemplate, and governments therefore had to make every effort—especially by disarming—to avoid war. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American scientist who had headed the Manhattan Project, shared Einstein's feelings. He said that the physicists who built the bomb "have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose" (Bird and Sherwin, p. 388).

Official U.S. support for nuclear weapons remained strong despite this high-profile concern. President Harry S. Truman regarded the development of nuclear weapons and energy as the pinnacle of modern science, and the U.S. press was generally sanguine about the peacetime benefits of nuclear power. Geopolitically the bomb seemed to offer the United States an important advantage over the Soviet Union in a relationship that was growing increasingly tense. The U.S. government cast atomic weapons as one of the pillars of national security, though the U.S. public was divided over their use. The key ethical questions surrounding the construction and use of nuclear weapons first arose in the mid-to-late 1940s, and have persisted ever since. How could such a destructive weapon of war provide a basis for a durable peace? Was it moral to threaten the use of such weapons, or even to possess them? The logic of nuclear deterrence, then only slowly coming into shape, was unpalatable indeed.


The development of the Soviet atomic bomb in 1949—several years ahead of U.S. predictions—and the detonation of the first hydrogen (or thermonuclear) bombs in 1953 and 1954, by the Soviet Union and the United States respectively, only intensified the debate. These new types of weapons were hundreds of times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan. It was obvious that a U.S.-Soviet war had the potential not only to destroy both countries but to make entire continents uninhabitable. In this context, President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced his "New Look" defense strategy, the cornerstone of which was "massive retaliation." Given the costs of the Korean War and defense spending in general, he was eager to cut the military's budget and therefore proclaimed massive retaliation the basis of U.S. defense policy. Any Soviet attack on NATO, conventional or otherwise, would be met with a full-scale nuclear response. Any European war would automatically be a nuclear war.

These developments spawned considerable public outcry in Europe and, to a lesser extent, in North America. In a 1955 press conference the British philosopher Bertrand Russell issued a document known as the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, named for two of its most prominent signatories. It warned that unless statesmen took decisive action to resolve their disputes peacefully, a war waged with thermonuclear weapons was a serious possibility. Such a war would destroy whole cities and make the entire planet uninhabitable. Every person on earth, warned the manifesto, was "in imminent danger of perishing agonizingly." Its signatories urged leaders: "Remember your humanity, and forget the rest."

Three years later, a number of prominent Britons, including Russell, founded the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which institutionalized the manifesto's ideas. Its platform was simple: governments should give up their entire nuclear arsenals unilaterally. Besides Russell himself, the historians A. J. P. Taylor and E. P. Thompson, the publisher Victor Gollancz, and the politician and polemicist Michael Foot were among its original members. To promote its cause it staged massive public rallies—often in London's Trafalgar Square—that attracted crowds numbering in the thousands. At one of its first protest marches, from London to Aldermaston, the site of Britain's main nuclear weapons research and manufacturing facility, it unveiled its logo, which was popularized in the 1960s and has since become internationally known as the "peace symbol."

CND's membership grew dramatically and quickly. By the early 1960s it claimed the support of as much as a third of Britain's population. Yet after the Cuban missile crisis (1962) and the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963), and with the rise of public opposition to the Vietnam War in the mid-to-late 1960s, CND's prominence and membership waned. Protests continued, but on a much smaller scale than before. It is difficult to say whether the group had any significant impact on British policy in these early years. When the Labour Party leader Harold Wilson became prime minister in 1964, he simply ignored pressure to give up Britain's modest nuclear stockpile, even though many prominent party members were themselves supporters of CND and staunch advocates of unilateral disarmament.


The disarmament cause fell by the wayside during the late 1960s and through the 1970s, largely because protesting the Vietnam War absorbed the energy of most disarmament advocates, who typically were to the left of the political spectrum. Yet disarmament gained a new urgency in the late 1970s and early 1980s as the end of détente and worsening superpower relations raised the specter of nuclear war once again. As important as the conflict between the superpowers, however, was the clash between Western governments and large segments of their own populations over the wisdom of nuclear deterrence, the foundation of Western defense policy.

In December 1979, NATO announced the deployment of Cruise and Pershing 2 nuclear missiles to Western Europe, including Britain, West Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy. The effort was both a response to the Soviet deployment of new SS-20 nuclear missiles across Eastern Europe in 1977 and an American attempt to demonstrate a continued commitment to the defense of Western Europe. Huge protests erupted in Western Europe, reinvigorating the dormant antinuclear movement. In Britain, CND membership increased twentyfold in the early 1980s, and the Labour Party, which had accepted nuclear weapons in the 1960s, featured unilateral disarmament as a key plank in its 1983 election campaign. In West Germany more than two million people signed an antinuclear petition organized by opposition political and clerical leaders. In 1981 and 1982 hundreds of thousands gathered for protest rallies in Bonn, the federal capital. Yet neither the British nor German disarmament campaigns, as large as they were, succeeded in reversing official policy. Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives and Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats won their respective elections in 1983, cementing the British and West German commitments to NATO and the new deployments. The missiles began to arrive later that year.

Despite this defeat, unexpected support for the disarmament cause came shortly thereafter from President Ronald Reagan, a resolute hawk who had vigorously defended the NATO missile deployments. It is debatable whether Reagan advocated disarmament out of genuine personal conviction or as an attempt to assuage hostile European public opinion. In any event, after the war scare following NATO's 1983 Able Archer exercises, he formulated what became known as the "zero option."

At his 1986 Reykjavik, Iceland, summit meeting with the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan, much to the consternation of many top members of his administration, offered to withdraw all Pershing missiles from Europe if the Soviets would do the same with their SS-20s. In addition, both sides would destroy almost their entire stockpiles of nuclear weapons, keeping only one hundred each. Rather than gradual reductions, both sides would move effectively to zero right away. Gorbachev, sobered by the recent Chernobyl disaster and eager to reduce Soviet military spending, responded enthusiastically. It seemed that the most significant disarmament agreement of the twentieth century was within reach. However, Reagan refused to accept one of Gorbachev's key conditions—that the United States cancel the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), its program of ballistic missile defense research—and the deal fell through. Gorbachev nevertheless persisted, and after agreeing to negotiate on the European missiles in isolation from SDI, the two sides came to agreement. In December 1987 they signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which pledged the elimination of the Cruise, Pershing 2, and SS-20 missiles. Though it applied to only a fraction of their overall nuclear stockpiles, this was the first time that the superpowers had agreed to cut their arsenals instead of just limiting their expansion.


With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, even greater progress was made in reducing the superpowers' nuclear stockpiles. These cuts were achieved through the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties—known as START 1 and START 2—of 1991 and 1993. START 1 reflected the waning tensions of the Cold War. It stringently limited the kinds of missiles and warheads that the two sides could possess and led them to destroy large portions of their arsenals. After the USSR's dissolution, the treaty's obligations devolved to the successor states of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. With the help of U.S. disarmament specialists, all but Russia have since destroyed the Soviet weapons they inherited.

START 2 banned Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs), a technology that allowed many nuclear warheads to be placed on a single missile, each aimed at a different target. However, because the United States did not ratify it until 1996 and Russia until 2000, the treaty stagnated and failed to live up to its promise. In 2002 it was superseded by the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). Rather than eliminating MIRVs entirely, the United States and Russia agreed to reduce their total warhead stockpiles to between seventeen hundred and twenty-two hundred. Despite the significant progress that has been made since the end of the Cold War, and despite the diminished importance of nuclear deterrence, complete nuclear disarmament—as envisioned variously by CND, Ronald Reagan, and Mikhail Gorbachev—remains elusive.

Disarmament has been much debated since the attacks of 11 September 2001, particularly with reference to Iraq. After the Gulf War of 1991, the United Nations imposed strict disarmament rules on Saddam Hussein's regime. The country was forbidden from manufacturing or possessing any kind of weapons of mass destruction, whether chemical, biological, or nuclear. Teams of UN inspectors were charged with verifying Iraqi compliance. But over the course of the 1990s Hussein refused to disarm and interfered with the inspections, leading to more than a dozen Security Council resolutions restating the original requirements and calling for immediate cooperation. Nevertheless, no serious action against Iraq was taken.

The situation reached a crisis point only in 2003, following renewed U.S. demands for complete disarmament and unfettered access for UN inspectors. President George W. Bush threatened to overthrow the Iraqi government if it failed to meet them. The Bush administration cited Hussein's recalcitrance in the face of these demands as one of the main reasons for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. In the ensuing months, however, no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were found, calling into question one of the war's chief justifications.

Disarmament efforts continue to focus on weapons of mass destruction rather than on conventional weapons. Though Iraq no longer has such weapons, the problem of disarmament remains acute. At the top of the agenda is the spread of nuclear weapons to both states (e.g., Iran and North Korea) and nonstate actors (e.g., Al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist groups). Disarmament was and remains among the most elusive ideals of modern international relations, and despite past progress, there is no sign that success will come any time soon.

See alsoAl Qaeda; Arms Control; Atomic Bomb; Islamic Terrorism; League of Nations; Nuclear Weapons; Terrorism; United Nations; Versailles, Treaty of.


Bird, Kai, and Martin J. Sherwin. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. New York, 2005.

Dingman, Roger. Power in the Pacific: The Origins of Naval Arms Limitation, 1914–1922. Chicago, 1976.

Einstein, Albert. Out of My Later Years. New York, 1984.

Gaddis, John Lewis, ed. ColdWar Statesmen Confront the Bomb: Nuclear Diplomacy since 1945. Oxford, U.K., 1999.

Kitching, Carolyn. Britain and the Problem of International Disarmament, 1919–1934. New York, 1999.

———. Britain and the Geneva Disarmament Conference: A Study in International History. New York, 2003.

Larsen, Jeffrey A. Historical Dictionary of Arms Control and Disarmament. Lanham, Md., 2005.

Lettow, Paul. Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. New York, 2005.

Minnion, John, and Philip Bolsover, eds. The CND Story: The First 25 Years of CND in the Words of the People Involved. London, 1983.

Russell, Bertrand. Has Man a Future? New York, 1962.

Michael Cotey Morgan


views updated Jun 27 2018






The Oxford English Dictionary defines disarmament as the action of disarming: the reduction of an army or navy to the customary peace footing. Encompassing the meaning inherent in its root, disarm, to deprive of arms, to take the arms or weapons from, to deprive of munitions of war or means of defense, to dismantle (a city, a ship, etc.), disarmament refers to armaments and includes any measure by which their existence is reduced or eliminated.


Extending far back in history, the experience of disarmament presents a varied typology. Often a unilateral obligation imposed on the loser by the winner of a conflict (e.g., on Prussia by Napoleon Bonaparte, on France in 1814 by the United Kingdom, or Germany by the Versailles Treaty in 1919), disarmament has also been a reciprocal obligation (e.g., the naval agreement between France and the United Kingdom on October 27, 1787, or the Anglo-American treaty of April 28, 1817, limiting armaments on the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain). Moreover, disarmament phenomena encompass unilateral disarmaments undertaken by states for philosophical, budgetary, strategic, or other reasons (e.g., Costa Rica, the U.S. unilateral destruction of biological stockpiles in 1969, or the Soviet Unions unilateral reduction of forces decided on in 1988).

Disarmament in the context of a peace process following internal or international conflict has specific features. It is part of peace agreements between governments and guerillas in Africa and Latin America (e.g., between the government of El Salvador and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation) and in the Northern Ireland peace process (Irish Republican Army disarmament ended in September 2005), leading to the disarmament of nongovernmental armed groups. Finally, disarmament within the framework of peace enforcement operations (e.g., Security Council Resolution 687 of April 3, 1991, concerning Iraq) is distinct from disarmament through negotiations, even if there is some overlap in the mechanics of weapons inspection and disposal.

Compliance verification is a common challenge in all cases. The main instruments of verification are United Nations (UN) inspectors (in peace enforcement), international or bilateral commissions (in peace agreements), and verification procedures set up by international treaties. Regrettably, some disarmament treaties do not include any supervisory mechanisms.


Disarmament as a general goal came into focus with the Hague Peace Conferences in 1899 and 1907. The resulting rules for hostilities and the means and methods of land warfare included prohibitions against the use of certain kinds of weapons. Although a resolution adopted in 1907 agreed on the desirability of studying a reduction of military charges, the conferences failed to agree on any limitation or reduction of possession of armaments.

General aspirations for disarmament returned after World War I as part of plans for international peace and security. The Versailles Treaty limited Germany, but it was also seen as a first measure toward general disarmament. The fourth point of President Woodrow Wilsons message (January 8, 1918) proposed a reduction of national armaments to limits compatible with national security and the implementation of international obligations imposed by joint action. The main organs of the League of Nations were charged with drafting plans for the general reduction of national armaments, which was to be the main instrument for the realization of peace and security. Qualitative disarmament was to make universal the prohibition of armaments forbidden to the vanquished powers while leaving defensive power untouched (McKnight 1983, pp. 1720). By 1930 a draft disarmament treaty was circulated to governments for consideration, but most of the politicians at the World Disarmament Conference, which opened on February 2, 1932, believed disarmament impossible and accepted the use of force as an instrument for settling international controversies.

In the twenty-first century disarmament is linked to the principle, established in article 2 of the Charter of the United Nations, denying states the threat or the use of force. Many authors argue that the UN Charter puts less emphasis on disarmament than did the League of Nations. Under the Charter the maintenance of international peace and security is based on collective security and the right of self-defense recognized in article 51, both of which require armed forces (Kalshoven 1985, pp. 198199). In addition, there is no general rule denying or limiting the right of states to have armed forces and hence acquire and develop armaments (International Court of Justice 1996). By contrast, the Charter charges the General Assembly to consider the general principles governing disarmament and the regulation of armaments (article 11), while the Security Council is responsible for formulating plans for the establishment of a system for the regulation of armaments (article 26).

Cold war tensions prevented any progress toward those goals, although agreement seemed near in 1954, with the Anglo-French Memorandum based on a previous U.S. document titled Essential Principles for a Disarmament Program, and in 1961, after the U.S. -Soviet Joint Statement of Agreed Principlesthe McCloy-Zorin Principleson general and complete disarmament. Those major failures and growing impatience with the lack of progress on disarmament gave impetus to a new concept: arms control.

In the postcold war 1990s the world witnessed a new impetus for disarmament, with the approval of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the indefinite prorogation of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and the beginning of negotiations for new treaties (the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty [CTBT] or the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty). Nevertheless, the trend of world military expenditures has been rising since 1998, accelerating to an annual average increase of around 6 percent in real terms from 2002 through 2004 (the United States accounts for 47 percent of world military expenditures and is the main representative of this trend). Additionally, no new disarmament measure has been approved and some older ones have been abandoned (e.g., the Treaty on the Limitation of Antiballistic Missile Systems [ABM]).


Conceptually, the distinction between disarmament and arms control is troublesome. Some authors use the terms disarmament (Myrdal 1976; Kalshoven 1985; Lysén 1990) or arms control (Brennan 1961; Schelling and Halperin 1985) to cover all the rules and measures related to the development, production, and deployment of armaments. Nonetheless, most writers recognize a distinction, but disagree on where to draw the line on the continuum from complete reductions to measures restraining the testing, manufacture, possession, or deployment of specific types of weapon. Broad consensus assigns to the term disarmament the elimination or reduction of one or more categories of weapons and other measures limiting the acquisition, possession, or deployment of one or more categories of weapons. The Biological Weapons Convention, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and some of the U.S.-Soviet bilateral treaties (e.g., ABM and Strategic Arms Limitation Talks I and II) fall into the category, as does the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, which stands out as the major example of an international treaty reducing conventional armament. As well, the Outer Space Treaty, the Sea-Bed Treaty, the Antarctic Treaty, the Tlatelolco Treaty (for Latin America), and the Rarotonga Treaty (for the South Pacific Ocean) protect specific areas from deployment of certain weapons, while the NPT recognizes only five states as legal nuclear powers and prevents nuclear proliferation. Additionally, measures that prevent or hinder weapons development (e.g., the Partial Test Ban Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which is not in force, or the Cutoff Treaty, which is under negotiations in the Conference of Disarmament in Geneva) are more often considered a form of arms control.

SEE ALSO Arms Control and Arms Race; Weaponry, Nuclear


Anthony, Ian, and Adam Daniel Rotfeld, eds. 2001. A Future Arms Control Agenda: Proceedings of Nobel Symposium 118, 1999. New York: Oxford University Press.

Boutros-Ghali, Boutros. 1993. New Dimensions of Arms Regulation and Disarmament in the PostCold War Era: Report of the Secretary-General. New York: United Nations.

Brennan, Donald G. 1961. Arms Control, Disarmament, and National Security. New York: G. Braziller.

Burns, Richard Dean, ed. 1993. Encyclopedia of Arms Control and Disarmament. 3 vols. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.

Clark, Grenville, and Louis B. Sohn. 1966. World Peace through World Law: Two Alternative Plans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dahlitz, Julie, and Detlev Dicke, eds. 1991. The International Law of Arms Control and Disarmament: Proceedings of the Symposium, Geneva, 28 February2 March 1991. New York: United Nations.

Department of Political and Security Council Affairs, United Nations Center for Disarmament. 1977. The United Nations Disarmament Yearbook. New York: United Nations.

Fürst, Andreas, Voiker Heise, and Steven E. Miller. 1992. Europe and Naval Arms Control in the Gorbachev Era. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hallenbeck, Ralph A., and David E. Shaver. 1991. On Disarmament: The Role of Conventional Arms Control in National Security Strategy. New York: Praeger.

International Court of Justice. 1996. Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons. July 8, 1996: 226.

Kalshoven, Frits. 1985. Arms, Armaments, and International Law. Recueil des Cours 191: 183342.

Kasto, Jalil. 1998. International Peace and Disarmament. Kingston, U.K.: PDC.

Lysén, Göran. 1990. The International Regulation of Armaments: The Law of Disarmament. Uppsala, Sweden: Iustus.

McKnight, Allan. 1983. The Forgotten Treaties: A Practical Plan for World Disarmament. Melbourne: Law Council of Australia.

Myrdal, Alva. 1976. The Game of Disarmament: How the United States and Russia Run the Arms Race. New York: Pantheon Books.

Schelling, Thomas C., and Morton H. Halperin. 1985. Strategy and Arms Control. Washington, DC: Pergamon-Brasseys.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. 2005. SIPRI Yearbook: Armaments, Disarmament, and International Security. Stockholm: Almquist and Wiksell.

Sur, Serge, ed. 1992. Disarmament and Limitation of Armaments: Unilateral Measures and Policies. New York: United Nations.

Milagros Alvarez-Verdugo


views updated May 11 2018

disarmament Refers principally to attempts post-1918 (and especially post-1945) to reach international agreements to reduce armaments. The United Nations established the Atomic Energy Commission (1946), and the Commission for Conventional Armaments (1947). In 1952, these merged to form the Disarmament Commission. It produced no results and the Soviet Union withdrew in 1957. The USA and the Soviet Union signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963) and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968), which provided for an international inspectorate. A series of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) followed. In the early 1980s, intensification of the Cold War froze all disarmament efforts. In 1986 START (strategic arms reduction talks) superseded SALT, resulting in the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (1987), which reduced the superpowers' arsenal of short-range, intermediate missiles by c.2000 (4% of the total stockpile) and provided for on-site inspection. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the focus shifted partly to non-nuclear disarmament. The Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (1990) set limits on equipment and troop levels. Attempts to sign a comprehensive Test Ban Treaty have been thwarted by China, France, India, and Pakistan.

nuclear disarmament

views updated May 14 2018

nuclear disarmament See disarmament; Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT)


views updated May 23 2018

disarmament The process or policy of reducing levels of armaments, especially in the nuclear age, with the implication that possession of arms itself stimulates conflict. It is distinct from arms control—the negotiation of limits on armaments by participant states. Variants of the policy include unilateral and multilateral, partial and complete, nuclear and conventional disarmament.


views updated Jun 11 2018

dis·ar·ma·ment / disˈärməmənt/ • n. the reduction or withdrawal of military forces and weapons.


views updated May 14 2018

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