Interest is growing in tackling one of the most difficult goals in international relations, general and complete disarmament—that is, getting rid of not just nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction, but reducing and controlling conventional weapons too. In light of successful negotiations with Iran to stop its nuclear weapons program, and bolstered by UN passage of the conventional arms trade treaty in 2014, advocates of general disarmament believe it is time to try to move forward. Why now? Because nuclear disarmament today looks less utopian than ever, and as the world gets closer to that long-cherished goal, it could become more likely that we will see a large-scale war with conventional weapons. As the United Nations’ founders understood, we can’t really have one kind of disarmament without the other.
In a sign of renewed interest in the concept of general and complete disarmament, more than 40 people, including UN ambassadors, attended an October presentation by researchers from SOAS, University of London on ways to advance the cause, held during the annual UN General Assembly meeting of the First Committee on Disarmament and International Security. Meanwhile, the United Nations’ Conference on Disarmament, the 65-country forum responsible for treaties banning biological and chemical weapons, continues to list complete and general disarmament on its formal agenda. The Conference on Disarmament is not known for swift action—its last-negotiated treaty, the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, has not yet entered into force—and its “consensus rule” will likely continue to hinder progress. Nevertheless, some member states and civil society organizations hungry for new ways to tackle general disarmament are watching closely as the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs tries to re-energize this deadlocked body and move the agenda forward.
There are several reasons that the call for general disarmament may get some traction now. One is that Cold War dynamics have waned. The 1945 founding charter of the United Nations calls for the international regulation of armaments “in order to promote the establishment and maintenance of international peace and security with the least diversion for armaments of the world's human and economic resources.” But even as countries signed on to the UN Charter, and the United States and the Soviet Union both called for general disarmament, US leaders felt that growing hostilities between the two emerging superpowers would prevent any agreement. So military strategists sought rationales that would bring stability to the arms race—that is, they sought to control nuclear weapons rather than eliminate all weapons. For the past 60 years, policies and treaties have emphasized nuclear arms control, rather than disarmament.
In the post-Cold War era, however, the rationale for focusing narrowly on nuclear arms control lacks the force it had at the height of East-West hostilities in the 1960s and 70s. In fact, since 1992, the United States and Russia have reduced their nuclear arsenals significantly—from some 70,000 to about 16,000. In addition, with the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty of 1991, a whole class of conventional bomb delivery missile systems was eliminated, showing that it is possible to draw down these weapons, too. In fact, arms control negotiations between the United States and Russia have often addressed conventional weapons capability. For example, verification of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaties, and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties was based on counting delivery vehicles rather than nuclear warheads. Links between conventional and nuclear systems are nothing new.
Now, with Cold War pressures behind us, there is growing recognition that nuclear arms control is no longer enough; it is finally being recognized for what it always was—a way of establishing floors for the number of nuclear weapons each country may retain, rather than a ceiling that will continually be lowered. As such, more countries are calling for enforcement of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s provisions for general and complete disarmament. Nearly all countries have chosen to forgo nuclear weapons, and in exchange, they demand that the nuclear weapon states disarm.
There has also emerged, in the last three years, a movement to eliminate nuclear weapons based on their humanitarian effects. Three UN-sponsored conferences have convened leaders from the developing world and humanitarian organizations who argue that even just a few nuclear weapon detonations would devastate countries and the networks that support aid and economic development. A movement focused on the humanitarian effects of war, though, could naturally come to encompass suffering caused by all types of weapons. While the use of even one nuclear bomb would maim or kill the vast majority of people in a region, the current use of powerful conventional weapons is killing hundreds of thousands, destroying cities, collapsing societies, and spurring mass migrations that are causing suffering and disruption in nearly all countries. While nuclear weapon disarmament still demands the world’s attention, the humanitarian motivation for general disarmament is plain.
Finally, as countries reduce their nuclear arsenals, it is becoming even more apparent that nuclear weapon states also have very large conventional forces that threaten global peace and stability. In the absence of a clear global disarmament strategy that deals with anti-ballistic missile systems, stealth aircraft, large fleets of missile-armed submarines, and armed drones, containing and reversing the accelerating drift toward more wars and major power confrontations will prove impossible. Nuclear disarmament could simply make the world free for large-scale conventional warfare.
One of the papers discussed at this month’s First Committee presentation was by Randy Rydell, a former senior political affairs officer in the UN Office of the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. He suggests several things that could make general and complete disarmament more attractive and plausible. First, the UN General Assembly could adopt an annual resolution calling for negotiations on the subject. Second, scholars could pay much more attention to the connections between nuclear and general disarmament, to the logic of the relationship, and to the steps required to prevent not just nuclear war but major conventional-weapon wars. And third, governments themselves could establish disarmament agencies to work on meeting the goal of complete and general disarmament. Part of such agencies’ mandate would be to involve militaries and their civilian suppliers in plans for reorienting the firms away from producing conventional weapons beyond what is required for defending borders and enforcing domestic laws.
Because nuclear weapons can cause nearly apocalyptic damage in a very short time, a single-minded focus on nuclear disarmament can surely be defended. But today, conventional weapons systems are destroying cities and towns in major regions of the world, especially in the Middle East and central Africa, undermining economies and rending the fabric of societies in a kind of slow-motion catastrophe. Without all-out efforts to bring an end to the use of powerful conventional weapons—that is, without general and complete disarmament—we are doomed to live with increasing instability, human suffering, and an ever-present threat to civilization.