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Time to fight for disarmament

As national security becomes increasingly understood as the advancement of military technologies, the concept of disarmament has become little more than a Cold War relic. We must save it. 

The Disarmament Sculpture outside the UN building, New York. Luke Redmond/Flickr. Some rights reserved.To the vast majority of people 'disarmament' may sound like an ancient practice that Cold War rivals developed to maintain the balance of power. The concept itself has fallen into abeyance as it has failed to remain high on the agenda of policy-makers. Now considered to be a second-class issue, disarmament affairs rarely attract society’s attention and top officials usually prefer to put them on the back burner and focus on issues deemed more pressing. 

The 2015 Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) held at the United Nations in New York this year mirrored particularly well this profound malaise at all levels in disarmament affairs.

Sliding backwards?

Weapon modernization has become synonymous with 'national security'. US Air Force/Flickr. Some rights reserved.If it were only about the present lack of political will to put diplomatic muscle behind action points, it would not be of great concern – as reluctance to constrain national armed forces and aversion to changes that might affect national military capabilities have always been states’ main reasons to slow down, if not derail, any progress in disarmament. But what is more worrying than the predictable and expected stalemate in disarmament affairs, is that the international community seems to have engaged in a dangerous backwards slide.

Several disarmament mechanisms upon which an international cooperative security framework was built have ceased functioning or are shaky at best. The United Nations’ Conference on Disarmament, which has the mandate to negotiate disarmament treaties has been deadlocked for almost 20 years. Its latest product was the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty negotiated in 1996 which has never entered into force. On a more recent note, in March this year, Russia ceased its participation in the Joint Consultative Group within the framework of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), which provided a platform for NATO countries, and Russia to discuss military issues. In the same vein, the US and Russia have threatened to withdraw from the Intermediate Range Nuclear (INF) Treaty over alleged claims that the other side has violated the Treaty.

In addition to the disarmament and arms control architecture falling apart, one can observe that the US (see Arms Control Association’s fact sheet) and Russia (see US Congressional Service Report) have both embarked on expensive weapons modernization programs. Other regional powers such as China, India and the Gulf countries have not waited long before following suit (see the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ World Military Balance 2015 and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s 2015 Fact Sheet).

This increasing investment in military capabilities and development of new weapon systems, when set against the backdrop of the growing tensions in Europe (Ukraine), Middle East (Syria, Iraq, Yemen) and Southeast Asia (South China Sea), should remind us of what preceded a very dark period of human history.

In the present geopolitical context where enhancing national security is understood as modernizing and building up military capabilities whilst testing each other’s reaction capacities, the disarmament agenda has lost political ground and diplomatic traction. Shortsighted national security calculations have gained the upper hand over a more balanced strategic approach in the long term and project a worrying shadow onto the future. Indeed, the conceptual fathers of the 'security dilemma' have long warned us that flexing muscles may make sense from a national perspective but is likely to result in eroding trust and furthering instability at the international level.

It is true that the Cold War dynamics of superpower confrontation no longer apply to the present international context and threats of major inter-state wars have diminished as new threats have come to the fore. Nevertheless, the disappearance of major inter-state wars cannot be taken for granted. From the South China Sea to Ukraine, renewed regional tensions are increasing with conventional weapons systems and WMDs lurking in the background of policy making.

The case for dialogue 

UN conference on disarmament, Geneva. United States Mission Geneva/Flickr. Some rights reserved. There is certainly no point in adopting an alarmist rhetoric or giving in to hysteria but it would not hurt to remember what history has taught us: the potential costs of overlooking these issues are too high to be ignored. A failure to fulfill the disarmament commitments made will not only put at risk the entire disarmament and arms control regime but will also deprive leaders of mechanisms designed to defuse tensions and foster dialogue on sensitive security issues. Many seem to have forgotten that disarmament measures have greatly contributed to maintaining peace and stability in Europe after World War II. This reminds us that it is worth revisiting the common ground on which we stood in the past.

Without a meaningful dialogue on disarmament that draws upon past successful agreements it will be very challenging to defuse tensions and reverse competitive security dynamics in Europe and other parts of the world.

Paraphrasing the conclusions of a Pugwash workshop on Prospects for the 2015 NPT Review Conference, the beauty of having such disarmament dialogue is that it does not need a settled international environment for it to take place. On the contrary, it best serves in times of rising tensions as a countercyclical stimulus that contributes to building confidence and creating conditions for breakthroughs in other areas.

The main challenge lies in re-energizing an international constituency capable of carrying through a realistic risk-based global agenda with a comprehensive understanding of the range of possibilities for disarmament at its heart. Such a holistic approach developed by SCRAP may provide one way to go about a revitalization of disarmament processes. But even more important than strenuous efforts and innovative ideas, political vision will be required for this process to kick off.

About the authors

Dan Plesch is the author of America, Hitler and the UN (I.B.Tauris 2011) and The Beauty Queen's Guide to World Peace, (Politico's 2004) and Director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London. Human Rights after Hitler - The Lost History of Prosecuting Axis War Crimes was published in April 2017.

Kevin Miletic is a PhD candidate at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London.


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