Disarmament: the forgotten issue

Dan Plesch
12 December 2007

"Peace on Earth" is a seasonal wish at this time of year. It also one of the themes in Stanley Kubrick's excoriating satire of militaristic madness, Dr Strangelove. But whether the message is taken sincerely or cynically, it is no fantasy. For peace on earth - in the form of world disarmament - is practical by 2020. This article suggests how.

Dan Plesch is co-organising a conference on Disarmament and Globalisation: Old and New Wisdoms
whose speakers include Shirley Williams, nuclear non-proliferation advisor to Gordon Brown - on 7 January 2008 at the school of Oriental and african Studies, University of London

For details, click here

Disarmament has virtually disappeared from the political agenda. In the west it has become the word that dare not speak its name. In particular, the media and establishment politics in the United States and the Britain ignore it. Yet disarmament is arguably as important to sustainable human survival than global warming or world poverty - in some ways even more so. The urgency of the problem of armaments is clear in almost every news bulletin: massacres in the Democractic Republic of Congo, the fear of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists, Star Wars deployments in Poland and Britain (and Vladimir Putin's warnings of their risks), the destruction caused by cluster-bombs and small arms - these are only a few of countless examples.

Between them, the United States and Russia possess 5,000 missiles that really are ready to fire in "forty-five minutes". Such a scale of threat would in any other period have placed disarmament at the centre of international politics - as it was since the end of the "great war" in 1918 until the mid-1990s. US presidents from John F Kennedy to Ronald Reagan were judged in large part on their achievements in the field of arms control and disarmament. In the last decade, however, the marginalisation of disarmament has been led by the same ultra-conservative forces in the US that propelled George W Bush into the presidency.


The fact that disarmament has become such a neglected issue is all the more reason to recall its many practical achievements - which can become lessons in dealing with the problems of conflict and proliferation today. In 1989, as the cold war was ending, Nato and the Warsaw Pact began talks on arms reductions: by 1991 they had signed a treaty that saw 52,000 of their tanks, warplanes, artillery guns and helicopters destroyed and the metal sold for recycling. Before he left office in 1988-89, Ronald Reagan reached agreements with Mikhail Gorbachev that led to many thousands of nuclear missiles going the same way. More than 20,000 nuclear warheads have been dismantled, leaving some 30,000 intact. In this same period, near-universal agreements banned chemical weapons and the test-firing of nuclear weapons; as a result, global test-firings since 1996 have been reduced almost to zero (previously the US and the Soviet Union had been firing off hundreds a year).

Also by Dan Plesch in openDemocracy:

"Iran: the coming war" (21 March 2005)

"The hidden history of the United Nations" (April 2005)

"Britain's intelligence secret: under the influence" (24 May 2005)

"The United Nations in Bush's firing-line" (7 September 2005)

"Britain's choice: nuclear weapons or foreign policy" (11 July 2006)

"Corporate rights and responsibilities: restoring legal accountability" (9 May 2007) - with Stephanie BlankenThe next major United Nations conference on disarmament and proliferation is scheduled for 2010. A political process needs to begin now that builds on past success rather than being mesmerised by the militarism being cultivated by (among others) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, George W Bush and Vladimir Putin. The international community's earlier breakthroughs are again an inspiration here: for the long-standing legal commitment (embodied in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty [1970]) to "general disarmament" of all weapons save those needed for internal policing is actually in sight.

We can indeed scrap the lot! And just as the acronym "Start" (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) denotes the nuclear-arms talks leading to the treaties of 1991 and 1993, today's equivalent should indeed be... "Scrrap" - A Strategic Concept for Reduction and Removal of Arms and Proliferation.

Much can be done to advance this idea - including setting deadlines to conclude negotiations and implement agreements. It took just eighteen months to overcome the ideological and technological issues governing the cold-war armies. Today, with this precedent as a guide and no ideological barrier comparable to the confrontation with communism, a "general disarmament agreement" should be concluded within two years of the talks starting.

A realistic prospect

The basis for a global-disarmament compact is provided by current agreements. Nuclear disarmament has been made respectable for conservatives since even Henry Kissinger has decided there is a need to ban the bomb (indeed, most of Ronald Reagan's former top advisors now believe that nuclear proliferation and then nuclear war is inevitable unless the US gets rid of its own nuclear weapons). The way ahead is to adapt procedures that have worked in the past rather than engage in developing a new set. The "best practice" here lies in the UN's work in Iraq (by Hans Blix and the other inspectors) and in the the work of Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). UN inspectors should have access to the permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) as well as to the "smaller" nuclear powers (India, Pakistan and Israel). These procedures will also be effective in restricting terrorist access to nuclear technology; and they can be adapted to work with biological and chemical weapons.

Dan Plesch is an associate of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and a writer and campaigner. His latest book is The Beauty Queen's Guide to World Peace ( Politicos, 2004). His website is here


In practice, the Start and intermediate nuclear force (INF) agreements of the Reagan-Gorbachev era should be extended to all states, and include missile defence and Star Wars systems. The European agreements reducing and regulating tanks, artillery, helicopters and war planes should also be globalised and include naval vessels. Most of the technical work has already been done for all these agreements; implementation could be as swift as in the most effective existing agreements. 75% of all stocks would be verifiably "Scrrap'd" in two years; the remaining quarter would be cut again by 75% in the next two years; until, after a decade, they are all gone.

The United Nations summits in 2010 and 2012 should have the objective of completing these agreements. The UN can then focus on its vital work in realising a global plan to curb global climate change and meet the Millennium Development Goals. The bonus for citizens in every country, taxpayers, the poor and the global economy as a whole would be immense.

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