Taking Another Look at General Disarmament

Dr. Natalie Goldring, University of Maryland

October 25, 2000

The current global security situation provides an opportunity for serious reevaluation of fundamental defense and arms control issues. One such issue is general disarmament covering both conventional and nuclear weapons. At present, conventional and nuclear policies are being constructed and implemented independently, yet in many conflict situations, these issues are inextricably linked. For example, even if it were possible to magically remove all traces of nuclear weapons and related knowledge from India and Pakistan, their conflict would not end immediately. Clearly, other issues must be involved.

There are many reasons to study and discuss general disarmament today. For example, the political situation may change someday and we may have an opportunity to move toward disarmament. In fact, unless people are proposing alternatives, the likelihood the world will ever become more peaceful decreases significantly.

The political and military context for this talk includes both good news and bad news. With respect to bad news, Russian control over nuclear and conventional weapons is suspect. In addition, the list of nuclear "wannabes" has not become any shorter in the recent past. Finally, Congress has failed to ratify key treaties, has refused to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal, and has simultaneously pushed national missile defense programs that would violate the ABM treaty. On the other hand, there is also some good news today. First, people are paying increasing attention to light weapons (under 100mm), which are the weapons doing most of the killing. Second, the Cold War is over so there is a tremendous opportunity to reduce armaments throughout the world. Third, countries such as South Africa, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine have proven willing to return or destroy nuclear weapons once in their possession. Finally, there are few serious direct threats to US national security.

While there is some good news with regards to general disarmament, the costs of transition can be very high. In addition, there are points along the way from current armaments to disarmament that may be less stable than today's world.

The Program on General Disarmament at the University of Maryland is examining five dimensions of disarmament: 1) military, 2) political, 3) economic, 4) social, and 5) environmental. There are many relevant factors to each of these dimensions; this talk can only include selected examples. Militarily, there are a number of connections from light weapons all the way up through conventional weapons to nuclear weapons. The roles of institutions and the erosion of the state as the primary actor in the world system are examples of the political dimension of disarmament. Economically, there are trade-offs on both the domestic and international levels as well as manufacturers' stakes in developing and selling weapons. The social dimension is characterized by ethnic disputes and refugee flows throughout much of the world. Finally, resource wars, environmental dangers, and environmental cooperation demonstrate the environmental dimension of disarmament.

There are five basic assumptions underlying current military trends. First, it is assumed that violence can deter violence. This is an argument which is used in the U.S. to defend owning guns for "self-defense"; it is also made regarding nuclear weapons. Instead, nuclear threats have created a culture of violence, and a "stockpile mentality" which encourages building more and more weapons. The second assumption is that it is feasible and desirable to make fine distinctions between legal and illegal, military and civilian, and offensive and defensive weapons.

Third, "we" assume that we can be trusted. For example, the U.S. declares that it will determine which countries will receive our weapons and presumes that it can predict which ones will remain stable. Nuclear countries argue that their nuclear weapons are not a problem because they will use them responsibly. In fact, nuclear weapons have helped make the U.S. a superpower, but the U.S. argues that other countries should not have them. The fourth assumption is that it is possible to make a safe weapon. Yet, safeguards on nuclear weapons will give them legitimacy just as safety locks on guns have given them legitimacy. In addition, safety locks may create new markets for guns just as nuclear safeguards may make it easier for countries to defend producing larger numbers of nuclear weapons than would otherwise have been the case. The fifth assumption is the fallacy of the last move. For example, many people believe that adversaries won't respond to "us" deploying a national missile defense system. Similarly, U.S.-Japanese pursuit of a theater missile defense may have destabilizing military and economic results because China will most likely respond (effectively or ineffectively) to this provocation.

There may be a synergy between light weapons and nuclear weapons, so that common answers may be found by studying them together. Indeed, there may be benefits from linking several nuclear and conventional issues that have been previously kept separate. For example, given the tremendous volume of weapons available in the United States, it is appropriate to investigate potential connections between the availability and sale of guns in the U.S. and the availability of guns throughout the world.

The U.S. and U.S.S.R. avoided nuclear war during the Cold War with a combination of luck and skill. With this in mind, the feasibility and desirability of general disarmament should be seriously evaluated as a potential alternative to the current system of arms racing and mutually assured destruction.

Dr. Natalie J. Goldring, formerly Deputy Director of the British American Security Information Council (1991-1998) and Director of its Project on Light Weapons (1994-1998), is Executive Director of the Program on General Disarmament at the University of Maryland. She also directs the Security and Disarmament Program at the National Center for Economic and Security Alternatives in Washington, DC.

Rapporteur: Adam Marshall Horst

back to seminar schedule, Fall 2000