One would think that there are plenty of good reasons for the Obama Administration to undertake a concerted attempt to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles around the world. There is, after all, a growing consensus that the threat of the use of nuclear weapons will not emerge from one of the major nuclear nations, but rather from a terrorist organization seeking to employ it against a major Western industrialized power.
But we shouldn’t forget where past disarmament talk has led us. Nor should we be naive about what can happen when discussion of disarmament becomes an opportunity for recidivist regimes to identify weakness in their enemies and to exploit their psychological vulnerabilities.
It might help, then, to examine past disarmament conferences to determine how well they worked out.
In the wake of the carnage of the First World War, disarmament became a rallying cry throughout the 1920s for countries large and small. The post-war Treaty of Versailles expressly called upon the signatories to disarm and the idea was given further heft by the Covenant of the League of Nations. Thereafter, countries in Europe fell over themselves in disarmament rhetoric, insisting that the road to peace could only be guaranteed if disarmament became the focus of the foreign policies of the former belligerent nations.
Much as global warming took a decade to find a regnant position in the policy platforms of today’s contending political parties, by the time the 1931 British general election rolled around, all major parties -Conservative, Labour and Liberal – sported a disarmament platform. In fact, the election was largely fought over the issue and it gave particular impetus to the World Disarmament Conference which kicked off in Geneva in March 1932 under the sponsorship of the League of Nations and the chairmanship of the new British foreign secretary, Arthur Henderson.
The U.S. President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose country had not been a signatory to either the Treaty or the League – and who chose not to attend the Conference, sent a message to the conferring dignitaries which became its governing motif: “If all nations will agree wholly to eliminate from possession and use the weapons which make possible a successful attack, defences automatically will become impregnable and the frontiers and independence of every nation will become secure.”
This was not disarmament, it was pacifism, which in the 1930s had yet to attract its modern day stigma. It doomed the Conference to failure. For nearly two years the Conference labored on, contending with the animus between Germany and France and the latter’s well grounded fears that a rearmed Germany would present a genuine threat to the country’s national security. Unable to obtain security guarantees from either Britain or the United States, France remained adamant that it would not disarm while at the same time, Germany under its new Chancellor Adolf Hitler, insisted on the sovereign right of national self-defense.
When Germany left the Conference in October 1933, it was it was all but over. Within a year, Germany’s clandestine rearmament policy had been become public knowledge. In 1935 , the British, accepting the realities of a rearming Germany and the inability of the League of Nations to do anything to prevent it, struck its own deal with Hitler, concluding the Anglo-German Naval Treaty of 1935, allowing the Germans to maintain a navy one-third the size of Britain’s. By 1937 every country in Europe was rearming and disarmament was in ruins.
This unhappy history has a salutary lesson for our times. Although the destructive power of nuclear weapons presents a fundamentally different environment to the 1930s, the failure of world leaders today to recognize the deterrent factor of weapons of mass destruction, regardless of whether those weapons will ever be deployed, is essential in demonstrating hard power to potential belligerents that cannot be conveyed through either words or multilateral sanctions.
In addition, the power and threat of enforcement remains vital to the maintenance of global order. The toothlessness of the League of Nations, made glaringly obvious by Germany’s violations of its international commitments, gave the would-be Axis Powers the opportunity to regard disarmament rhetoric as laughable evidence of weakness.
Weakness is something the United States, the most effective force for maintaining global stability, can ill- afford to project. No matter what Chinese and Russian diplomats say in public, those countries are watching and waiting for a collapse of American resolve. It is foolish to believe that their totalitarian regimes will willingly dismantle extensive weapons systems for the sake of an overarching global imperative. In neither the attempt to impose sanctions on Iran, nor the supposed urgency of addressing global warming, have either nation been particularly forthcoming. What makes our president believe, despite inking a a new START treaty with Dmitry Mededev on April 7, that he is going to win real cooperation now on issues of their own national security?
When we add into this troubling mix the looming emergence of Iran as a nuclear power and its persistent behavior of thumbing its nose at all attempts to thwart the development of its drive for nuclear weapons all talk of nuclear disarmament in the West may well begin to look to our adversaries like 1930s style pacifism. There could be no sorrier reminder of a past historical mistake leading to catastrophic consequences.