- Dwight D. Eisenhower
M. Shane Smith
In March of 1946, less than a year after the first detonation of an atomic weapon, a group of U.S. officials met at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., to develop the first nuclear arms control proposal, calling for comprehensive nuclear disarmament. This plan was introduced on June 14, 1946, at the inaugural session of the U.N. Atomic Energy Commission by U.S. Ambassador Barnard Baruch. He proposed a complete transfer of all atomic weapons, facilities and know-how to international oversight. The proposal was viewed with skepticism by the Soviet Union and denounced as an attempt by the United States to maintain nuclear superiority. These fears were reinforced when the U.S. Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act to establish the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission as sole manager of all nuclear materials and facilities in the United States, and to prohibit all interstate exchanges of atomic information.
It was not only disagreement between the Soviet Union and the United States that cut short this attempt at nuclear disarmament. Britain and France were also unwilling to support the plan in light of their own nuclear ambitions. As the East-West confrontation of the Cold War became increasingly rigid, subsequent efforts toward disarmament were hardly given consideration. The world missed an opportunity to avoid a costly and potentially devastating nuclear competition, pointing to an intractable problem of distrust in the international system -- the security dilemma -- that presents significant obstacles to disarming. By the end of the Cold War, there were over 50,000 nuclear warheads able to make the world uninhabitable many times over, keeping tensions high and global security uncertain for nearly 50 years. Today, much of these arsenals remain intact.
A decade after the end of the Cold War, we are witnessing a renewed surge in worldwide defense spending, and the specter of nuclear catastrophe has again become headline news. Optimistic notions of eliminating bloated military expenditures and nightmarish weapon systems that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union have given way to cynicism, doubt, and a reemphasis on military prowess. However, alarm that has risen with the prospect of widespread development of weapons of mass destruction (generally encompassing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons) has led to many renewed calls for eliminating such armaments. Moreover, a realization that the overwhelming majority of the tens of millions of casualties from post-World War II conflicts have resulted not from advanced weaponry but from common and widely prevalent weapons, such as landmines and guns, has also heightened efforts toward disarmament of conventional weapons.
What is Disarmament?
In general, disarmament is the reduction in size or destructive capability of an actor's capacity for violence. Despite pessimism that generally befalls discussions about disarmament (e.g., labeling such proposals as unrealistic and euphoric), there is reason to believe that disarmament is a viable tool for reducing the likelihood and dangers of conflict. Even during the Cold War, President Nixon unilaterally declared that the United States would disassemble its biological weapons program, encouraging others to join the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention and helping pave the way for detente between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. More recently, as the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States dramatically and unilaterally withdrew its tactical nuclear weapons deployed abroad. Moscow responded in kind, helping alleviate the chance of a nuclear exchange as the Soviet leadership lost command and control of its military forces. Disarmament measures, however, have not solely been aimed at state-to-state relations. Domestic initiatives have employed disarmament efforts toward reducing violence at the inter-group and local levels. For instance, citywide gun exchange programs in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Chicago have been successful in reducing the number of local firearms and arguably overall gun-related injuries.
There are three different ways of viewing disarmament -- unilateral or voluntary, through bilateral or multilateral agreements, and forced disarmament. Unilateral and bi/multilateral arrangements are often overlapping initiatives. As the preceding paragraph suggests, unilateral disarmament is often an effort to encourage others to follow suit. For instance, during the 1990s, South Africa voluntarily disclosed and dismantled its nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs, which led to a region-wide moratorium on atomic weapons through the development of an internationally recognized African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. Additionally, actors in an ongoing conflict sometimes seek to defuse tensions through disarmament measures. Recognizing that one's own weapons generate fear among potential rivals that can feed uncertainty and hostilities, an actor may choose to decrease such anxieties by voluntarily reducing the size or destructiveness of its own arsenal in hopes of reciprocal behavior from others. This was the case when the United States dismantled developments in its biological and tactical nuclear weapons.
Over the last century, several efforts have also been made toward global elimination of weapons deemed too cruel or unnecessarily injurious. For instance, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention and the Anti-Personnel Landmine Ban are international agreements that outlaw the development, sale, and use of such weapons. While not universal, these arrangements often require many states to remove specified weapons from their existing arsenals. The result is multilateral disarmament even while others in the international system continue to possess the capability and potential willingness to use such weapons. This suggests a strong inclination for some countries to risk disadvantage if confronted with such weapons in the future, in favor of trying to establish norms for the conduct of war Moreover, these efforts to stigmatize particular weapons have led to calls for meaningful verification and enforcement of the agreements through global pressures in the form of sanctions and incentives.
Recent crises in the Persian Gulf demonstrate that forcible disarmament is also an approach that is often taken on the grounds of lessening the potential for future conflict. In short, actors may seek to disarm others who they deem irresponsible or belligerent. In 1991, international forces expelled Iraq's military from Kuwait. The resulting ceasefire agreement between the United Nations and Iraq stipulated the dismantlement of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs and limited the mobility of its military within its own territory. Continued suspicions that Iraq was undermining these agreements compelled other actors in the international community -- led by the United States -- to again use military force, in an effort to see through the disarming stipulations. This, however, is not the first time such actions have been taken. Rather, after every war there is generally some type of disarmament imposed upon the loser. It is often, but not always, the case that these arrangements are resented and create challenges on their own (e.g., Germany after World War I versus Germany after World War II).
Why is Disarmament Important?
It is generally difficult for actors to ensure that rivals will not attempt to gain undue influence over them through the use of violence. Trust is often lacking in social relations, particularly during times of uncertainty and hostilities. This often leads opponents to seek increasingly greater capacity to inflict violence on others that can result in the stockpile of overly threatening or pernicious weapons. This heightens mutual skepticism and significantly reduces the prospects for resolving differences peacefully and through negotiation.
Unilateral disarmament can be used to reduce these fears and tensions and pave the way for greater cooperation. In other words, disarming can defuse a dangerous situation because it is generally seen as a gesture of benign intent and decreases the perceived threat that one poses to others. Moreover, it can encourage reciprocal behavior among would-be adversaries. Bilateral or multilateral agreements can be used to acknowledge mutually non-threatening intent and can further cooperation that increases transparency and dialogue between potential rivals. However, the very skepticism that characterizes adversarial relations makes initiation of such efforts unlikely during times that they are most needed. Thus, much of the world has focused on banning weapons deemed inhumane prior to conflict situations in order to stigmatize and curtail their use when hostilities do erupt. While forcible disarmament is an ancient practice, it has the potential to generate social resentment that may foster aggressive behavior in the future. Yet, this is not always the case, as shown by the current friendly relations between the victors of World War II and Japan and Germany.
 For fact sheets, local reports, and handbooks on gun exchange programs, see "JoinTogether Online" at http://www.helpnetwork.org/frames/pubs.2.html (no longer available as of March 5th 2013). Also see, the World Council of Churches' Web site at http://www.cephasministry.com/world_wcc_disarm.html
Use the following to cite this article:
Smith, M. Shane. "Disarmament." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: October 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/bi-essay/disarmament>.