Piecing Together the Interwar Disarmament Puzzle: Trends and Possiblities

By Webster, Andrew | International Journal, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Piecing Together the Interwar Disarmament Puzzle: Trends and Possiblities


Webster, Andrew, International Journal


DISARMAMENT AS A MODERN PHENOMENON has its roots in the success and, more often, the failure of international disarmament initiatives during the period between the two world wars. Set in motion in 1919 by the Treaty of Versailles, which followed four years of horror on an unprecedented scale, the interwar disarmament process culminated in the fiasco of the little-remembered World Disarmament Conference of 1932-1934. In his closing speech to the first session of the conference in July 1932, French prime minister Edouard Herriot was moved to comment on the lack of achievement: "There have been times when we may have wondered whether the verb 'to disarm' was not in every language an irregular verb, with no first person, and only conjugated in the future tense."(1) Such failure has led most commentators to dismiss interwar disarmament efforts as either worthless, hopelessly naive or simply irrelevant.

This is unfortunate because, despite its failures, the interwar period provides more useful historical comparisons, parallels and analogies for the present than does the more proximate Cold War era. The dominant mode of disarmament during the Cold War was bilateral negotiations between the United States and Soviet Union over how to limit the single strategic arms category of nuclear weapons. This Cold War template is now obsolete. Since 1991, the dissolution of the USSR and the rise of rogue states and non-state actors such as terrorist groups have produced a shift of attention in the disarmament field. Some of the defining characteristics of the equally fluid interwar period are now re-emerging: a multilateral process with a central role played by international organizations; a focus upon a range of armaments, including conventional and chemical weapons; a debate over issues such as the enforcement of disarmament upon recalcitrant states and the implementation of international inspection and verification; and, finally, attempts to manage problems such as the international arms trade. Like other innovative experiments of the interwar period, such as the 1929 Briand plan for European federal union or the League of Nations itself, disarmament's ultimate failure should not consign its story to that all too familiar receptacle the dustbin of history.

The term "disarmament" can be confusingly broad. This was most evidently the case during the interwar period, when it was used in the most general manner to describe the limitation of armaments by international agreement. Politicians, diplomats, academics, journalists and the public alike included all aspects of all armaments under the heading "disarmament." These included land, sea and air weapons systems; their production, acquisition, deployment and use; direct and indirect forms of arms restrictions, whether quantitative (numerical) or qualitative (weapons type); voluntary and imposed limitations; methods of verification; and the renunciation of first use. Unsurprisingly, therefore, after 1945 political scientists began to use the more precise expression "arms control" as the generic term for international negotiations over armaments. Implicit in this shift was the desire to differentiate between what was perceived as the attainable goal of establishing agreed limits on arms, primarily nuclear weapons, and the apparently fanciful goal of the massive reduction and even abolition of armaments. Again, while understandable, this change in terminology has had unfortunate consequences. It has led to an understanding of the interwar disarmament process as being somehow utopian and unfocused, an attempt to achieve impossibly grandiose goals pursued by idealistic negotiators who had their heads in the clouds and possessed no understanding of the realities of national security.

Notwithstanding the two "peace conferences" in The Hague in 1899 and 1907, before the First World War armaments were still generally considered necessary to create security. Most of the European political class objected even to the principle of discussing arms limitation and insisted on untrammelled sovereignty in defence policy. …

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Piecing Together the Interwar Disarmament Puzzle: Trends and Possiblities
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