"Absolutely Irresponsible Amateurs": The Temporary Mixed Commission on Armaments, 1921-1924

By Webster, Andrew | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, September 2008 | Go to article overview

"Absolutely Irresponsible Amateurs": The Temporary Mixed Commission on Armaments, 1921-1924


Webster, Andrew, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


In the aftermath of the cataclysm of 1914-18, the problem of national armaments was a natural focus of attention for the newly-created League of Nations. Indeed, to many people it seemed that disarmament was the greatest issue confronting the post-war world. The League itself had been specifically bound to the task by its Covenant, Article 8 of which declared that "the maintenance of peace requires the reduction of national armaments to the lowest point consistent with national safety" and directed the League Council to "formulate plans for such reduction". (1) Though most countries were independently reducing their armed forces from the massive strengths of wartime, it was clear that whatever was done unilaterally could just as easily be undone unilaterally. The intention behind Article 8 was that arms should be reduced in a coordinated and binding international format, as member states renounced their right to unrestricted control of their own armaments. Disarmament thus touched at the very heart of every interwar debate over international and national security. Unsurprisingly, given the sensitivity of the issue, the primary level on which the League pursued its work in this area during the course of the next fifteen years was through direct, high-level and multilateral negotiations between member states, represented by nominated delegates chosen from among manageable groups such as the armed forces, the diplomatic corps and mainstream domestic politics. (2) These delegates were expected to advance competing national policies that defended their respective government's political, military, economic and security interests, all intended to safeguard the security of their own individual state.

Yet in one solitary instance a quite different approach was taken. The Temporary Mixed Commission on Armaments was a committee of eminent figures formed by the League to consider the problem of disarmament in its widest aspects and to suggest potential initiatives, plans and solutions. What made the committee unique was that its members were specifically appointed as private individuals, unrestrained by formal instructions from governments; they were thus meant to be free to put forward ideas and opinions that seemed most likely to produce real progress but which might have created political turmoil if they had come from official representatives. This was an extraordinary innovation: a group of independent persons wielding the power and prestige of the pre-eminent international institution of the day was handed the authority to intervene directly in an issue of supreme importance to the national interests and security of member states. One can hardly imagine another case at any time when states have accorded such influence upon policy-making on an issue of such significance to a group of essentially unaccountable individuals. To some contemporary observers, of course, it was exactly this independence that was so appealing about the committee. (3) Yet to others the lack of national accountability was desperately objectionable: after several years spent responding to the committee's many interventions, the head of the British Foreign Office would lambaste its membership in frustration as "absolutely irresponsible amateurs". (4)

This unique body was created following the unhappy discussions at the first League Assembly in November-December 1920 over the failure to make any progress in disarmament. The League's standing advisory body on military affairs was the Permanent Advisory Commission on Armaments (PACA), mandated by Article 9 of the Covenant and formally created by the League Council in May 1920; critically, it was entirely composed of military officers who were appointed by and responsible to their respective governments rather than to the League itself. The predictable and intended result was that it was dominated by the major powers, Britain and especially France, the latter determined that it focus on issues surrounding the enforced disarmament of Germany. …

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