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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 22, January 1998

Opinion Piece

Disarmament Diplomacy -- Issue No 22

Global Action to Stop "Small" Wars
By Jonathan Dean


The main purpose of the United Nations, stated at the beginning of the UN Charter in language which directly reflects the original aims of the United States and other founder countries, is to unite the strength of its member States in order to maintain international peace and security. Today, the United Nations and its member States are not doing well at this task. Despite their enormous collective resources and capabilities, they are failing to bring the level of armed conflict in the world under effective control, and they are paying the high costs of this inefficiency. A new approach to this problem is needed one possibility is described in this article.

The statistics are dismaying: according to some estimates, up to 45 million people, 90% of them civilians, have been killed in over 170 wars since the end of World War II, nearly as many people as were killed in World War II itself. Many millions more have been wounded and permanently crippled. Thirty major wars are now taking place, most of them inside national boundaries. Landmines, the weapon we are now most aware of, do a lot of the killing and maiming, but most of it comes from the use of small arms, artillery, and mortars. In addition to loss of life and limb, the damage to productive economic activity and the setbacks to economic and social development are immense and they last for decades, sometimes generations, multiplying the human costs of conflict. Twenty years after civil war broke out in Lebanon, Lebanon's GDP was still 50% lower than before the fighting. The governments of the industrialized countries do not seem able to control this situation, but only to react to it. Yet these same countries are almost always called on to pay both in public funds and voluntary donations a large part of the economic costs of these conflicts, measured in billions of dollars - costs incurred through loss of production and trade, humanitarian aid, refugee relief, peacekeeping, sometimes direct military intervention, and through economic rehabilitation of war-ravaged areas.

To give a few examples of the costs of conflict: UN programs for emergency assistance and disaster relief for victims of wars were running at $300 million a year in the 1980s, but went up to $3 billion a year in the mid-90s. The same steep increase took place in peacekeeping. UN assistance to refugees from Rwanda cost over $2 billion in 1994-97. The number of major refugee crises jumped from five in the mid-80's to twenty-six in the mid-90's. The estimate for the first cut of economic rehabilitation in Bosnia, to be shared among the NATO countries, was $6 billion, and there will be much more. The NATO allies are spending $6-8 billion for their armed forces in Bosnia. Loss of economic production in Bosnia is estimated at $60 billion.

Because of its political, economic and military importance, the United States must undertake an active role in coping with these outbursts of organized armed violence more frequently than any other country. As shown in recent polls, American public and political opinion is appalled at the continuing international bloodshed presented in the media and the apparent powerlessness of governments to control it. This reaction is a primary source of reluctance to become more involved. However, the unavailing efforts of the early Clinton administration to avoid US military involvement in Bosnia showed that the costs of staying out of situations that call for American involvement can be very high in terms of doubts about the quality of the leadership of the administration in office and also the reputation and political influence - indeed, the power - of the United States itself. If the conflict is big, the United States can't stay out. If the US does stay out militarily, it pays part of the cost anyhow. These points also apply to the countries of the European Union and to Japan - to all the industrialized countries. But what is needed here is not some better justification for repeated reluctant sacrifice by the donor countries. What is needed is a plan and a rationale that gives all these efforts some long-range purpose, some promise of ultimate achievement.

We are talking here of smaller conflicts, not about possible war between the major powers. For a variety of reasons, such conflict is unlikely at this time, and its prevention is a separate field of policy. However, today's high level of global violence is a primary rationale for maintaining outsized armed forces and for maintaining nuclear arsenals in those countries that have them, and small wars often spread to become big ones. War has many causes - each war has many specific causes - but we can surely do better than we are doing now in controlling the frequency of war, both in the interests of the victims and in our own interest. In this context, it is important to note that our current approach to coping with this problem may be one reason for our relative lack of success.

How the World Seeks to Cope with Conventional Conflict

Since the end of World War II, the UN and its member governments have, in addition to traditional measures of mediation and conciliation, taken two main approaches - arms control and peacekeeping - in the effort to cope with armed conflict.

In 1962, when the Cold War was moving towards its peak, the US and the Soviet Union each presented in the UN a plan for general and complete disarmament which combined these two approaches into a single program. Under each of these plans, national forces, both conventional and nuclear, were to be reduced step-by-step, until both were in practice eliminated. As this reduction process went on, the peacekeeping capabilities of the UN were to be built up. These two visions of a peaceful world, quite similar to one another, were periodically discussed at the UN up to the time of the 1978 Special Session on Disarmament of the General Assembly.

But, during that same period, given the harsh evidence of the continuing Cold War, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and the increasing US military involvement in Vietnam, the vision of complete disarmament receded far into the distance. As this happened, something else also took place: the US and Soviet plans for general disarmament, which, at least in the case of the US plan, were carefully considered efforts to integrate the problem of peace and arms, were disaggregated, and disassembled into their subcomponents.

First, nuclear disarmament was separated from conventional disarmament and gradually achieved preeminence. Then, nuclear disarmament itself was subdivided or disaggregated into a number of separate sub-objectives which came to be accepted by most UN governments as the right way to view the problem. They include: the Non-Proliferation Treaty the Comprehensive Test Ban a possible treaty ending the production of fissile material for weapons negotiated bilateral reductions of nuclear arsenals, and at the end of the road, elimination of nuclear weapons - and that is the way the issue is treated today.

The subject of conventional disarmament was also gradually segmented into separate tasks or missions of decreased scope. Disarmament became conventional arms control, not disarmament. Conventional arms control ceased to be global and became regional arms control. The topic was further subdivided into programs to reduce military budgets programs to control arms transfers efforts to increase transparency, like exchange of information on defense budgets and the UN register programs to control specific weapons like land mines and, recently, "microdisarmament," the attempt to control the flow of small arms.

Peacekeeping too increasingly developed into an independent activity and was subdivided into preventive peacekeeping, post-conflict peacekeeping and peacebuilding, and enforcement. It was handled completely separately from conventional arms control.

The intended result of this process, furthered largely by the United States and its allies, was that disarmament issues should become more manageable and sub-goals more achievable. This objective was achieved for nuclear weapons, in large measure because each of the individual component programs into which the subject of controlling nuclear weapons was divided were supported and sustained by strong public rejection of nuclear weapons. But for conventional weapons, disaggregation had the unintended result of cutting back public and governmental interest and support. Dropping an integrated approach and segmenting these programs divided their public and governmental support and resulted in a multitude of weakly supported programs.

The difficulties encountered by efforts to control arms transfers are particularly striking in this context. Both World War II and the Cold War pumped huge amounts of arms into the international system, and this process is continuing. In the effort to control the arms trade, we are better off today than we were at the peak of the Cold War, when very little was done. Now, Code of Conduct legislation and agreements are making some progress in the Congress, in the European Union and in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The new UK government of Tony Blair has indicated that it will practice greater restraint in authorizing arms transfers. But when it comes to actual practice, time and time again, practical and moral arguments collapse in the face of the greater combined political weight of defense departments, armed forces, arms manufacturers, and the jobs argument. In 1996, the international arms trade increased 8%. In 1995, the increase was 13%, up from the post-Cold War low in 1994.

This trade sustains and intensifies the level of conflict throughout the world. And Americans and citizens of other industrialized countries pay for the trade three times over: first, for the subsidies paid by almost every exporting government to their arms producers second, for the costs generated by the conflicts and third, for the high level of their own armed forces. The arms they sell come back someday at their own forces. The dissemination of military technology in the high tech combat aircraft the US sells to others ultimately provides the justification for demands of US armed forces to develop still more advanced aircraft of their own.

This is irrational behavior. But because arms transfers are dispersed over the whole globe and in all the armies, their bloody consequences do not bring public outrage, as do the case of landmines. To put it baldly, the anonymous rows of bodies and mass graves we have been seeing since World War I do not have the public impact of child landmine amputees. To be more effective, we need to reaggregate this subject of arms transfers, to build it into some wider program, with a broader rationale and wider public support.

A few of the individual programs on conventional arms, like the campaign against anti-personnel land mines and like the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, have been successful precisely because they have had strong public and political motivation. And despite low interest and support, the other programs have reduced the possibility of conflict on many occasions and have saved many lives. They must continue. But, taking these measures of conventional arms control together with the whole field of peacekeeping, with an average of three or four large armed conflicts each year since 1945, these measures have not been really effective in reducing the incidence of conventional conflicts, their duration, or their kill-rate. In fact, in the years since the end of World War II, we have been experiencing a drawn-out World War III.

The main question this situation poses is whether the United States and other UN member States should continue to plug along with individual arms control and peacekeeping programs, helping where they can, or whether, in addition to doing that, they should search for some further approach which could more effectively reduce both the casualties and costs of conventional conflict.

My conclusion is that the critical missing element here is a comprehensive approach that combines disarmament and peacekeeping. A comprehensive approach that took into account the synergistic effects of disarmament and strengthened peacekeeping in reducing conflicts was the central concept of the US and Soviet draft treaties of 1962 for general disarmament. We should think seriously of following a similar methodological approach today, though with a more modest goal.

Comparison with Nuclear Disarmament

To get more perspective on this problem, let's compare the situation in conventional disarmament with the situation in nuclear disarmament. In this same period since the end of World War II, progress on nuclear disarmament has been slow, but there has been progress. It is possible now to predict that, within twenty to thirty years, barring major friction among the weapon States, nuclear arsenals could be reduced to small, hard-to-use residual stocks or perhaps even eliminated completely. Above all, there has been no use of nuclear weapons since 1945 and no nuclear conflict. A strengthening norm against any use of nuclear weapons is emerging. There is no such situation, and no such prospect with conventional armaments, at least not as the issue is handled now.

Other than the wide gap between public support for nuclear disarmament and public support for conventional disarmament, what are the salient differences between these efforts to control nuclear weapons, largely successful, even if frustratingly slow, and the largely unsuccessful efforts to control conventional weapons and conventional conflict?

There are some obvious differences between the two problems: nuclear weapons, however destructive, are one type of weapon, concentrated in the hands of a few States. Conventional weapons range over a very wide spectrum, and they are found everywhere, used everywhere. Our choice of words describes these weapons: they are conventional and usual.

From this difference arises a further serious disadvantage for conventional disarmament. Nuclear disarmament is a global enterprise. Everyone works together in the effort to limit or eliminate nuclear weapons. There is a global treaty, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to focus these efforts and to provide a web of obligations and on-going negotiation, which although slow, is making definite progress. In contrast, current efforts at conventional arms control are splintered among many specific regional or subregional conflict situations. The main participants are the possible combatants and their neighbors. Sometimes, one of the major powers plays some role. But there is no vehicle to enable a broader coalition of States and NGO's to work together over a long period in dealing with this problem, no method of maintaining public and governmental interest in the issue.

That is what the UN is supposed to do, but it has no vehicle or program for doing so. To the contrary: disaggregation and specialization have gone so far that the UN Disarmament Commission, which meets for a few weeks each year, is prohibited from discussing "peacekeeping" or even from using that term in its studies because peacekeeping is the sole competence of the Security Council.

Amid these differences, it is worth noting that there is one major similarity between the two approaches. Both nuclear and conventional arms control are directed at essentially the same objective - reducing holdings of both types of weapon, mainly by negotiation - with the ultimate aim of limiting the possibility of their use. For example, that is the aim of various proposals to reduce nuclear weapons to small immobilized arsenals.

For several reasons, including widespread understanding of their immense excess capacity for destruction and also the belief that reductions move toward total elimination, this approach of seeking to reduce the size of arsenals works with nuclear weapons. It does not work with conventional weapons, partly because the relationship between levels of arms and the outbreak of conflict is not always a direct one, partly because possession of conventional arms is traditionally linked to the right of self-defense. As a result, there is little prospect now of a norm against use of conventional weapons as there is with nuclear weapons and certainly no prospect of their complete elimination. Focusing our efforts on reducing the level of conventional arms has had productive effects where there has been a buildup of arms so large, as in Cold War Europe, that it creates continuing strong fear that war is imminent. But elsewhere, negotiation to reduce force levels does not seem to have been productive.

One logical conclusion from this analysis is that we should shift the focus of work on conventional weapons away from a fairly mechanistic approach of seeking to control the levels of weapons to restricting their use, in other words, to reducing the incidence and frequency of armed conflict.

Methods of Conventional Disarmament

To summarize our comparison of nuclear and conventional disarmament, nuclear disarmament has at least three great advantages that conventional disarmament does not now have: it has a program of agreed procedures and methods, it has very strong motivation, and it has a treaty structure to organize the entire effort on a global basis.

As regards conventional disarmament, we do in fact have the methods to reduce the frequency of conventional conflict. And potentially, we do have very powerful motivation. We just have not put them together into an effective program.

As regards methods, in the seventy-five years between the First World War and the end of the Cold War, a lot of people, many of them professional military officers, worked very hard, especially in Europe and the United States, to distill the lessons of this bloodiest of all centuries in order to prevent its recurrence. On the one hand, they developed conventional arms control in all the aspects that we are familiar with today: confidence-building measures transparency and information exchange mutual constraints on force activities and deployments negotiated force reductions and agreed restrictions on arms production and transfers.

But arms control procedures cover only one portion of the wide spectrum of conflict reduction measures developed in this century. The remainder of that spectrum is covered by peacekeeping or peacemaking in its various forms: conflict prevention, mediation, arbitration, preventive deployment, post-conflict peacekeeping, peace building, and, occasionally, peace enforcement. Another more recent area of useful development has been the trend in international lending to raise conditions with potential borrowers with regard to their level of military spending and even the direction of national security policy. Recently, there were reports that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had advised against purchase by Romania of a large number of attack helicopters.

In past decades, these approaches, especially disarmament and peacekeeping - the term "peacekeeping" is used in the broader sense - have been applied separately and incompletely. None has by itself been fully successful. Nor are they likely to be successful as long as they are applied separately. In other words, we have been practicing peace in fragments. It is time to think about putting all these approaches and all these measures together, in a single unified program, with a focus on conflict inside national borders.

If governments throughout the world can act together to combine the two approaches of disarmament and peacekeeping into a single integrated program - and if governments can act together to apply more systematically and consistently the resulting comprehensive spectrum of conflict reduction measures - and also to integrate the work of international financial organizations, the World Bank, the IMF and others - it should be possible to prevent an increasing number of tension areas from erupting into armed conflict, to make conventional warfare less frequent, and to limit conflict when it occurs.

It should be possible in this way progressively to lower the worldwide level of armed conflict. In the course of time, governments and NGO's working together can achieve a situation where organized armed conflict moves toward becoming a rarity rather than a daily occurrence. They can create new zones of no-conflict-areas like North America and Western Europe where there once was a lot of conflict, but none now.

We don't know whether it will be possible in the long run - by progress in overcoming injustice, poverty, and environmental and population stress - to make armed conflict a permanent rarity. However, the objective here is not general and complete disarmament. It is not to tackle the root causes of war, although that must be done. The objective is more specific, more limited, and more immediate - cooperative action by world governments to cut back the high frequency of organized armed conflicts.

Many people are fatalistic about a claimed human propensity for violence, although that propensity is far from proven. But even if a propensity does exist, at least in the form of the recurrent division of humanity into in-groups and out-groups, that does not mean that there have to be so many wars.

As regards motivation, once the world's publics and governments realize that a more effective approach has been developed for cutting back the frequency of armed conflicts - for reducing the killing - they will give this approach very strong support. People want peace inside their countries and in the world.

Yet no comprehensive program on coping with organized armed conflict now exists anywhere. This topic is not being discussed by individual governments, by the General Assembly, by the Conference on Disarmament, or by NGOs. The need is there it is acute but no effective action is being taken. This is a serious omission.


We can now draw some conclusions from this analysis:

  • In the process of breaking down and dividing the subjects of conventional disarmament and conflict with conventional arms into individual programs, we have gone too far. We may get better results and greater public and governmental interest and support through a different approach which combines arms control and peacekeeping into a single integrated program, a program that combines top-down approaches with the now typical bottom-up approach to containing conflict.
  • The declared objective of this combined approach should be to reduce the frequency of armed conflict throughout the world, a goal that is achievable through more systematic application by more countries of the broad repertory of peacemaking measures developed in this century, also tying in the increased willingness of the international economic institutions, the IMF and the World Bank, to make lowering the size of armed forces and the willingness of governments to follow a path of conciliation an ever more explicit condition for loans.
  • Third, as a vehicle for this new approach, we need an international treaty to pull together these efforts and to motivate continuing onward action, the equivalent for conventional arms and conventional conflict of the Non-Proliferation Treaty for nuclear weapons. Only a treaty of global scope can provide for the systematic worldwide action over many years that is necessary to bring results on this problem.
  • Finally, the best forum for launching this integrated approach is the UN, which is currently stalemated over nuclear disarmament, in part because of inability to define a project on conventional disarmament to balance the emphasis of most members on nuclear disarmament.
It is relevant here that reducing the worldwide level of conventional conflict is likely to be a requirement of the nuclear-weapon States for making deep cuts in their nuclear forces or for seriously considering their elimination.

The main purpose of this article is to argue the case for a new approach to the problem of conventional conflict or, put another way, to return to a new version of the integrated approach of the 1960s by means of a new treaty mechanism. Most of the details of that mechanism remain to be worked out. However, we can try here to illustrate a possible introductory approach. At a minimum, an International Treaty on Reducing Armed Conflict should contain the following elements:

  1. A commitment by signatory States to the common objective of reducing the incidence of armed conflict throughout the world through systematic application of the set of disarmament and conflict prevention measures described in this article
  2. A commitment by all signatory States periodically to exchange a full range of data on their armed forces - manpower, organization levels of armaments, production and complete defense budgets - a much expanded version of the UN Arms Register
  3. A commitment by the parties to undertake a series of specific actions to improve conflict prevention and peacekeeping, including establishing a professional conflict mediation service at the disposal of the UN Secretary General and the Security Council establishing one or more full-time headquarters units to lead peacekeeping operations when authorized by the Security Council setting up a peacekeeping contingency fund of $500 million to enable immediate payment of initial costs of new peacekeeping operations establishing standing Readiness Brigades in Africa, Asia and Latin America on the model of the new international brigade headquartered in Denmark systematically improving conflict prevention and peacekeeping capabilities of existing regional security organizations and establishing new regional security organizations in regions where they do not yet exist.
  4. A commitment to freeze the level of the armed forces of the parties for a ten year period during which a mutually acceptable approach of step-by-step reductions for all armed forces would be sought. The freeze, which could be extended for additional five year periods, would cover the level of major arms, military personnel, defense budgets, arms production and also arms transfers (to which codes of conduct would also apply). For the first time in world history, there would be a global no-increase agreement on armed forces and on arms transfers.
In addition, because most conflicts today are inside national borders, we will also have to work slowly toward wider understanding that failure to maintain some minimum standard of effective stewardship of national well-being can in extreme cases justify international intervention. However, the UN Security Council has shown a capability to identify specific situations where this is the case, and it would not be productive, given widespread sensitivity over national sovereignty, to seek international agreement on some codified version of this point. Moreover, the issue does not arise in most cooperative actions of conflict prevention, mediation and arms control.

This treaty project or one like it could be discussed in the UN General Assembly, in the Disarmament Commission, in a possible General Assembly Special Session on Disarmament, possibly in the Conference on Disarmament, where they are looking for a conventional disarmament project, or in the year 2000 millennial conference proposed by UN Secretary General Annan.

In the present climate of opinion in western capitals, a proposal urging governments to take the lead in calling for worldwide arms limits and some modest improvements in peacekeeping may not be immediately popular. Yet the main thing advocated in this article - to combine the separate approaches of conventional arms control and peacekeeping together, with the specific objective of reducing the incidence - and the human and economic costs - of conventional conflict - is an approach with potentially great public appeal, and with many political and economic benefits to sponsoring governments.

A proposal to the UN General Assembly along these lines from the United States, European Union or other governments could be the first step toward systematically lowering the level of armed conflict in the world - and in cutting back the drain on the resources of these governments from the conflicts.

Jonathan Dean is Adviser on International Security Issues to the US Union of Concerned Scientists.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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