Converging on Peace?

A World at Peace: Common Security in the Twenty-first Century

by the Palme Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues


In 1980 Olof Palme, the prime minister of Sweden, brought together fourteen distinguished international figures to form the Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues.1 Two years later they published a book under the title Common Security: A Programme for Disarmament. Its general theme was that

a doctrine of common security must replace the present expedient of deterrence through armaments…. International security must rest on a commitment to joint survival rather than on a threat of mutual destruction.

The group continued to meet after Olof Palme’s assassination in 1986, and has now put out a final report with the title A World at Peace. It begins by contrasting the gloomy state of the world at the time that the commission started its work—a period when the relations of the superpowers could hardly have been worse—with that of the present, “a time when reason and common sense seem at last to be taking hold in the world.”

“War,” the commission declares, “is losing its meaning as an instrument of national policy, becoming instead an engine of senseless destruction that leaves the root causes of conflict unresolved.” The commission’s view is that the main hope for the future lies in the reinforcement of the power of the United Nations. Its peacekeeping forces have to be strengthened; major arms reductions should take place in Europe; and all nuclear tests should be banned. “Until an international security regime based on the UN Charter is implemented effectively and reliably,” says the report, “nations will see no alternative but to arm themselves, even at great sacrifice in terms of economic development.” Common security has to be achieved “through economic development, social justice and protection of the planet.” 2

How all this is to come about the commission does not say; nor does it suggest how the UN, with its many and often bitter internal divisions, is to carry out the tasks it would be assigned. Indeed, it would seem that the basis for its present optimism derives largely from the peace initiatives that have been flowing from Moscow, and the responses that the US and NATO have made. Mr. Gorbachev’s disarmament initiatives, and President Bush’s recent proposal for major reductions in US and Soviet forces in Western and Central Europe, have breathed new life into the hope that the East-West confrontation in Europe will not boil over into war, and above all, into nuclear war.

Unfortunately this does not, however, mean that we can afford to forget the lessons of the past. If these are any guide, neither the Vienna negotiations on conventional forces nor the START talks in Geneva are likely to have an easy ride. Up to now, and with the exception of the 1972 ABM Treaty and the 1988 INF Treaty, the history of East-West negotiations to halt the arms race has in fact mostly been a tale of disappointed hope, of unfulfilled promise, and of fruitless bickering about measures to verify that cheating does not take place.…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.