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Converging on Peace?

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

by the Palme Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues
Stockholm

1.

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. Alva Myrdal, at one time Sweden’s deputy foreign minister, was for more than ten years the most prominent member of the Permanent UN Geneva Committee on Disarmament She did not live to see the INF Treaty, but the conclusion to which she was led during the preceding years was that declarations by the superpowers about their “will to disarm” had proved to be little more than hollow rhetoric. “The superpowers,” she wrote, “have indulged in subterfuges and half truths, with their closest and usually most dependent allies following suit or keeping silent…,and with the competitive [arms] race” between the two superpowers steadily escalating.3

It is some ten years since these words were written. Were their author alive today, I can well imagine that she would now be asking whether the conventional arms talks that opened in Vienna in March of this year, and are now continuing, are really going to lead to speedy agreement, as both President Bush and Mr. Gorbachev hope, or end in the same morass that engulfed fifteen years of sterile argument over “Mutual Balanced Force Reductions.” It is not enough for political leaders on all sides to express the hope that war will never again break out on the European continent. It is not enough that they know that if such a war “went nuclear” it could lead only to mutual suicide. What matters now is that President Bush and Mr. Gorbachev should make it their primary and joint business to prevent anything that might prejudice the negotiations that are in progress. Only they have the power to do this. Have they the courage to exercise it?

On paper the aim of the new Vienna negotiations is to bring the conventional forces of the two sides into a state of “defensive” balance—both by reducing numbers and by eliminating “asymmetries.” As a mark of faith, and no doubt because of its vast internal political and economic problems, the USSR decided to start the process unilaterally by declaring that it was immediately beginning to reduce its armed forces by half a million men. It has also proposed that the three-thousand-mile Sino-Soviet frontier should be demilitarized. Major reductions in the Soviet defense budget have also been announced which, according to figures made public by Mr. Gorbachev, amounts to as much as $129 billion a year—as compared with nearly $300 billion in the US, with its much larger GNP.4

With the agreement of his NATO allies, President Bush proposed at the NATO summit in May that a 20 percent cut should be made in the US forces stationed in Europe, leaving behind about 275,000 American military personnel, a figure that he proposes should also be the ceiling for Soviet forces outside the USSR. On this basis, 70,000 Americans would be sent home, while the USSR would have to demobilize about 325,000 of the men now stationed in Warsaw Pact countries. The President also suggested that agreement on these reductions should be reached in Vienna within a year. Mr. Gorbachev welcomed his proposals as “a step in the right direction.” But he has not yet indicated how the President’s figures are to be reconciled with the lower figures the Soviet Union has already proposed in Vienna. A central question would be whether, in view of the current ferment in the Warsaw Pact countries, the Soviets would accept as large a reduction in Soviet forces in Eastern Europe as the President has called for.

A far more important difference between the positions of the two sides, perhaps the most important, concerns short-range nuclear weapons. At the ceremonial opening of the new Vienna talks, Mr. Shevardnadze, the Soviet foreign minister, observed that the USSR cannot see how the goal of the conventional arms negotiations could be achieved were NATO, contrary to the spirit of the 1988 INF agreement, now to proceed to the “modernization” of its “battlefield” nuclear weapons, or were disparities between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in naval forces, helicopters, and strike aircraft, whether land-based or carrier-based, not taken into account just as much as are differences in numbers of tanks and guns.

Some of these points have been met—particularly the need to consider the disparities in aircraft—but not the question of modernization. In his Guildhall speech in London on April 7 Mr. Gorbachev raised the matter even more forcibly than had Mr. Shevardnadze. He would like NATO and the USSR to sit down now to negotiate a reduction in the size of their arsenals of tactical nuclear weapons, and has declared that he is beginning the process by the unilateral withdrawal of five hundred Soviet warheads. The new Soviet minister of defense also referred to the problem during his visit to the UK in July, all but implying that the Vienna talks will be stymied if it is not settled.

This is an issue that sharply divides the Western alliance. West Germany, Italy, and the smaller members of NATO are either against or at best lukewarm about “modernization” of battlefield weapons such as the Lance missile. They want to negotiate reductions in tactical nuclear weapons now. The US and, in particular, the UK insist that modernization is necessary, claiming that “nuclear deterrence” cannot be maintained with what is styled “obsolete weaponry,” and that tactical nuclear weapons are an essential element in NATO’s strategy of “flexible response.” Contrary to all official statements up to now, a report adapted by the “Heads of State and Government” at the end of the May summit even said, “The allies’ substrategic nuclear forces are not designed to compensate for conventional imbalances.” An ambiguous form of words smoothed over these differences in the communiqué at the end of the summit, but the differences have certainly not been dissipated, nor are they likely to be. What was heralded as a brilliant piece of diplomacy by President Bush—his emphasis on reductions in conventional armed forces rather than modernization—leaves Chancellor Kohl believing that negotiations on short-range nuclear weapons could start soon, and Mrs. Thatcher firm in the belief that they will not start until—and if—agreement is reached in the Vienna talks and the reduction in conventional forces completed, or at least well on the way.

During his successful visit to West Germany in June, Mr. Gorbachev once again asked why nuclear talks cannot proceed in parallel with those on conventional forces. He raised the matter again in his visit to France which followed, and hinted that the peace process could be jeopardized if modernization proceeded. In his Strasbourg speech on July 6, he linked the issue of short-range nuclear weapons to the wider problem of reducing the size of ICBM arsenals. President Bush responded immediately that he did not want to have the short-range problem brought up again after what was agreed on among the Western allies at the NATO summit.

No one can foresee the outcome of all these exchanges. Doubts have been expressed about the possibility of meeting the target date for agreement set by the President. But what is obvious is that the opposing views about short-range nuclear weapons within NATO call in question the basis of NATO’s presumed nuclear policy. This is an issue that cannot be understood without reference to the past, and it needs to be understood if public opinion is to play a part in bringing sense to the debate.

2.

The History of NATO’s Nuclearization

During the early to middle Fifties, NATO thinking held that were war to break out, nuclear weapons would be used just like any other armament. As soon as they became available, free-falling atom bombs, atomic shells, and atomic mines, and then the much more powerful hydrogen bombs, were sent across the Atlantic to form part of NATO’s arsenal. At one moment NATO’s so-called tactical armory contained bombs in the multi-megaton range, any one of which would have been powerful enough to transform the whole of Washington, DC, into a flattened radioactive inferno. This can be called Phase I of the nuclearization of NATO.

  1. 1

    Cyrus Vance, former US deputy secretary of defense and then secretary of state, and David Owen, former UK foreign secretary, were members of the group.

  2. 2

    The second half of the book comprises a report that had been prepared as background material for the commission’s final meeting.

  3. 3

    Alva Myrdal, The Game of Disarmament (Pantheon, 1977).

  4. 4

    International Herald Tribune, May 31, 1989.

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