Toward Security and a World Without War: Steps to facilitate disarmament in a reluctant social order


This paper discusses knowledge and experience gained during the Cold War and suggests the application of strategic ideas that could assist in achieving substantial disarmament in an atmosphere of increasing security. A partial list of useful strategies would include the inclusion of women on an equity basis in top-level decision making, widespread adoption of defensive defence, the GRIT process, concluding treaties on the basis of the status quo (rather than arms reductions not yet achieved), and preplanning conversion from military to civil production, with retraining for scientists, engineers, technicians and managers including military officers.

“I reject the assumption that military capability is a necessary component of security in today’s world. On the contrary, I submit that the burgeoning growth of military capabilities has been the chief source of insecurity.”

“I believe that war as an institution will be abolished.”

Anatol Rapoport, in Defending Europe: Options for Security (Taylor and Francis 1986)


It is an assumption of this paper that war can be abolished, as Anatol Rapoport believed, but I put the case that its abolition is urgent, and address the problems of finding a path toward such abolition. Global Governance is the other half of the present discussion, not discussed in this paper, though it will be assumed to progress through the improved functioning of regional organizations, such as the African Union, and through new organizations of this kind, and through giving proper support of the United Nations.

With regard to disarmed states, we have in particular the example of Costa Rica, which chose not to maintain military forces, and has suffered no tragic losses or occupations since then. Perhaps its geography made this step easier than it would have been for other states. Perhaps it had less internal and external conflict than some other Central American states. Space will not permit an examination of these questions here, but we must ask what conditions might make it possible for other states to follow suit.

A friend critiqued the first draft of this paper, commenting that the United States and other major powers “would never agree to” some of the proposals that I see as providing the way forward. If that is the case, then perhaps there is no way forward, meaning that all efforts to achieve global governance for a world without war are doomed to failure. As a realist I must admit that dismal possibility, but as a lover of this planet, I nevertheless continue to work toward that goal.

The most prominent barrier in the way of a world without war is male dominance, as it translates into the urge to dominate held by military complexes including their governments and, sometimes backed by a measure of popular support. It is easy for Canadians, who live so close to the United States, to see US policies as the ultimate barrier to the objectives we are discussing at this workshop. But in truth, the same urge to dominate is visible in many other parts of the world. It is particularly significant in the USA, perhaps because of the advanced state of technology possessed by their military establishment, in particular, their adventures into space weaponry and their clear statement in Vision for 2020, of a plan to dominate the world through space. It is unrealistic to believe that the other great military powers in the world will allow themselves to be dominated in this way by the United States, and both Russia and China have said as much. Furthermore, the time has come to extrapolate present trends in military spending and ask whether the USA has not passed its zenith. If the present foreign bases of the USA cannot be maintained indefinitely, then surely it would be opportune to enter a new age of cooperation rather than attempt to continue military competition that is bound to come to grief.

Here, I argue that civilization is too close to collapse to allow the wastage implied in military spending at the level of $1.46 trillion annually (SIPRI Yearbook, 20091) to continue. The global footprint shows that we need more than 1.4 planets to continue business as usual, implying that Earth cannot tolerate the additional burden of military production and waste. It is not that the military production alone is driving the world further along an unsustainable path, but that both civil and military are doing it together, and that efforts to restrain civil excess wastage of Earth’s resources are so feeble at present that reductions of military spending are absolutely vital.

We of the Global Issues Project2 and many environmentalists are in agreement that the world’s ecosystems are so damaged they stand in real danger of collapse; that great remedial efforts are required; and that, consistently, military activities are contributors to the declining state of the ecosphere. In particular, the human race has reacted so slowly and inadequately to threats such as climate change, that we can no longer see any possibility of extracting the world from the present ecological decline without adopting drastic measures. One such measure will have to be to halt most military activities. That is not to suggest that disbanding most military forces and abolishing war would solve the world’s ecological problems, but rather that these are necessary parts of any solution, since humanity has gone so very far into overexploiting Nature.

The United Nations was founded on the basis of putting an end to war. But, popular though the UN generally is, it has been unable to abolish armed conflict, and the 65 years since its foundation have seen many bitter wars. It is often noted that a fraction of the world’s annual military expenditure would be sufficient, if spent wisely on crucial civil programs, to solve very many of the world’s most pressing problems. Thus we find ourselves in an endangered world experiencing extreme penny-pinching for urgent work while, in parallel, the vast sum of nearly $1.5 trillion is commandeered by the world’s militaries, adding greatly to pollution and waste. Many of today’s arms are furthermore used in combat in one area of the world or another. Militarism should also be considered in the light of literature on collapse of civilizations and the three identifiable stages of such collapse (Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, CUP 1988). The third stage is termed the pre-collapse phase. Ronald Wright (A Short History of Progress, House of Anansi Press, 2005) writes: “One feature of the pre-collapse stage, when failure is becoming evident, is that there tends to be a concentration of power, an increase in the gap between rich and poor, and an increase in militarism.” While the increased militarization may not have been a feature of all societies that collapsed, much other available evidence would indicate that our civilization has entered that pre-collapse phase and that militarization deserves our immediate attention.

In addition to all the familiar threats of war, a new danger of unexpected catastrophe looms from the possible results of cyber war, that is, war arising incidentally from tampering with an adversary’s computer control systems. This paper does not discuss cyber war, but merely introduces it as an unpredictable threat of a kind that did not exist at the times of WWI and WWII. The mere fact that the modern world depends so much on telecommunications implies the need for a cooperative world, rather than one steeped in aggressive rivalries.

General Disarmament

Pierre Elliot Trudeau favoured policies of peace and disarmament throughout his career, as was evident from his membership of the Board of the Canadian Peace Research Institute, prior to his entry into politics. As Prime Minister of Canada, at the United Nations in 1978, he spoke in favour of “Suffocating the arms race,” by which he meant progressively reducing military budgets everywhere. Indeed, there is likely no surer way of eliminating war than to reduce military budgets, ultimately to zero. But how would this be achieved?

The military threat that has occupied many people in the peace movement is the continued existence of nuclear weapons. A concentration of effort toward eliminating such arms has tended to push general disarmament and also the need for more general international security into the background. True, if nuclear weapons were dismantled, we could breathe more easily in bed, knowing that we were more likely to survive until tomorrow. But we would not be secure from military aggression, because the larger part of the insidious war machine would still exist, and the deterrence provided by nuclear weapons (satanical though it always was) would have been taken away.

International security may require greatly improved political attitudes, but general disarmament will make it much more achievable. Nevertheless, people who have been led to believe that their security rests on having very powerful national forces will tend to oppose decreases of their own country’s military budget. And perceptions are important. This paper therefore looks briefly at approaches to general disarmament, illuminating routes that might facilitate its eventual realization, partly through paying attention to security and perceptions of it in the process.

There is much wisdom that can be learned from the attempts at conventional disarmament initiated in Vienna, starting in 1972, when East faced West across a long European frontier, with immensely strong forces on both sides. Long negotiations were entered into, eventually called the MBFR talks (Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions — see Defending Europe: Options for Security Taylor and Francis, 1986, Part 3). In parallel came the Helsinki agreements, which brought about a series of confidence-building measures between East and West, that is, the Warsaw Treaty forces and NATO. The combination of confidence-building measures with genuine attempts to reduce forces was finally leading to success after about 13 years of negotiation, and it looked as if an MBFR Treaty would be signed, together with a litany of inspection procedures and rules to ensure that neither side was cheating. Then came détente and the MBFR negotiations were taken over by a new process. A few years later saw the collapse of the Soviet empire and the disbanding of the Warsaw Treaty forces. The MBFR process and its successor ended without ever being fully implemented. But there is much to be learned from it. For example, if you want a Treaty in which all weapons of war are counted and must be reduced verifiably to agreed lower levels by certain dates, the amount of detail required in the agreements is immense, even in the bilateral case. A world treaty of this kind would be more complicated still, nobody knows how much more.

In 1978 the United Nations revived its interest in general disarmament and formed a committee, whose task was to prepare a draft treaty on general and complete disarmament. This committee met, for example, 25 times in 1985 under the leadership of Garcia Robles, Mexican diplomat and 1982 Nobel Peace laureate. But the draft still contained many bracketed phrases (each implying the disagreement of at least one participating State Party) at the time the committee was disbanded. It seemed as if the committee had not nearly arrived at a consensus, and that a consensus could not have been achieved in a reasonable time.

Thus, the experience for the late 20th century would appear relatively unfavourable to a process resembling the MBFR negotiations, which failed in 13 years to reach a conclusion to the first phase of conventional disarmament, while the drafting process for a general disarmament treaty also failed at the United Nations. Both these approaches sought agreements on what should be dismantled, starting from the status quo, that is, the initial stocks of armaments and disposition of forces. Such a route would be likely to require many years, provided all states negotiating wanted it to succeed and nothing really bad happened during the negotiation period, such as one of the negotiating parties starting a war against one of the others. Minor provocative actions between parties could also render the task increasingly difficult, and prevent a nice conclusion.

Other routes to increasing security and disarming

It is proposed here that achieving increased international security be pursued along several routes, none of them mutually exclusive. And there will be prerequisites.


A first task is to recognize power, who holds that power, and what their interest is in hanging onto it. It is not simply a matter of governments, but of elements of power “behind the throne” such as the military-industrial complex. Any human organization with high investment of whatever kind will ‘fight’ to hold on to what it has gained. To convince enough people that change is essential will partly be a matter of making it clear that the present road is a path to collapse. This is something that can in principle be modeled. Another prerequisite must surely be to persuade those wielding political power that their power must necessarily be shared in a global sense, as no powerful state will allow itself to be dominated by another. The concept of prevailing, a term much used in US policy or military statements, must be abandoned in favour of something implying a balance between powers, an accommodating form of coexistence. That one world power will eventually dominate all the others and maintain such dominance in a stable and sustainable world is so unlikely that the notion itself needs to be set aside.

Next, it will be necessary to revive the statement often heard from Roger Fisher (a Pugwash participant) during the Cold War, to the effect that no gain in security (in a heavily armed confrontation) can be obtained from additional weapons. The context of Fisher’s statement was the Soviet-American face-off. A similar, general proposition has been investigated by Alan Newcombe et al. who showed that two overarmed nations were more likely to go to war than if they were not overarmed (“The development of an inter-nation tensiometer” Alan G. Newcombe; Nora S. Newcombe; Gary D. Landrus, International Interactions: Empirical and Theoretical Research in International Relations, 1, 1, 1974, pp. 3 – 18).


0. Male-female equity in decision making

This topic is the subject of another paper at this workshop, and will be passed over here.

1. Defensive defence

A first useful strategic concept developed in the Cold War was the idea of defensive defence, or nonprovocative defence, or nonoffensive defence (NOD). Its essence is to adopt weapons and strategy that would be unsuitable for offensive operations, such as invading the territory of another state, but would be effective at repelling or slowing down an invasion. The theory was originally due to Horst Afheldt (Verteidigung und Frieden: Politik mit militärischen Mitteln, München: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1976). Afheldt expounded the concept concisely at the 1989 Pugwash Workshop on Accidental Nuclear War (published under the same title by Science for Peace, 1990) pp.92-96, in which he revealed the instability that existed in the NATO-WTO military confrontation in Europe during the Cold War. The instability arose from a situation that either side would win in a surprise attack using conventional weapons, which could then lead to escalation through the use of nuclear weapons by the losing side. The adoption of defensive defence can overcome this instability. A triad of more detailed papers on defensive defence was presented earlier at the MBFR conference in Toronto in 1985 (Defending Europe, Options for Security, Taylor and Francis, 1986, Part 4). The authors of the three papers were Anders Boserup, Alvin Saperstein, and Frank Barnaby. Together they describe fully the state of thinking about defensive defence at that time. See also bibliography, at the end of this paper, where the connection between defensive defence and increasing security is convincingly made. The basic condition for defensive defence to succeed in the context of two rival militaries, A and B, is that A’s defence must be stronger than B’s offence and B’s defence simultaneously stronger than A’s offence. According to Afheldt, the defence must be much stronger. It is appropriate to ask whether the Taliban have in fact not mastered the art of defensive defence rather well. More than one strategist has suggested the war in Afghanistan cannot be won by the NATO forces.
The notion of defensive defence is introduced here not to replace disarmament, but rather to enable a condition to be attained that provides the perception of security required for disarmament to proceed.


The acronym GRIT stands for Graduated and Reciprocal Initiatives in Tension Reduction. The concept, which was originally intended for bilateral disarmament, is due to Charles Osgood, whose original paper (1957?) on this subject was evidently read by President Kennedy, who later decided to apply it in practice, and did so with some modest success. It amounts to a form of disarmament without negotiation and works like this. The first party seeking disarmament announces to the second that it is preparing to carry out certain unilateral disarmament steps, and it will pause after the initial stage to announce what the steps already taken have been, and observe what the response is from the other party. If the response is sufficient, it will carry out further steps, otherwise it will cease its unilateral moves. The GRIT process has the immense advantage that it does not require, for example, reduction in numbers of tanks to be responded to with reductions of the same, or any other particular type of weapon. It leaves each party free to cling to their own ideas of security, while encouraging reductions overall.

3. Treaties

It will be noted that neither process above requires a treaty negotiation to set it in motion. A third concept acknowledged during the Cold War is that it is easier to obtain a Treaty that codifies the status quo than to obtain a treaty that requires specific steps to be fulfilled such as the disarmament of particular weapons or changes in disposition of armed forces. A treaty codifying the status quo might, however, state that the parties would continue unilateral disarmament steps in keeping with the aims of the treaty to enhance general security. This opens up a credible route to a disarmed world without decade-long delays caused by the negotiations themselves.
A most important area for the reduction of international tensions is the negotiation of a new treaty on the uses of outer space. For more than 20 years, the United States has been bent upon military dominance in space and from space. Such developments involve planning to put armaments in space; and anti-satellite capabilities, that is, the capability to destroy another nation’s satellite in Earth orbit. Space Command in the USA still clings to these objectives, notwithstanding the contrary views of President Obama on these topics. Logically, the objectives set out in Vision for 2020 make no sense for a variety of reasons. First, Both China and Russia have made it clear that they also have anti-satellite capabilities, and would destroy US armaments if placed in space. Second, the wholesale destruction of military satellites in Earth orbit would create excessive debris in the belt generally used by orbiting satellites, permanently endangering the entire system of national and international telecommunications. See bibliography — film. Such war in space, therefore, is something that simply mustn’t take place.

4. Conversion and retraining

It is vital in seeking a secure peace in a disarmed world to ensure opportunities and employment for the very many skilled scientists, engineers and managers (including especially military officers) who would be displaced from their current occupations by major disarmament. Part of the overall security must therefore come from conversion from military to civil production and retraining. Canada gained some experience organizing such work from its participation in the Global Partnership Program (google: Global Partnership Program summative evaluation).


The above fivefold combination provides a starting point for a flexible strategy to attain disarmament in a world of increasing security from military attack, but is unlikely to be sufficient for the purpose of attaining a world without war, as it is founded on experience gained in the Cold War, and is unlikely to cover all aspects of present security requirements. There is no doubt a new set of understandings for outer space will have to be worked out, and a new UN Treaty on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space will be a good place to start.


1 SIPRI has recently announced the expenditure to be $1.53 trillion for 2009, a 5.9 percent increase over 2008. ^

2 Sponsored by Science for Peace and the Canadian Pugwash Group. ^


Bjørn Møller, “Common Security and Non-offensive Defence as Guidelines for Defence Planning and Arms Control, International Journal of Peace Studies, 1, 2 (1996), 66 references.

Film: Pax Americana: The Militarization of Space (2010)

Copyright © Derek Paul July 2010