In this issue of a two-part interview, longstanding disarmament activist and Director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, Dr Dan Plesch, answers questions on disarmament.
By David J. Franco, 21 Feb, 2012
This interview has been conducted at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. After reading History in Nottingham and working for several NGOs focusing on the abolition of nuclear weapons, in 1986 Dr Dan Plesch founded the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), which he directed from Washington DC until 2001. After leaving DC, he was appointed Senior Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in Whitehall and worked with various TV and print media from 2001-2007 when he was appointed Director of the SOAS Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy where he set up the Disarmament and Globalisation Research Programme. The programme seeks to break assumptions of security based on a pre-atomic and pre-globalised era. In 2011 the CISD formally launched SCRAP, a holistic approach to global disarmament that proposes the adoption of an international legally binding agreement for complete and general disarmament. SCRAP was originally developed in Dr Plesch’s book, the Beauty Queen’s Guide to World Peace.
Issue I of this two-part interview series focuses on questions relating to disarmament generally. Issue II will discuss questions concerning SCRAP.
Franco: Good morning Dr Plesch, and welcome to a conversation with InPEC. While the world is filled with violence and conflict, nations continue to stockpile and trade weapons as well as develop new technological means of warfare. Against this background, is disarmament a realistic goal in the twenty first century?
Dr Plesch: What is unrealistic is to think that there will be no more world war in a world of weapons and conflict. Disarmament may not be possible but it is the only alternative to war and the self destruction of civilisation.
Franco: When confronted with disarmament, people tend to adopt a very sceptical position. What would you say to them?
Dr Plesch: It was effective in disarming Iraq in the early nineties, in removing landmines, in cutting US and Russian nuclear forces, in stopping nuclear test explosions over the last 13 years, and in governing all the conventional weapons and military activities from the Atlantic to the Urals- until now that is. All this was a pipe dream in the 80s, yet we did it, but it has been too readily forgotten. I think that without it we would have had World War Three and without more of it we will still.
Franco: Disarmament is only viable as long as it is comes with strong verification mechanisms. Against the current economic scenario, in which international verification agencies and organizations are financially constrained, is verification feasible?
Dr Plesch: Verification is cheap as chips compared to weapons; the whole global verification budget is under $200,000,000 dollars which would only buy a handful of fighter jets.
Franco: Critics often argue that disarmament is utopian on the grounds that effective verification is impossible, yet when they are presented with effective verification methods and options their response is that verification violates state sovereignty. Does this not reflect a lack of political will rather than a lack of belief in the potential realization pf general and complete disarmament?
Dr Plesch: Yes
Franco: Building on the previous question, does disarmament represent a threat to state sovereignty?
Dr Plesch: States would agree to it – so no. If anything, the current situation seriously undermines sovereignty as states have no control over certain threats such as nuclear fallout from someone else’s war. The point is that common threats require shared sovereignty, whether on war or climate change or the global economy.
Franco: We have pointed above that the failure of disarmament agendas is more the result of a lack of will than the result of a lack of belief in its potential realization. What in your opinion are the motives for such lack of will, especially amongst the great powers?
Dr Plesch: It is hard to ask anyone to vote against their own pay check – certainly generals and industrialists. But remember these are the cultures that went to war in 1914 on horses when they went to theatre in motorised taxi cabs, who thought that Iraq and Afghanistan would be easy. It is perilous to think that nuclear weapons operations would be handled any less disastrously.
Franco: Arms control and disarmament are often used as interchangeable concepts when in fact they are not. How much is being done these days when it comes to disarmament as opposed to other approaches to security?
Dr Plesch: Disarmament is the Cinderella whilst weapons and non-proliferation are the mean sisters concerned to hang on to what they have and dominate others.
Franco: Are academia and the broader civil society the only places where the D word (Disarmament) can be used and advocated for?
Dr Plesch: All states have pro-disarmament sectors within them. In some states this is strong — some of these are small and vocal such as Costa Rica or Norway, others such as Brazil are influential and quieter.
Franco: Let’s say disarmament can be achieved. How then will states defend themselves from external and internal threats?
Dr Plesch: Industrialised societies will always have the ability to re-militarise if they wish to. But once an overall system of confidence measures is in place then incentives are much reduced. Internal security combined with a responsibility to protect will still be assured and the legitimate state retains the right to a monopoly on the use of force internally. The UN should have a limited force as was originally intended.
Franco: In the past disarmament used to be approached in isolation, yet numerous analyses point to the linkage between disarmament, international law, climate change, development, human rights, and humanitarian law. Are we entering an age in which these issues can no longer be addressed in isolation?
Dr Plesch: There are tough choices between fragmentation and allowing loopholes and being too comprehensive. At present there is no conception that a comprehensive approach to disarmament is conceivable. This is why we have developed SCRAP, to show that building on existing achievements world disarmament is practical. It is certainly a more proven technical project that controlling climate change, which although not almost univerally agreed is a project too important to let fail regardless of the difficulties. The same logic applies to the world of weapons where failure threatens a far more immediate and catastrophic result.
Franco: Thank you, Dr Plesch, for answering our questions.