THE question of disarmament is to be discussed at Geneva early in 1932 at a great conference called by the League of Nations. At the end of the war the world was exhausted and horrified by the slaughters which it had witnessed, and the ideal of peace shone before the eyes of the peoples in all its splendor. The League of Nations was thought of as the most suitable instrument for realizing that ideal. It was recognized that excessive armaments, far from guaranteeing peace, tend to foster a warlike spirit; and thus it came about that Articles VIII and IX of the Covenant made specific stipulations in this regard. It will not be amiss to recall them here:

Article VIII. 1. The Members of the League recognize that the maintenance of peace requires the reduction of national armaments to the lowest point consistent with national safety and the enforcement by common action of international obligations.

2. The Council, taking account of the geographical situation and circumstances of each State, shall formulate plans for such reduction, for the consideration and action of the several Governments.

3. Such plans shall be subject to reconsideration and revision at least every ten years.

4. After these plans shall have been adopted by the several Governments, the limits of armaments therein fixed shall not be exceeded without the concurrence of the Council.

5. The Members of the League agree that the manufacture by private enterprise of munitions and implements of war is open to grave objections. The Council shall advise how the evil effects attendant upon such manufacture can be prevented, due regard being had to the necessities of those Members of the League which are not able to manufacture the munitions and implements of war necessary for their safety.

6. The Members of the League undertake to interchange full and frank information as to the scale of their armaments, their military, naval, and air programs, and the condition of such of their industries as are adaptable to warlike purposes.

Article IX. A permanent Commission shall be constituted to advise the Council on the execution of the provisions of Articles I and VIII, and on military, naval and air questions generally.

The design to proceed to a general disarmament of all the nations was further avowed in the preamble to Part V of the Treaty of Versailles, a declaration that was taken over into the Treaties of St. Germain, Neuilly and Trianon.

In the many years that have passed, and despite the earnest efforts of its commissions, the League of Nations has not attained any practical results in connection with disarmament.[i] Why has this been? Just what were the obligations imposed by the treaties above alluded to? Just what are the influences that have so far prevented the execution of promises so formally made and several times reiterated? Since we are to face disarmament in a practical way it is best not to have illusions. The solution of the problem will not be easy in any case. It will become even more involved if the real difficulties continue to be ignored.

In the treaties in question disarmament was considered as a duty to civilization, as a solid foundation for peace, and as a means of removing causes of international discord. It was to be the means of devoting the huge sums spent on armies, navies, air fleets and fortifications to the promotion of human progress. This was the intelligence and the good sense of the matter. But real love of peace had not as yet made its way into the hearts of men. The vanquished peoples thought of disarmament as a punishment inflicted upon them; the victor nations thought of it as a guarantee that no revanche would be attempted against them. Whereas, for the treaties to be made effective, it was necessary that the will to disarm should be felt with equal sincerity and warmth by all the peoples who had assumed the obligation of doing so.

First of all we must have clearly in mind the implications of the disarmament directly required of members of the League of Nations, and indirectly of all nations. In the eyes of those who framed the Covenant, disarmament was to consist first in an immediate return of all countries from a war footing to a peace footing; and then in a reduction of armies, navies and air forces to a minimum consistent with the maintenance of domestic order and security from attack. Those gentlemen never thought of that minimum as the minimum necessary for fighting an eventual war. War was regarded as out of the question, as something if not impossible at least very improbable, in view of the declarations which had been made in the various treaties and which in some instances had been fortified by legal sanctions.

Now if in truth people could have absolute confidence that the prohibition laid on war would be respected by all nations there would be no hesitations regarding disarmament. But unfortunately the fact is that even those peoples who proposed the treaties in question and drew them up are by no means agreed as to the exact interpretation of the prohibition of war; because at the bottom of the human soul lurks the feeling that the war that is condemned is the war waged by one's enemy, not by oneself. That is why the concrete propositions for disarmament thus far put forward do not altogether discount the danger of war and do not ignore the consideration that armies and navies in time of peace are so constituted as to provide preparation for armies and navies in time of war. These have always been the fundamental considerations. Meantime, the reasons for which armaments ought to be maintained but at the same time limited stand clearly set forth in the documents mentioned above -- and those documents constitute the law in the case.

Individuals speaking with authority have held that among the prerequisites to disarmament must be placed such an organization of international justice as will guarantee security to each country and provide for the satisfaction of just claims through legal channels. But as a matter of fact the international law established by the treaties alluded to above does not regard justice and security as essential prerequisites to reductions of armaments.

As regards justice, the Covenant does not make disarmament dependent on the organization of international justice, but places them both on the same footing as two powerful factors of peace. And we may add that during the first ten years of its far from inglorious life the League of Nations has successfully made many proposals beyond the limits of action designated in the Covenant -- among them its proposals for international arbitration, and for the establishment and regulation of the Permanent Court at The Hague. These were gigantic steps in the direction of international justice, even in matters which in the past have not been subject to arbitration or to the decisions of courts.

As regards security, Article IX of the Covenant refers to it not as a prerequisite to disarmament but as a limit of disarmament: " . . . the reduction of armaments to the lowest point consistent with national safety. . . ." And the security thus regarded as a limit is not the security resulting from present scales of armament but the security that will result from general disarmament. Regard must be had, therefore, not to armaments as they are at present, but to future conditions. The limit was never thought of as an impediment to beginning the work of disarmament. The states which are members of the League of Nations have legally and unconditionally obligated themselves to reduce their armaments, but with reservations only as to the limit beyond which they will disarm.

Likewise devoid of legal basis is the contention that the situation at the point of departure must be taken as the criterion for determining the point of arrival. The status of armament at present prevailing in the different countries is often determined by considerations of history, as well as by economic conditions ephemeral in character. But such things cannot be taken into account, since disarmament is to be effected with reference to the point of arrival, not with reference to the point of departure.

There has been much debate as to the wisdom of taking present proportions of military and naval strength as the norm for disarmament. A consideration of present strengths can have legal status only as one of the "circumstances" to be taken into account by the Council (according to Article IX) in preparing its plans for reduction. But whenever present armaments are disproportionate and excessive even under present day conditions, it is clearly one of the intents of the Covenant that such armaments should be reduced to reasonable proportions as compared with other armaments, in order that the general reduction of armaments may not continue the preponderant power of any one country.

Among other "circumstances" specific reference is made in Article VIII to geographical location. Other special circumstances of which the Council must take account are not detailed, but evidently they would have to comprise questions of population, considered under aspects both quantitative and qualitative; the productive power of a country; the number and kind of its military institutions; the kind of armament it employs; its fortifications as at present existing; and so on.

As regards the notion of security, which is to be taken as the limit of disarmament, attention must be paid to the three great categories of armament which the countries of the world at present have at their disposal.

Navies are perhaps the easiest to deal with, for a navy on a peace basis does not vary greatly from what it will be on a war footing, at least during the early stages of a war, provided no account is taken of possible alliances or purchases of ships from other countries. It is feasible, therefore, to limit the wartime strength of nations at sea by limiting their peacetime establishments.

When we come to consider land forces we find it much more difficult to estimate the wartime strength of nations, for here it is not merely numbers that count but the preparation and training which has been given them. History shows in more cases than one that countries apparently very weak in military equipment have proved themselves highly prepared when war actually breaks out.

The control of aerial forces, again, is far more complicated than the regulation of navies. It is much easier to build an airship than a naval vessel, and peacetime airplanes may rapidly be adapted to wartime uses.

We must not forget a further difficulty that has direct bearing on the problem. In view of the terrifying progress made recently in the development of poisonous gases and bacteria, weapons which are aimed at civil populations in particular, why should so much stress be laid on limiting kinds of arms which may have only a secondary importance in any future war? It is true that the use of weapons such as these is prohibited by treaties even antedating the Kellogg-Briand Pact. But there is little hope that treaties defining proper and improper instrumentalities of warfare will be respected in case of actual war. While it will be easy enough to obtain limitations on the use of such weapons in times of peace the problem of regulating preparedness in respect of them will be very difficult; for their production is closely conjoined with the processes of normal industry.

We must now consider certain difficulties arising in connection with the practical application of plans for disarmament.

According to Article VIII of the Covenant, the initiative in proposing plans of disarmament to each country is left with the Council, which is to take account of the special circumstances of that country. Criticism of these plans then becomes the function of the various governments concerned. This arrangement would seem to preclude the elaboration of a single general scheme which might be applied to each country in turn.

In practice, however, the procedure thus far has been somewhat different: the search has been precisely for fundamental -- in other words general -- principles of disarmament. So the relative positions of rule and exception have been inverted. This fact involves no violation of the Covenant; for the essential point there is not the manner of procedure, but the legal force of the limitation fixed by the Council and accepted by the individual governments. If therefore at the coming conference, or at some future one, any rule -- with or without exception -- comes to be accepted by all countries and by the Council, it will be valid as a general norm from which there can be no departure save by consent of the Council. The points of law already established by the Covenant are: first, that a reduction of armaments is essential to peace; second, that such reduction must be made to the minimum compatible with national safety and international obligations for action in common; third, that the amount of reduction is to be fixed by the Council with the consent of the individual countries. Everything would seem to depend on the arbitrary choice of the various countries and of the Council. But what is meant is not that such choice may be arbitrary. What is arbitrary is that the Council and the various countries shall come to some conclusion, after reasonable and rational discussion, in the spirit of the precepts laid down in the Covenant. The coming Conference must therefore loyally strive to reach a conclusion, remembering that failure to observe articles in the Covenant which have become part and parcel of other treaties might constitute legal cause for dissolving the League of Nations.

The system that first comes to mind, in view of the language of the Covenant, and in particular of Article IX, where the establishment of a Permanent Commission on disarmament is recommended, would be the preparation of as many separate plans of disarmament as there are countries, each plan to be criticized and approved by the respective country. But this procedure, apparently so simple and expeditious, breaks down on the fact that the circumstance of one country cannot be determined apart from the circumstances of other countries, nor can anything important and decisive be done in one country without reference to all other countries. The League of Nations has therefore done well in collecting data on the forces of the various Powers and referring those data to a world conference for a discussion of the more important general questions. At this moment one can only speculate as to the reasons that may be put forward for rejecting one type of disarmament and preferring another.

It is very improbable that there will be any effort merely to regulate the number of men to be used in an army or navy; or to make proportional reductions in the size of military units; or to suppress a certain number of fractions in the military whole. All attempts to organize reduction in armaments on such bases have come to nought. For one thing, many countries will never consent to absolute publicity as to their military arrangements beyond the publicity provided for in certain articles in the Covenant. Furthermore, the Council would have no end of difficulty in performing its task of constant vigilance and remodeling its plans every ten years. In many of its functions the League has had to halt in deference to individual national interests, and at times even in the face of traditional sentiments devoid of actual substance. Plainly, matters touching national safety -- real or imagined -- are among those about which countries are extraordinarily sensitive.

The second system that has been suggested would limit by general agreement the military appropriations of each country. By this plan the individual countries would be free to use their allotments as they please. This indirect method of arriving at disarmament seems in fact to have the greatest chance of being accepted. Its obvious advantage is that it would assure economy in military expenditures, so that a part at least of the present wastage can be applied to productive purposes; and the financial effects of disarmament on this basis can be computed in dollars and cents. Nevertheless, not a few difficulties beset this simple plan. It is not easy to determine just what a military budget is. Costs of munitions, ships, planes and weapons may be estimated with fair exactitude, but not so the cost of personnel, which varies not only in proportion to numbers and quality of men but in relation to costs of living in general. The same expenditures can produce vastly different military results in different countries. Militias are trained in different countries in altogether different ways, and in many countries a not inconsiderable amount of the military activity is provided for under budgets of public education, relief for unemployment, and the like. In the domain of transportation, especially, it is difficult to distinguish what is a military expenditure from what is legitimately civil. A country might show insignificant military appropriations on the governmental budget, while providing for extensive military preparedness through special associations and local organizations. Vigilance by the League regarding such matters would encounter the same obstacles which are involved in keeping an eye on the details of military organizations, referred to above. Nor have I said anything of the fact that the importance of the various branches of armament varies with different countries. Navies are relatively much more expensive than armies; and some countries do not have navies. All countries, on the other hand, can have air fleets, composed in some cases of dirigibles and in some of heavier than air machines. It is abundantly clear that the enforcement of regulations calculated to cover such complicated situations would give rise to endless controversy and would imply the sort of external supervision which countries are least disposed to tolerate.

Tender sensibilities and suspicion are on every hand. This being so, we must keep firmly in mind the necessity of maintaining as high as possible the moral position of the Council of the League of Nations. The power of the League is different from that of individual states in that it does not rest directly on economic resources and military force. Its power lies in its moral authority and in the sentiment of collective advantage. It is this authority and this sentiment which win general respect for the League, even from those who find themselves opposed rather than assisted by it at a particular moment, and it is these same factors which give us cause to hope for the progressive solution of the disarmament problem under the League's auspices.

In calling attention to a few of the many difficulties inherent in any attempt to grapple with the disarmament problem I am far from suggesting that the idea of disarmament itself be abandoned. I am merely taking the realistic course of pointing out that progress toward the ideal will probably be slow and will require patient devotion on the part of those who are called upon to find ways and means of applying the fundamental principle announced in the Covenant. Upon that principle all men of goodwill must agree. We must not lose confidence. The cause of international courts once seemed more difficult of realization than the cause of disarmament seems now; yet in a very few years we have witnessed the establishment of international courts and a rapid extension of the spheres of their competence. In the case of disarmament the very variety of the objections being raised against it may eventually prove to have helped toward finding that middle ground on which law is commonly constituted.

[i] The naval pacts made at Washington and London were the work of individual states and relate to navies only.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • VITTORIO SCIALOJA, formerly Minister of Foreign Affairs of Italy; head of the Italian delegation to the League of Nations
  • More By Vittorio Scialoja