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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Problem of disarmament in British diplomacy, 1932-1934 Richardson, Richard Calam


The problem of disarmament is the problem of the effective management of power within international society. Force cannot be eliminated as a factor in international relations, but it can be controlled. And a disarmament convention - an agreement to limit and perhaps reduce national armaments - can secure this control by stabilizing the configuration of world power. The obstacles to the negotiation of a disarmament convention are political rather than technical, and at the World Disarmament Conference of 1932-4, the major problem was the reconciliation of French and German claims. Germany, disarmed by the Peace Treaty of 1919, demanded "equality of rights" with other nations while France demanded additional security guarantees before she would agree to limit her arms. The reconciliation of French and German claims was in Britain's interest, because her security depended, in part at least, on a stable and peaceful Continent. Yet the British Government followed a policy that was not conducive to a reconciliation. British Ministers refused to offer France security guarantees to compensate for the inevitable increase in German power accompanying a grant of equality of rights and this refusal was the major factor leading to the breakdown of the Disarmament Conference in 1934. The main reason for the refusal was that British Ministers subscribed to the putative existence of an international "harmony of interests". They assumed that each state had a common interest in peace and that this common interest was compatible with the pursuit of the national interest, and they therefore hoped that international problems could be settled without recourse to force or threat of force. This was a delusion. Although professing a desire to achieve their objectives by peaceful means, "revisionist" states - including Germany - were not averse to using or threatening force if it would lead to the fulfilment of their national ambitions. "Harmony of interests" was a very self-serving doctrine. It permitted Britain to exert a large measure of influence on the Continent with very few commitments and at little cost, allowing the Government to concentrate on defending Britain's more immediate interests - the security of the Empire and the protection of her trade routes. Thus, the various disarmament schemes put forward by the Government at Geneva were based almost solely on Britain's immediate interests and made little attempt at trying to reconcile the interests of France and Germany – the main problem facing the Disarmament Conference. The British public came to believe in the premise of a "harmony of interests" and in consequence, despite its overwhelming majority in the Commons, the Government found it difficult - or chose to find it difficult – to deviate from its policy of "no commitments". Britain was even averse to mediating between France and Germany. Although the two Continental Powers looked to Britain for help in solving their problems, the British Government refused to play the role of "honest broker" - except when the role was inescapable — and thus failed to take advantage of many excellent opportunities for concluding a Franco-German settlement. By adopting a policy which offered short-term advantages but little hope of a long-term settlement of European problems, Britain was instrumental in causing the failure of the Geneva Disarmament Conference. This study is based on the records of the Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments and the published diplomatic documents of Britain, France, Germany, America, and Belgium. Memoir sources, in general, were unhelpful, but did provide some useful information, as did a few unpublished documents from the Public Record Office, London provided by Dr. F. Marzari.

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