In November 1921, delegations representing the world’s great naval powers—the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France and Italy, gathered in Washington, D.C. Called by President Warren G. Harding, the meeting had an ambitious goal: heading off a potential “arms race” in naval construction, by limiting the size of the participants’ fleets.
The so-called Washington Naval Conference dragged on until February of the following year, but it did produce several landmark agreements. Participants agreed to tonnage limitations on their capital ships, with no single vessel displacing more than 35,000 tons, and total displacement caps for each signatory.
Terms of the agreement were spelled out in the Washington Naval Treaty, the conference’s most important accord. Under a provision known as the 5:5:3 ratio, the U.S. and Great Britain had a displacement limit of 525,000 tons for their capital ships, compared to 315,000 tons for Japan and 175,000 tons for both France and Italy. The Soviet Union (which was not invited to the conference) and Germany, still recovering from World War I, were not bound by the naval accord.
Supporters hailed the Washington treaty as a breakthrough—the first successful disarmament agreement in history. But events over the next decade suggest otherwise. While the compact placed caps on aircraft carrier tonnage (as part of the displacement totals for capital ships), all participants were well under the limit in that category. As a result, the U.S., Japan and Great Britain expanded their carrier programs, building toward the tonnage caps for that type of vessel.
In that regard, the Washington Naval Treaty helped set the stage for Pearl Harbor, rather than preventing it. With the agreement’s limitations on battleships, the Japanese Navy began building the aircraft carriers and fast escorts that would steam across the Pacific in 1941 and lay waste to the American fleet in Hawaii. The U.S. and British navies underwent similar transformations, though both viewed carrier aviation in a supporting role to battleship fleets.
It’s also worth remembering that the naval treaty collapsed barely a decade after it was signed. Italy, which didn’t like the limitations imposed on its navy, never followed the agreement. Japan viewed the tonnage ratio as a deliberate snub by the west and pulled out of the treaty by 1936. By that time, Tokyo was well on its way to fielding a fleet of 10 carriers and the super-battleships of the Yamato class, which violated terms of the accord.
While the U.S. and Great Britain continued to observe the naval agreement, it put them at a disadvantage as World War II loomed. When the keel was laid for the USS North Carolina in 1937, it became the first American battleship built in 20 years. Britain embarked on a similar program to build new capital ships, in preparation for potential conflict with Germany and Japan.
The ultimate failure of the Washington Naval Treaty is a useful reminder of the perils of disarmament. Efforts to limit—or even eliminate— categories of weapons usually lead to violations (as in the case of Italy and Japan during the 1930s), or the development of other types of armaments.
However, the lessons of the Washington are apparently lost on another disarmament conference, currently underway in Dublin. For more than a year, human rights groups have been pressing for a ban on cluster munitions which, they claim, are indiscriminate and deadly to civilian populations.
And, an agreement is apparently in the offing. According to The New York Times “Lede" blog, representatives of various European countries—including the U.K.—are voicing support for a treaty that would outlaw virtually all types of cluster weapons, while mandating assistance for victims and clearance of those weapons from the battlefield.
The United States did not send a delegation to Dublin and is dead-set against the proposed accord.
“Any country that signs the convention,” said Stephen Mull, an assistant secretary of state, “in effect would make it impossible for the United States or any of our other allies who rely on these weapons to participate in these humanitarian exercises.”
In other words, it would be difficult to liberate countries like Iraq and Afghanistan--0r defend nations like South Korea and Taiwan--without the use of cluster munitions, which are very effective against concentrated groups of vehicles and personnel. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the employment of cluster bombs reportedly persuaded one of Saddam’s divisions to surrender, after they saw another unit decimated by those weapons. In that particular instance, the cluster weapons likely saved innocent lives.
Critics charge that cluster bombs inflict an unfair toll on civilians because some of the bomblets fail to explode on impact, or time-delay fuses don’t function. Because of those flaws, the sub-munitions may remain active for years, posing a hazard to farmers and other civilians who stumble across them.
To support their case for a cluster bomb ban, activists cite Israel’s 2006 war against Hizballah in Lebanon. By one estimate, unexploded ordnance (including cluster bombs) has killed 30 civilians in that country since the conflict ended almost two years ago.
But Lebanon also illustrates the folly of the proposed ban. As the Times points out, Israel was also on the receiving end of cluster bomb attacks, the result of Hizballah’s prolonged rocket barrage. From what we gather, the group has no representatives at the Dublin conference, and has no plans to ban cluster munitions in future attacks on Israel. The same holds true for Iran, which supplies most of the weaponry used by the terrorist group.
Against those realities, the proposed cluster bomb agreement will likely become a companion peace for 1999 Ottawa Treaty, which bans production, use and transfer of anti-personnel landmines. The United States has not signed the accord, recognizing that landmines are a legitimate weapon (when used properly).
American officials also point out that the weapons are an important part of our defensive strategy in Korea, deterring a possible enemy invasion across the DMZ. Additionally, they note that current technology can make landmines less lethal, through the use of time-delays that detonate the weapons after a specified period of time—the same devices that can be used with cluster bombs.
The U.S. has also noted that countries (and groups) that produce or utilize less sophisticated landmines have refused to support the ban. Consequently, these weapons remain widely available—and used—despite implementation of the Ottawa Treaty. That accord, like the naval treaty of the 1920s, reminds us that arms control only works when all parties have the incentive--and the willingness--to uphold their agreements.