Memory Lane: The United States Documents Disarmament Progress

15 Oct

A recent memo from Randy Rydell from the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs announced the launch of the “Documents on Disarmament” series based on materials provided by the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (posted at:  Given Rydell’s long service to the UN it was appropriate that this announcement came from his email account.

The ACDA documents are a welcome reminder (especially for those of us who have been here a while) of the challenges, frustrations and sometimes high drama that have accompanied negotiations on weapons and weapons systems.   Only small segments of that affect come through in official documents.  Nevertheless, it is important to remember the ways in which triumphs in the disarmament field (CD, NPT, ATT and others) which we rightly celebrate and then so often proceed to ‘over sell’ can eventually lead to disappointment. This is especially likely to take place when we forget the following: 

  • That the political climate that largely influenced the content of these successes can also be their undoing, especially as ‘like-minded’ becomes a substitute for ‘clear minded.’
  • That the successes themselves are less like permanent, inflexible commitments and more like invitations to address longstanding security needs that people have long been clamoring for and expect global policymakers to address
  • That the solutions to current disarmament obstacles become more likely through both a consultation with the historical record and an honest clarification of future objectives.

For me, the ACDA documents were also a reminder of a larger truth and concern about the UN – the systematic shrinking of its institutional memory.   In fields both relevant to and far removed from disarmament, UN analysis often reminds me of the Oklahoma plains where I spent many early years – flat as far as the eye can see. As youths impacted by this type of environmental stimulus, we tended to have a better sense of what we needed and wanted than where we had come from and where we were headed. 

This is not really the best way to live, and probably not the best way to make policy either. 

As a system characterized by high turnover, shrinking term contracts, insufficient commitment to a leveling of its power dynamics, and NGOs too often content to play at the surfaces of policy, the UN has a growing memory deficit.   We have collectively embraced a ‘current events’ mentality that is increasingly disconnected from either past preparations or broader implications for the future of the planet.  Moreover, our mistakes often come in patterns, in part because we don’t sufficiently consult the people who have made similar mistakes in the past, and in part because people who have made those mistakes don’t appear to have learned enough to prevent them a second (or third) time around.

Longevity in any institution is clearly no guarantee of wisdom, of seeing the longer view.  But more institutional memory in more policy contexts might well help to ‘fill out’ some of our policy pronouncements so that people have important information not only about want we want and need but ‘where we came from’ and the direction that we want global security policy to go. 

“Where are we going?” is a question that we ask often in our private lives, and there are serious (and in my view justifiable) trust implications when we don’t get a suitable answer.  We need to ensure, all of us, that there are ample occasions to do more than simply replicate the present policy dynamics.  As part of that, we must be willing to think harder about goals and directions beyond ways to get as quickly as possible from policy challenge through national interest to adopted resolution. 

The billions of people who will have to live with what we collectively decide in this place need to know that we have done due diligence thinking through the implications of even our wisest pronouncements. In this task, our institutional memory — in the form of both documents and persons – can make a most precious contribution.

Dr. Robert Zuber

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