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In the closing years of the 19th century, in a climate of growing unease, serious thought was given to the task of minimising international conflict. In the absence of government leadership, a number of private initiatives gave rise to agencies such as the Institute of International Law (1873), the Inter-parliamentary Union (1887), and the Nobel Committee. After a long period of gestation which began in 1843, when the first Peace Congress had been held in London, an International Peace Bureau began to operate regularly from 1891 out of Berne in Switzerland, co-ordinating national organisations and arranging meetings. Pacifist opinions were given publicity around Europe including those of the Swiss jurist Johann Kaspar Bluntschli, the Austrian writers Bertha von Suttner and Alfred Hermann Fried, the French socialist Jean Jaures, and the English economist Norman Angell. Angell's The Great Illusion argued that the economic interest of nations had rendered war redundant.

Yet the most successful appeal for action came from the Tsar of Russia. Following his intervention, two massive peace conferences assembled at The Hague in 1899 and 1907 to discuss disarmament, the arbitration of international disputes, and the rules of land warfare. Practical results followed. The Permanent Court of Arbitration came into being in 1900, and the Hague Convention on the Laws and Customs of War in 1907. A maritime conference assembled in London in 1908-9.

But pacifism did not enjoy general support among the citizens nor among the politicians of the leading states. The ethos of unrestrained state power was deeply rooted. As the German Field Marshal von Moltke had written in 1880:
Perpetual peace is a dream, and not even a beautiful dream. War is part of God's order. Without war, the world would stagnate and lose itself in materialism. In it, Man's most noble virtues are displayed- courage and self-denial, devotion to duty, willingness to sacrifice oneself, and to risk life itself.

Similar sentiments were voiced in France and Britain. Jaures was murdered on 31 July 1914 on the grounds that pacifism was treason. At the same time, the generals were coming to recognise that the destructiveness of a future war would far exceed anything previously known, and that the Powers would embark on it at their peril. In his last address to the Reichstag in May 1890, the ageing Moltke issued a grave warning:
If this war were to break out, no one could foresee how long it would last nor how it would end. . . Gentlemen, it could be a Seven Years' War; it could be a Thirty Years' War; and woe to the man who. . . first throws the match into the powder keg.

As a result, the military staffs of Europe were torn between the prevailing spirit of militarism and the growing counsels of prudence. They then followed the most dangerous of all courses. They accelerated their preparations for war, assembling huge arsenals and training vast conscript armies, whilst carefully avoiding conflict for decade after decade.

The bitter lessons of World War I increased the international community’s fear of war and high levels of military spending. After the end of the war, arms control and disarmament once again were put at the top of the international agenda. However, during this period the process of arms control remained in the hands of the big powers. To restrain and reduce their opponents’ strength and strengthen themselves was still the main theme of disarmament initiatives at this time. A series of unilateral and multilateral disarmament initiatives not only did not achieve any substantial results, but created new contradictions. This led to a new round of arms races that became sources of tension in Europe and Asia and were major reasons for the outbreak of World War II.

Humanity had barely emerged from the shadow of World War II to enjoy a brief dawn of peace when the Cold War began between the two big camps headed by the United States and the then Soviet Union. With the emergence of nuclear weapons, international arms control and disarmament during this long period were concerned mainly with the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The guiding principles of the US and Soviet military authorities remained that of using negotiations to restrain the development of their opponent's military strength while preserving their own and seeking military superiority. Of course, because the danger and potential destructiveness of nuclear war increased continuously from the 1960s onward, the United States and the Soviet Union did make compromises and reached some agreements on the control of strategic weapons. For example, the Interim Agreement on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Weapons (SALT I), the Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems (ABM Treaty), the Treaty on the Limitation of Strategic Arms (SALT II) and the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Short-Range Missiles (INF Treaty). Although these treaties represented another form of strategic contention between the United States and the Soviet Union, the ABM and other agreements have objectively played a certain role in maintaining the world’s strategic balance and stability.

Today the Soviet Union has gone and, while Russia retains a vast military apparatus, it is the United States that remains the world's only superpower - a superpower whose military ambitions appear to have no bounds and whose administration is less keen than ever to be constrained by international treaties and laws.

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