January 28, 2021, 12:00
Making Peace in Stockholm, summer 1986
By Metta Spencer
A group of Nordic women have been marching for peace every summer lately—to Paris, or Moscow and Minsk, or to Washington. This summer, however, they stayed in Stockholm and marched only a couple of hours each day before holding noontime rallies on the steps in front of the Stockholm Disarmament Conference. I joined them for two memorable weeks.
All of Scandinavia followed our marches on television. We wore flowing caftans of pink or blue, embroidered with butter flies, flowers, and doves. We carried banners of batik or quilted satin. Some of the women pushed prams, while others wore ace bandages for their varicose veins. We sang traditional protest songs in Swedish—a challenge to those of us who, despite knowing no Swedish, wanted to sing loudly instead of merely humming. (I improvised: The Swedish chorus of “Just like a tree standing by the water/ We shall not be moved” sounds like “Alley alley alley alley oop!” so that’s what I sang. It passed as all right; at least no one giggled except myself.)
While the media publicized our spirited affirmation of peace, the diplomats whom we had assembled to “encourage” remained utterly oblivious. There was no communication between the groups that gathered respectively on the inside and outside of those modernistic glass walls. Few of the Disarmament Conference delegates would even receive women visitors from their countries who came to stir up commitment to the cause of disarmament.
I was luckier. The Canadian Embassy (representing surely one of the most accessible, accommodating governments on earth) got me a press pass and an appointment to interview a leading member of its delegation.
The Stockholm Conference differs from all the other arms control negotiations that have been going on so fitfully in Europe. It is part of the “Helsinki Process” or CSCE—Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe—a long-term effort to solve some of the vexing problems that have been unsettled since World War II. The process began during the peak of detente when the Helsinki Accords were signed in 1975. The agreement signified a commitment by 35 nations (the NATO countries, the Warsaw pact countries, and all of the other European nations except Albania) to negotiate solutions to problems that were divided into three “baskets.”
Basket I includes security and human rights issues. It expressly provides for a commitment to peaceful coexistence; it pledges that frontiers should be changed only by peaceful means, and that states should cooperate and refrain from intervening in the internal affairs of other nations.
Basket II deals with economic, technical, and scientific cooperation, and includes questions of trade and the environment.
Basket III deals with human contacts, such as emigration rights, cultural and educational exchange, and the free movement of people, ideas, and information. Taken all together, these three baskets obviously contain the fate of Europe. Nothing could be more valuable for the prospect of peace than a favorable outcome of the Helsinki process.
Accordingly, plans were laid for a series of conferences to take place over many years and work out the details of the initial agreement. Any resolutions arising from such meetings are to be decided by consensus: The failure of any single country to accept a proposal will prevent any new agreement from being adopted.
With the breakdown of detente, hopes began to decline that any further progress could be made in the Helsinki process, and indeed the first follow-up meeting (Belgrade, 1977-78) was a total failure. However, the second meeting in Madrid was con eluded last summer with a modest amount of success; this was largely to the credit of the non-aligned European nations that acted as intermediaries between the eastern and western blocs.
The Stockholm Conference’s mandate is to deal with security problems-first with “confidence building measures” and only later, in the second phase, with disarmament. No specific time line has been laid out, so the Stockholm meetings are likely to run on for several years. The only date that is set for a review of its progress is November, 1986, when a whole CSCE meeting will convene in Vienna and probably tell the Stockholm negotiators to continue their work.
Other special meetings are also planned to deal with the issues in other baskets. Thus human rights will be discussed in a conference of experts in Ottawa next year, and in 1986 there will be a conference on human contacts in Berne, Switzerland. The Ottawa conference will be particularly difficult: Of all the topics considered in the Helsinki Accords, the human rights question has had the most unsatisfying results. The experienced American negotiator, George Kennan, reports that he had advised against undertaking any agreement with the Soviet Union on this question, since their understanding of human rights differs so much from the western concept. He claims that the Soviets are very good about keeping agreements that are spelled out concretely. However, promises to provide freedom and civil liberties cannot be made sufficiently specific, and he therefore expected the Soviets not to respect the human rights accords in a manner that would satisfy Westerners. Time has proved him right. The Soviets have been accused, time after time, of violating the Helsinki Accords. The Ottawa meeting is likely to be tense when the issue is reviewed there. However, it is important to realize that the Helsinki process covers much more than human rights.
Coming right after the deployment of the first Euromissiles and the consequent breakdown of talks between the U.S. and the USSR, the Stockholm Conference began under a cloud, and yet also with an inordinate number of hopes pinned onto it. It is almost the last remaining place where diplomats from the East and West face each other every few days and have an opportunity to end their stalemate, if an end is what they want. Yet one may doubt the stated intentions of some of the participants. It was largely to inject some “political energy” into negotiations such as these that Prime Minister Trudeau began his peace initiative last year.
In July, when I gained entry to the conference, I couldn’t sense any political energy whatever. The building is as depressing upstairs as it is delightful downstairs. The conference is conducted in a stylish environment on the upper floors of the elegant “Culture House” located on Stockholm’s main downtown square. Downstairs it houses a public library, an art gallery, and rooms for chess playing and listening to music.
But it is probably easier to enter the Pentagon than the upstairs area—the offices and meeting rooms of what is being called the CDE—Conference on Disarmament in Europe. If you even walk toward the entrance, a guard will intercept you to inspect the color photo on your press badge. Later you go through a metal detector, as an an airport, and put your badge through a machine. Inside, you head for the only observable cluster of people—reporters who are drinking coffee and talking in hushed tones as they have done every day for six months now. Nothing, they say, is going to happen. Others, far away, write the script for the players here, who in turn go through the motions with utter boredom.
The second session was ending and the diplomats were still trying to decide on the agenda and subcommittee structure for the conference. They’d been meeting in plenary sessions a couple of times a week since the conference began in January, and they’d been deadlocked in the preliminary phases.
The Soviets had proposed six different topics for the agendas: (1) nuclear weapon free zones; (2) no first use of nuclear weapons; (3) a reduction of chemical weapons; (4) freezing of military budgets all around; (5) a treaty on the non#use of force; and (6) agreements for each bloc to notify the other when troop movements are planned and possibly even invite observers.
The Western bloc had declined to discuss such a broad array of subjects. Initially they’d been willing only to discuss the final subject—the notification and observation of troop movements. However, President Reagan had at last budged a little and agreed to permit the general non-use of force to be discussed as well.
The main work of any conference is done in “working groups” where minutes are not kept and where delegates therefore speak more freely than in plenary sessions. Even the structure of those working groups had not been agreed upon. The West wanted a single working group (at least temporarily) that would address all issues. The Soviets, however, preferred to set up several different subgroups-one to handle each issue. The non-nuclear nations, led by Sweden, had been working toward a compromise structure-two working groups. One would deal with inspection and observation of troop movements (the only topic that the West actually wanted to discuss) and the other group would deal with all other matters. Just before their summer break, the delegates had to decide whether to adopt this proposal upon their return in September. I was there when they came out of their private meeting on this issue, and I joined the cluster of reporters that surrounded a short sombre man who was explaining in a Russian accent that he had not rejected the compromise proposal; he just hadn’t been able to accept it as everyone had hoped. They’d all have to go back to attempt a new compromise when the conference reconvened in September.
Seeing the Canadian delegate nearby, I admitted to him that I wasn’t surprised. The second working group had sounded to me like a wastebasket category, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Russians saw it that way too. “How about,” I suggested, “proposing three working groups-one of which would deal with the non-use of force?”
“That might be worth considering,” he replied. “We’ll see.”
I had already been to visit him on the preceding day, after clearing the Canadian delegation’s elaborate system of guards and intercoms. He was a dignified English Canadian in his forties, cautious in manner, and wearing the diplomat’s uniform—a navy blue pinstripe suit. (Only two or three percent of the delegates were women, and they too wore dark suits.)
I’d asked him right away why the West has refused to talk about all the topics that the Soviet want to put on the agenda.
“Well, there’s no way to avoid talking about them. We’re here all the time and we talk about all sorts of things,” he’d replied.
Still, he acknowledged that the two sides had very different agendas, and that the West viewed the Soviet’s list of 6 topics as “declaratory statements.” (This was a diplomat’s way of implying, apparently, that they lacked substance and were introduced strictly for effect.) The Soviets had been specific and detailed about only the sixth item-the issue that both sides really intended to discuss.
I’d presented myself as a journalist, not as a lobbyist, so he hadn’t asked for my opinion. Summoning uncommon self-control, I’d even refrained from offering it, though I was tempted to suggest that the only appropriate response to the Soviet’s “declaratory” statements was this: “Yes, we accept! Now let’s talk about specifics!”
He had excused the West’s reluctance to discuss the other topics on the grounds that hey were already being addressed elsewhere. The Chemical weapons were discussed in Geneva, where the Americans had proposed a control measure. Non-first use and military budgets are discussed in New York at the United Nations, and nuclear weapon free zones are discussed regionally. The West does not consider these to be real confidence-building measures anyhow.
I’d been surprised by his frequent reference to the “two blocs.” Do the delegates, I asked, refer to blocs in their speeches?
He’d acknowledged that they do. In Madrid, they had not normally done so. Indeed, when someone slipped and spoke of “our side”-meaning either alliance-he was scolded. But in Stockholm the reality of the two blocs is explicit and no one apologizes for referring to them. There is no preteens that the countries are all acting independently.
“Would Canada ever take an independent stand on any issue here?” I inquired.
He looked at me sternly. “You mean, separate ourselves from our allies?” he asked, as if merely by formulating the question in such stark terms he had shown that no answer was necessary.
I let that pass for an answer.
“What would it have taken,” I asked, “to keep the cruise missiles from being deployed in Europe? What, short of the zero-zero option, could the Russians have accepted that would have satisfied Reagan?”
He didn’t know, so he stopped a military advisor who was passing in the hallway. Together we tried to reconstruct the history of the offers and counter-offers that had led up to the breakdown to the START talks and the deployment of the Euromissiles. At one level I was going through the conversation and taking notes, but my real attention was not on the content of what they were saying but on where they were coming from, and I was reeling in dismay.
They had no intention of achieving disarmament, I concluded.
They are coming from the assumption that these bombs are valuable or even essential sources of security. To let go of them would represent making “our side” vulnerable. Just outside in the square, on the other hand, were my new friends, the Nordic peace women. They could wave banners and sing their hearts out, but it wouldn’t do any good. We inhabit two absolutely different worlds, with exactly opposing ideas about how to become secure. What my peace activist friends recognize as the most dangerous things that a nation could possibly own, these diplomats and military people consider vital to their well-being. They will stay inside here, twiddling their thumbs until the world ends and we’ll never even have a real conversation with them.
I thanked them politely, as a proper journalist, but riding the subway back to the women’s camp, I felt like crying.
My friends had returned to the dormitory too and were holding a meeting. They had drafted a resolution to send to the conference, but they couldn’t think of any way to get it past the security guards into the hands of anyone who’d read it. Their resolution was full of good proposals, but only one of them captured my imagination—a suggestion that participants (or at least observers) from the peace movement be admitted to all sessions of the Stockholm Conference. Fat chance.
Diplomats, like all other professions, claim to have an expertise that laymen lack. They insist that negotiations must be carried out in secrecy. And besides, they get their marching orders from the politicians. If the peace movement is to have any impact, it’s supposed to come by influencing politicians, not lobbying the negotiators. Bureaucrats, military experts, and diplomats are not supposed to be accountable to you and me. They’re not even expected to listen to us, and apparently they don’t.
Every small, socially-encapsulated social grouping develops its own limited world view. The delegates to the Stockholm Conference breathe re-processed air inside an impenetrable building. They communicate in a tight little circle, performing a mission that is not intended to succeed. The women on the square outside are right—the guys inside had better open the window and hear us singing.
Or better yet, open the door! Not just in Stockholm, but even in Canada, peace activists are losing patience with dawdling, foot-dragging diplomacy, and some of them intend to do more than serenade the delegates. The Voice of Women, a spirited and intelligent group of Canadian feminist peace workers, have begun to organize a training program for activist women who want to become delegates to disarmament conferences such as the one in Stockholm. About 100 selected women from various countries will be invited to Halifax next year, where they will acquire exactly the skills that will qualify them to serve as professional negotiators for peace.
It takes more than prompting from a Canadian prime minister to “inject some political will” into disarmament talks. It takes some fervent diplomats who mean business. Whether they wear pink embroidered caftans or blue pinstriped suits, the peace women intend to be there.