TFF logo TFF logo
T r e a s u r e s 2011
TREASURES Sitemap Areas we work in Resources Columns and art


About TFF

Support our work

Search & services

Contact us


Can small countries really have an impact
on peace and disarmament?

Maj Britt Theorin, Dr. h.c., former Ambassador
for Disarmament and TFF Associate

February 28, 2011

Lecture given at the New Zealand Parliament  15/11 2010


Ladies and gentlemen.

As a former college it gives me a special pleasure to visit your parliament again. It was long ago in the 1980s and much has happened in between. Last time I was not only a parliamentarian but also as ambassador responsible for Swedish peace and disarmament policy.

In order to answer the question if a small country can have impact on peace and disarmament  I have to go back to 1930s  before the Second World War. The Europe women´s movement was deeply involved against war.  In 1935 a conference on “Women´s unarmed rebellion against war” was organized. Alva Myrdal was elected to take part and demanded stop for all weapon´s trade and proposed peace education at schools. Inga Thorson, the second women as chair of the Swedish disarmament delegation after Alva, brought then up conversion to civil production.  Already in 1935 boycott was discussed as a weapon. I will come back to the influence from the 1930s later on.

From 1939 to 1945 the Second World War over Europe was a reality and Sweden declared itself neutral. In the beginning of 1948 the communist party took over in Czecho-Slovakia and changed the country to a vassal state of the Soviet Union. Some months later Finland signed the Friendship-Cooperation and Support Pact with the Soviet Union, which gave the Soviet Union the right to intervene if Finland later on should give up its neutrality and move west.

In January 1949 the negotiations between Norway, Denmark and Sweden on a Scandinavian Defense Alliance Union broke down. Norway and Denmark entered NATO and Sweden declared itself neutral and non-aligned.

The neutrality gave the small country Sweden space on the international arena beyond what would seem to correspond with our military and economic strength. The alliance policy created the platform which gave Swedish politicians and diplomats a  possibility to play important roles on the world arena. Sweden used this position early in colonial affairs. As the only country in the western world Sweden voted 1959 for a UN resolution which recognized Algeria’s right to independence from France. This was an important signal during the time when the fight against colonialism intensified in Africa and dozens of new countries were at the threshold of independence.

During the following years contacts were taken with ANC in South Africa and liberation movements in Portuguese and British colonies. These actions probably gave ground for the following strong support for Sweden from the so-called Third World and the  Non-Aligned Movement in the UN.

In October 1961 the Minister of Foreign Affairs Undén gave a speech in UN where among other things he urged all countries that did not have the atom bomb to refrain from taking part in the nuclear arms race. This was the starting point for Sweden´s struggle against nuclear weapons.
Back to the women from the 30ths and the role those years had on them.

The influence from women´s movement followed both Alva Myrdal and Inga Thorson in their later work both in United Nations and in Geneva in the Conference on Disarmament. The Conference on Disarmament expanded  in 1962 from 10 to 18 members where Sweden as a neutral country became one of the new  members. Alva Myrdal was the first chair of the Swedish Delegation 1962 to1973, followed by Inga Thorson 1973-1982, followed by me 1982 to 1991. Three women in succession.

I will come back to what the two ladies proposed and worked with, but my thesis is this:
For a country to have an influence you  need booth devoted people in decision-making positions, the right time to act and also  support from  a convinced public opinion and civil society.

As everyone knows the first atom bomb exploded over Hiroshima the 6th of August 1945 and three days later over Nagasaki with hundreds of thousands of victims. The nuclear age had started, followed by an enormous nuclear arms race.

Also in Sweden nuclear weapons was brought up on the agenda in the 1950s. Generals were talking of the need for Sweden to go nuclear and some politicians bought the argument that our boys should not have less efficient weapons than an assumed enemy. Then the resistant started by women, lead by Inga Thorson. She was the president of Women´s League of the (Social-Democrat) Labor Party and traveled all over the country to inform about the consequences of going nuclear.

The Labor Party was deeply shaken by the rebellion from the Women´s League and changed the Youth Movement to be more positive. As a member of the youth movement I took part in several seminars where military people were provided space to argue for nuclear weapons.  

But it was not only the Women´s League who was against nuclear weapons in Sweden. Also inside the government several important people supported the women. Both foreign minister Östen Undén and the minister of finance Ernst Wigforss, who was said to leave the government if Sweden would go nuclear.

I had my own struggle in my work as secretary in a party district. Every coffee break my boss and I discussed the issue. When one day he argued that there was no genetic risk with nuclear testing and referred to a UN report, I took up the UN report from my bag and asked him on which page he had found that argument. In contrast to him, I had read the report. Then he yelled “Are you going to split the party?” And I responded: “The party is not a goal, it is a tool to change the world.”

This internal fight in the Labor Party and in the end when Sweden said no to nuclear weapons after several years of discussions gives an explanation as to why Sweden in the UN and in the Conference of Disarmament could play a stronger role than otherwise. In the meantime before the sudden no, Sweden had learned a lot. We were close to going nuclear and had and have knowledge of nuclear technology, which gave us a special role in the Conference of Disarmament. The nuclear weapon states could not cheat us and the non-aligned states relied on us when we put proposals on the table in the Conference and in UN. But our neutrality created reliance too, of course.

Alva Myrdal had a long international experience in UNESCO, in UN and as advisor to the Swedish Minister of Foreign Affair Östen Undén when she started the work in the Conference of Disarmament in 1962. She had a broad and interesting contact and correspondence with leading people in Europe such as Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr in Germany and wrote lots of articles in the international press. She was one of the founders of Pugwash; the movement for scientists in East and West, who by their knowledge tried to build a bridge in the Cold War Era. Pugwash was an active movement against nuclear weapons and received the Nobel Peace Price in 1995.

Alva was an intellectual who based her proposals on facts. She created SIPRI in 1964, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute at the anniversary of 150 years of peace in Sweden in order to collect information of the arms race, weapons trade and conflict policy. SIPRI is still a well informed independent research institute. Alva quickly learned about nuclear physics. Those days nuclear testing took part in the atmosphere.  

In order to combat the nuclear weapon states she used the nuclear technological knowledge Sweden already had and created a seismologic laboratory in Hagfors in Sweden, which unmasked every nuclear weapon test and the spread of radioactivity over the whole world. This laboratory became well known worldwide  and its results were never questioned by the nuclear weapon states. 

The reaction increased by the public opinion against nuclear testing because of its spreading of radioactivity. Alva was deeply involved against nuclear testing and started one of her speeches by proposing an11th commandment: “Thou (You) shall not test nuclear weapons”. She influenced the Conference of Disarmament to demand a stop for nuclear testing. 

The prime minister of Great Britain, Harold Wilson, reacted and phoned the prime minister Tage Erlander of Sweden and asked him to stop Alva´s proposal. Instead of a total stop for all nuclear testing, and by that a stop for development of new nuclear weapons, the result was a stop for testing in the atmosphere. As Alva said: “This partial test ban is rather an environment agreement not to spread  radioactivity in the atmosphere and not a stop for nuclear testing".

The effect was a dramatic increase in nuclear testing below earth and a dramatic increase in new nuclear weapons. Alva was very disappointed as she told me many years later. She worked on however for twelve years and looked for part solutions in order to limit the arms race.

Even if she later on became member of the government she was never an oral agitator, rather an intellectual who argued her opinion with facts mainly in writings. In her book “The Game of Disarmament” from 1976 she unveiled the super powers and their excuses and half truths and the loyal silence by their allies.

She was not satisfied with the lack of progress. In the book, she gave guidelines to an international strategy in order to reach agreements that would lead  to complete disarmament. The strategy included mechanisms that would transfer the resources saved on that disarmament to human progress and economic development. Most of them are still valid. I really recommend the book “The Game on Disarmament”.

Inga Thorson followed Alva as responsible for Swedish disarmament policy 1973-1982. She was an oral agitator and very tough with the same engagement against the arms race and nuclear weapons.  Sweden kept its position as leading country pushing disarmament proposals. Due to our knowledge of nuclear technology we as a small country could play a significant role in UN. Our proposals received support from the Non-Aligned Movement and during Alva’s and Inga’s years around 25 resolutions every year on disarmament and nuclear weapons were adopted first by the First Committé and then by the General Assembly of the UN.

It is rather well-known that Inga Thorson  in 1975 as the chair of the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) review conference put pressure on the delegates when they would not reach an agreement. “You have a choice,” she said the very last day: “Either you accept the chair’s compromise proposal or you will be the Old Maid, i.e. the country who break the NPT.”  She gave them the option to include an explanatory note and they all followed suit and voted for her proposal.

In Europe in the 1970s and 1980s the civil society was strongly engaged against nuclear weapons and this of course gave ground for politicians to act.  A combination of devoted journalists who unveiled in which cities the medium-range nuclear weapons should be deployed and an engaged civil society joined forces and got several hundred thousand people out on the streets to protest in Europe. People were not stupid and understood that their city should be the first goal for an enemy.  In 4 to 5 minutes such a weapon could reach from the Soviet Union to the cities of  Europe and vice versa. You would not have a chance to reach a secure shelter.

And the same happened when some scientist had developed the neutron bomb which was constructed to effectively kill every living creature by radioactivity while save buildings and other capital value. The public reaction was enormous. Inga acted for a special session on neutron bomb 1978 and the then prime minister of Sweden, Torbjörn Fälldin, spoke in UN in his own Swedish language - very unusual - and the translation to English was done by a young diplomat from our foreign ministry.

Inga Thorson also focussed on conversion of resources from mlitry to civlian use and demanded a UN study on disarmament for development in order to transform military resources into conversion and civil production.  Professor Seymor Melman at Colombia University, whom I met later on, had long worked with this and inspired Inga Thorson.

She chaired the work on the UN-study which never went further due to protest from the military establishment.  When I took office we asked Inga to lead a similar study on Swedish military production and she did a very good job, but it was probably too early – both the military industry and the military in Sweden and also lots of politicians protested. They did not understand how wise it would be to demand of a company that when a military order was placed, the recipient of the order should also tell how the production should be developed for civilian purposes when the order was fulfilled. This should be done in order to avoid the repeated argument that unemployment/lay-offs would follow if new order not was placed with the weapons industry.

I just touched on the way an initiative can be taken in UN.  First you have an idea and ask for a UN Expert Study. When that study is finished after a year you put a resolution on the table, and then if you obtain enough support behind your resolution it will be adopted in the General Assembly. In my case, I led several UN studies; one about nuclear weapons 1989-90 and one about using the military resources in all its capacity in order to protect and restore the
environment 1991-92 and one on Gender and Peace in 1994.

At my first meeting in the study on nuclear weapons the Egyptian ambassador frankly said: “This is my first meeting with a women as chair and I don´t know how it will end.” To that study both nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states were parties and when we encountered some problems between the French and the New Zeeland ambassadors, I gave them some time to solve it among themselves and they did it in a very good way. The problem we had in that study process was the United States who only at the very last minute stood up for the study. And what happened with the Egyptian ambassador?  He was the one who held an overwhelming thank-you speech for me when we finished our job.

The study on military resources for the environment was unanimously adopted but when it should be introduced to the environmental conference in Rio there had been a change of government in Sweden and the conservative prime minister was not interested and the minister of environmental issues did not dare or did not want to introduce it.  I feel sorry for it, because the minister of foreign affairs of  Brazil who was the president of the Rio conference, was also a member of the study group and could, if Sweden had put forward the study,  worked for its implementation.

There are also other ways of having an impact for a small country.  New Zeeland itself did so through the campaign your then Prime Minister David Lange masterminded against nuclear weapons onboard visiting ships. It was an effective  campaign and made a profound  impression on the international society. It created a strong image of a small country not accepting the super power play. You can still take charge of that.

Olof  Palme was undoubtedly the most prominent Swedish politician in the twentieth century. Internationally he reached fame which only a handful Swedes have. After his death streets and squares around the world are named after him. Olof Palme was an internationalist and thought that Sweden had a role to play and had  responsibility. He protected the small states' integrity and was a strong defender of the UN and international law not least the right to self-determination and peaceful solutions. And of course disarmament both globally and in Europe.

I was honoured  and it was a strong confidence he put on my shoulders when he asked me to take responsibility for Swedish disarmament policy and chair the Disarmament Delegation 1982. He asked me to keep my seat in the parliament with the argument that you are elected by the people, but only  chosen by me.

He asked me to go to Hiroshima. You will never be the same, he said and told me of the stone outside the Museum where a shadow of a human being was burned in. Not even the ashes were left. He strongly supported my work in UN and Geneva. 

Olof Palme was a brilliant speaker and his speeches and policies reflected both intelligence and strong emotions, but also the experiences he got from direct contact with people. He was a good listener and never afraid of meeting people. His policy was not formulated in a vacuum. When women marched from Sweden through Europe to Paris in protest against nuclear weapons in 1981, Palme was the only statesman who met them in Paris and received their protest list. Thousands of women also marched to Moscow in 1982 and to Washington in 1983.

Jonathan Schell´s series of articles in the New Yorker and in the book “The fate of the Earth” made a strong impact on Olof Palme. Often in his speeches he came back to Schell´s writings of the question if humanity could survive a nuclear war.

Common Security - a program for disarmament - summarizes well Olof Palme´s international policy. In opposition in 1980 he started the Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues. It was a unique group of international statesmen and leaders bridging east and west, north and south who for two years, one weekend a month, met to search and find a way through the impasse that at the time threatened to drive mankind into an arms race.

But it was not only discussions in closed rooms. They travelled the world and met both leaders and opposition. The visit to Japan was probably the most important. They met Hibakusa, the survivors, of the first atom bomb 8.10 in the morning of August 6th 1945. They went to Moscow and Washington and met Soviet and American physicians in “Physicians Against Nuclear Weapons”.

Their messages were clear cut. After a nuclear war no medical care in the world would be enough to take care of the wounded. The only way was prevention. Everything must be done to stop a nuclear war from breaking out.

Common Security first gives an analysis of what has gone wrong and why and then proceeds to point out, sharply and succinctly, a way forward, introducing proposals for resolving the unsettled issues of strategic and “theatre” nuclear
weapons, conventional armaments, Third World conflict and regional security.

Even if the threat of nuclear weapon existed then, the most direct inspiration for the Commission came from lack of resources; i.e. a wish to stop the arms race in order to get resources for more urgent human needs. In the Brandt Commission earlier, where Olof Palme was one of the most active members, the North-South problem had been discussed and disarmament for development was specifically mentioned.

The background for the report could be found in the year book of SIPRI:
- The military expenses in the world were 600-650 billion dollar;
- Significant increase in Soviet military expenses;
- A sharp break in US military expenses plus more than 8%;
- Ongoing arms race in the third world, mainly in India and Pakistan;
- 49 nuclear testing; 21 in Soviet, 16 in US, 11 in France and 1 in UK;
- Ongoing focus on medium-range and long-distance nuclear weapons.

The most important parts of  “Common Security” are:

  1. One ideological section about common survival and the need of common security.
  2. One section about the threat of war – a clear declaration of the effects of nuclear war but also the effects of conventional arms race not least in the third world.
  3. One important section about the economic consequences of the arms race.
  4. One section  with concrete proposals for disarmament; one corridor free from battle-field nuclear weapons in Central Europe and how UN could be strengthened in peace keeping.

I think that the most central, but also most controversial, part in the report is the discussion about common security. It was a clear challenge against the current nuclear weapon doctrine of mutual deterrence in the MAD - Mutually Assured

Olof Palme thought that the idea of reaching peace through deterrence was another way  of saying that security must be built on fear. The result should be that fear was spread and suspicion should increase. The  alternative proposed by the Palme Commission was common security. It was built on the knowledge that no one could win a nuclear war and the result should be annihilation on both sides. Common security had to be built on common interest in avoiding nuclear war. It meant that political and ideological enemies must work together to avoid nuclear war.  Security, in the nuclear age, must be found together with the adversary not against him.

Some of the most important concrete short term measures were

- A corridor free of battle field nuclear weapons in Europe
- Prohibition of neutron weapons and mini-nucs in Europe
- An agreement between US and Soviet on a highest level for medium range nuclear weapons in Europe
- A zone free of chemical weapons in Europe and resuming of negotiations on a chemical weapons convention

The measures with a long-term perspective had another profile looking for new security thinking:
- Agreement between US and Soviet on considerable reductions of strategic nuclear weapons
- Agreements on reduction of conventional weapons in Europe
- Negotiations on reduction of all nuclear weapons in Europe
- Prohibition and destruction of chemical weapons
- Report on defense expenses to UN
- Conversion of military research and development for civilian purposes

The final report was issued on 1 June 1982. Two weeks later, an estimated one million participated in a march in New York City for global nuclear disarmament. The Commission work was not done in a vacuum; it was strongly supported by the public opinion.

The direct effect of the Palme Commission’s short-term proposals were unimpressive. The international situation went down. NATO deployed  medium-range nuclear weapons under strong citizens resistance and president Reagan´s plan for a Strategic Defense Initiative went in the totally opposite direction.

But in 1985 a new orientation came with President  Gorbachev  and President Reagan who held summits and a series of dialogues that resulted in some tension reduction. In December 1987 they agreed on the INF, not only a ceiling for medium range nuclear weapons but a total rejection of those weapons. It was a totally new principle that aimed at destroying a whole category of weapon under mutual control.

The cautious proposals to resume the work on a chemical weapons convention were not relevant any longer when - to the surprise of President Bush Senior - President Gorbachev accepted on-site inspections of Soviet chemical weapons. 

I was then leading the Swedish delegation with Soviet Union on one side of the table and the United States on the other. The US delegation had orally agreed to a prohibition and relied on the Soviet Union to say no to on-site inspections.  Gorbatjov changed the whole climate. After 14 years of negotiations the Conference of Disarmament was ready to agree on a total prohibition of all chemical weapons.

The long-term proposals and somewhat less realistic proposals actually fared better. Already during the 1990s several of them were carried through; i.e the agreement between the Soviet Union and the US to a drastic reduction of the strategic nuclear arsenals, international convention of biological weapons and some detailed proposals to strengthen the UN and build a functioning collective security system.

They pointed out some guidelines for an international crisis management system for aituations where the unity of the permanent members of the UN Security Council could not be taken for granted. In contrast to the traditional UN peace-keeping operations these collective security measures should be put in place not after a conflict but before, as a preventive measure. And if they did not function as anticipated, a preventive military UN presence could be put in place in a threatened conflict area.

During the 1990s these questions on how to act vis-vis conflicting actors took central stage in the debate, and in Security Council resolution 678 of November 1990 the UN asked member states to act against Iraq in order to restore a member state’s sovereignty. And in 1992 a military UN-operation acted in Macedonia to prevent an armed conflict.  

This said, the most significant is the fundamental change in the whole international system from global nuclear deterrence to a political acting, based upon the principle of common security. Undoubtedly, the Commission grasped and formulated streams of sentiments and ideas which already might have been around.

As long as Olof Palme lived common security was the lasting theme in all his security reflections - in the frosty relations with the Soviet Union and in his involvement in Middle East. Now the idea of common security is a guiding star in international relations. It belongs to his the most important contributions he gave to the international community.

Another way of working was embodied in the initiative Olof Palme took in 1983 establishing the Six Nation Initiative. It was the first time I experienced a new meeting technology across the globe. We saw all five continents connected by television and it functioned very well.

The members were presidents and prime ministers from six countries and five continents; India, Greece, Argentina, Mexico, Tanzania and Sweden with the
intention to work for nuclear disarmament. Indira Gandhi and Andreas Papandreu were among them. They reiterated the need for action on many of the goals of the Palme Commission including nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, a nuclear test ban, outlawing space weapons, limiting conventional arms, strengthening the UN and promoting regional security.

So, can small countries really have an impact on peace and disarmament?

Would you be reading this now,
if it wasn't useful to you?

Then please support TFF's work for peace
and make an honour payment to this site


Yes, small countries can have an impact on peace and disarmament.  I have given you some examples from my country Sweden but also mentioned your own former prime minister David Lange´s campaign against visiting ship carrying nuclear weapons, which really placed New Zeeland on the world map.

There is an important example where the government of Sweden did not play an active role but more so our parliament. It was was when the International Lawyers Against Nuclear Weapons, mainly through Alyn Ware from New Zeeland, managed to get the General Assembly to ask the International Court in the Hague whether it was in accordance with international law to threaten with or actually use nuclear weapons.

Every member state of the Court had to give their opinion to the Court and - to make a long and very interesting story short - five minutes before the time ran out, the then conservative government of Sweden answered  “The Parliament of Sweden thinks that it is not in accordance with international law to threaten or to use nuclear weapons”.  And the answer from the Court was exactly that.

Or to mention another recent example: smaller and middle powers gained influence by joining forces in the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) of seven states; among them New Zeeland and Sweden, on nuclear disarmament. This really influenced and saved the 2000 NPT Review Conference. New Agenda Coalition managed to incorporate the Canberra Commission’s proposals in a 13-point action program to get rid of nuclear weapons , accepted by both nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states.

Small and middle powers could also assist and advice each other bilaterally. A recent example relates to the climate change and the melting Arctic Sea ice that has inspired a proposal to establish a new nuclear-weapon-free zone covering the circumpolar Arctic. 

Many of us appreciate the advice and the knowledge on nuclear-weapon-free zone issues that your countryman Alyn Ware has shared  with several of us, based on the fact that New Zeeland is a member of the South Pacific Nuclear-Free-Zone and a neighbor of the demilitarized Antarctica. In our part of the world we hope to be able to continue to draw on the New Zealand experiences in this regard.

The impact of small countries on peace and disarmament cannot occur in a vacuum. Devoted and engaged decision-makers, co-operating across borders, a strong public opinion, and scientists and professionals such as lawyers,
physicians and journalists can provide the ground for real influence.

Thank you.      


Copyright © TFF & the author 1997 till today. All rights reserved.


Tell a friend about this TFF article

Send to:


Message and your name

Get free TFF articles & updates

TREASURES Sitemap Areas we work in Resources Columns and art
Publications About TFF Support our work Search & services Contact us

The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
Vegagatan 25, S - 224 57 Lund, Sweden
Phone + 46 - 46 - 145909     Fax + 46 - 46 - 144512

© TFF 1997 till today. All rights reserved.