What it is: Disarmament is the process of reducing a country’s weapons of war, usually by dismantling existing weapons and halting the manufacture of more.

What it means: Disarmament was discussed after the First World War in 1918, when it was briefly seen as a way to prevent future war, but it wasn’t tried out. In the 1930s European talk of disarmament was dropped because of potential threats from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. After the Second World War it was the Soviet Union which was perceived to be a threat, not only to Europe, and again disarmament was forgotten. During the Cold War and afterwards, most disarmament talks have been concerned with cutting down stockpiled nuclear weapons. Reduction or destruction of biological and chemical weapons has also been discussed, and probably sometimes achieved. When international tension is high, many states argue that it’s dangerous even to think about disarmament. And when there is less tension, they say it’s unacceptable to disarm unless other states disarm equally. This raises the difficulty of how to assess disarmament programmes. There is the problem of trust, too: will other states keep to an agreement, and how can it be proved that they are doing so? In fact both the USA and Russia have cut down their nuclear arsenals to some extent, though this was an easy gesture: both sides had far more warheads than they needed to devastate the world. But nothing can be done about the radioactive pollution they created by building and testing nuclear weapons. In fact, American military are still attracted by the power (and what they still believe is the deterrent effect) of possessing nuclear weapons. It is true that there has been disarmament of a sort: armies have been cut back and some kinds of conventional weapons dropped from use. The bad news is that huge defence budgets are being spent instead on more advanced ‘precision’ weapons and war technology which needs fewer soldiers: war has not been abandoned, only the old ways of fighting it. Disarmament conferences, however, are still at work, though seldom reported.

Think about it: The kind of disarmament described here is the kind that individuals and states choose to do. It doesn’t mean taking other people’s weapons away from them, probably with armed force. That element of choice is important: if you choose, then you are likely to think it’s the right choice, and to try to stick to it. That’s why during the Cold War many pacifists called for ‘multilateral disarmament’ – and also for their own countries to disarm ‘unilaterally’ to set an example. It’s useful to think about disarmament on a smaller, local scale: whether people should own guns, for example. Gun-owners claim it is for ‘security’ and ‘defence’ (just as nations claim this about their armed forces). The fact remains that if guns exist they are likely to be used. If no-one had them, no-one would be shot. ‘Security’ could then be tackled in a safer way.