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Disarmament is the act of reducing, limiting, or abolishing weapons. Disarmament generally refers to a country's military or specific type of weaponry. The most common form of disarmament is abolishment of weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear arms. General and Complete Disarmament refers to the removal of all weaponry, including conventional arms.

Definitions of disarmament

Disarmament can be contrasted with arms control, which essentially refers to the act of controlling arms rather than eliminating them. A distinction can also be made between disarmament as a process (the process of eliminating weapons), and disarmament as an end state (the absence of weapons). Disarmament has also come to be associated with three things, none of which relate to the systematic and comprehensive reduction of weapons:
  • The aforementioned arms control, which is not associated with a schedule of gradually reducing and then eliminating major weapons systems. These agreements have been criticized in writings by Seymour Melman and Alva Myrdal.
  • Nuclear disarmament, which does not address civilian weapons and military systems whose firepower and extent of damage can be considerable. The war in Iraq has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. In the Korean War, hundreds of thousands have died. In so-called "New Wars" in Africa, millions have died. In none of these cases were nuclear weapons used. Yet, the extent of civilian and military deaths have been considerable, surpassing the damage caused by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War Two.
  • Unilateral disarmament, which seeks to reduce weapons systems in either an ad hoc fashion or based on initiatives within one nation. This approach fails to leverage reductions in one country for reductions in another, or series of countries. Furthermore, unilateral disarmament, as was advocated in the United Kingdom, fails to assuage the concerns of "realists" about the dangers of weapons systems and power projection by other countries.

Philosophically, disarmament should be viewed as a form of demilitarization, part of an economic, political, technical, and military process to reduce and eliminate weapons systems. Thus, disarmament is part of a set of other strategies, like economic conversion, which aim to reduce the power of war making institutions and associated constituencies. Disarmament need not be a "utopian" project in the sense of being misguided or naive. Rather, various strategies can be used to promote the political, economic, and media power necessary for demilitarization.


An example on the feasibility of the elimination of weapons is the policy of gradual reduction of guns in Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate. In two centuries, Japan passed from being the country with more guns per capita to producing (or importing) none.

Disarmament conferences and treaties




Nuclear disarmament

The United Nations has worked for nuclear disarmament ever since its first resolution in 1946 entitled "The Establishment of a Commission to Deal with the Problems Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy." In 1954, Indiamarker became the first country to seek a complete nuclear test ban

There are three types of nuclear disarmament:

  • General Disarmament: allows nations to keep minimum necessary police force.
  • Quantitative and Qualitative Disarmament: involves overall reduction and abolition of only certain types of armaments.
  • Total Disarmament: the complete elimination of armaments.

Disarmament barriers

The political and economic barriers to disarmament are considerable, mostly based on the concentrated power of those supporting militaristic approaches to foreign policy. One key barrier is ideological. Many foundations and universities have failed to support research in disarmament, instead favoring more ad hoc and limited approaches like arms control, conflict resolution, and limits on weapons systems in specific countries. Part of this may be pragmatism, but often it is the result of a limited understanding of the history of disarmament (see References below). Attempts to restrict nuclear proliferation are of course a necessity. Bolstering these efforts would be assisted by checking the link between military intervention and nuclear proliferation. Many countries fearful of being invaded, particularly by the U.S., have tried to secure or develop nuclear weapons. As a result, policies to limit military interventions may be part of a larger demilitarization program.

Misconceptions about disarmament

In his definition of "disarmament", David Carlton writes in the Oxford University Press Political dictionary, "But confidence in such measures of arms control, especially when unaccompanied by extensive means of verification, has not been strengthened by the revelation that the Soviet Union in its last years successfully concealed consistent and systematic cheating on its obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention." He also notes, "Now a freeze or a mutually agreed increase is not strictly speaking disarmament at all. And such measures may not even be intended to be a first step towards any kind of reduction or abolition. For the aim may simply be to promote stability in force structures. Hence a new term to cover such cases has become fashionable since the 1960s, namely, arms control."

The problem with this line of thought is that it gives the appearance of confusing arms control with disarmament, even though it acknowledges some difference. Disarmament by definition involves inspection and verification procedures. Thus, the book by Seymour Melman, Inspection for Disarmament, addresses various problems related to the problem of inspection for disarmament, evasion teams, and capabilities and limitations of aerial inspection. Gradually, as the idea of arms control displaced the idea of disarmament, the weaknesses of the present arms control paradigm have created problems for the idea of disarmament itself. Weak inspection procedures lead to cheating. Cheating discredits comprehensive disarmament, rather than the more superficial arms control regime. This kind of "guilt by association" is rather unfortunate and reflects a weakness in the academia in the understanding, teaching, and awareness of what disarmament really is.

Most citizens, students and even academics are unaware of the classic books on disarmament.

References and footnotes

Specific references:
  1. UNITED NATIONS - Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA)
  2. The UN office at Geneva - Disarmament in Geneva
  3. Twenty years later India conducted its own nuclear test.
  4. disarmament: Definition and Much More from
  5. A survey of Google or Google Scholar hits on August 13, 2007 reported only five hits on Melman's aforementioned book. In contrast, traditional books pushing the notion of arms control score much higher. If we can rely on Google Scholar as a source, we see the term "arms control" used much more frequently than "disarmament."
General references:

  • Jonathan M. Feldman. "From the From Warfare State to 'Shadow State': Militarism, Economic Depletion and Reconstruction," Social Text, 91, Volume 25, Number 22 Summer, 2007.
  • Seymour Melman, Editor, Inspection for Disarmament (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958).
  • Alva Myrdal. The Game of Disarmament: How the United States and Russia run the arms race (New York: Pantheon, 1978).
  • Marcus G. Raskin. "Draft Treaty for a Comprehensive Program for Common Security and General Disarmament," in Essays of a Citizen: From National Security State to Democracy (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1991): 227-291.

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