I’ve never had the experience of having a gun pointed at me but I’m guessing that it would make me wish mightily for a gun of my own to help even the odds. I do know that whenever my submarine ventured near the Soviet Union we knew that their ships were armed and we took the precaution of keeping at least a few torpedo tubes loaded just to be safe.
So let’s think about this a bit – put yourself in the position of a person walking down the street and realizing that the person in front of you is armed and seems to be watching you. What do you do? The military answer is that capability implies intent – to assume that anyone with a weapon intends to use it, and to prepare for a fight if necessary. The civilian world is somewhat different, but I tend to be a bit pessimistic in that I assume that anyone who went to the trouble of arming themselves on their way out the door is probably willing to use their weapons under the right circumstances. So in the case of encountering an armed stranger on the street I suspect most of us would start looking around for a weapon of our own or, if we were armed, we’d draw our own weapon. And now – possibly through nobody’s fault – we’ve got two armed people pointing weapons at each other…and now what?
So can you assume it’s all a mistake, laugh, and put your weapons away? Probably not – not unless you are willing to bet your life on the trustworthiness of an armed stranger who is pointing a gun at you. And the other person has no more reason to trust you – it’s hard to picture a circumstance in which someone holding a weapon on me could persuade me to put my own gun down and just go about my business without some way to assure my safety. It could be that the best option (short of the police showing up and disarming both of us) would be to just slowly back away from each other until we’re out of range and then go back to our day.
Obviously we can push this story further – we can introduce third parties who are also armed, we can look at the quality of weapons (your AK-47, for example, probably beats my pistol), and we can even include socio-economic issues; all of which are relevant to urban or suburban warfare. But let’s think of this in terms of nuclear weapons because a lot of the issues are the same. What do you do when someone’s pointing a (metaphorical) gun to your head, and how do you get to the point of putting your guns away?
The whole thing started in the caveman days (non-nuclear, of course). Caveman Og had a club, which was great when confronted by caveman Erg and his club. But once Erg invented an axe he had an advantage so Og needed an axe of his own. Then maybe Og and Erg moved on to spears and arrows, knives and swords, guns and cannons, and then onto nuclear and thermonuclear weapons – the latest incarnation of the problem. If you are armed and if I’m within range of your weapons then I had better be armed as well, unless I really, really trust you and your intentions. So when the United States developed nuclear weapons, of course the Soviet Union had to do the same. And when the United States developed thermonuclear weapons the Soviet Union had to follow as well – just as we had to follow suit when Soviet missile technology seemed to overtake ours. Britain and France got into the game because the Soviets had a nuclear gun pointed at their heads, and China joined the club because they had no reason to trust the Soviets either. So for a half-century we lived in a society in which a small group of nations were pointing guns at each other – nobody really happy with the situation, but neither was anyone really willing to be the first to drop their weapon. And who can blame them?
The Non-Proliferation Treaty is a good step, but boy does it call for some delicate work! Let’s say you and I each have a gun in each hand. It might be easy enough to agree to simultaneously lower to the ground the gun in our left hands so now we’re only holding one gun each. But we’ve seen this one in the movies – both gunfighters start to lower their weapons and then one suddenly whips his gun up and blows away the other one. If it was the sheriff we applaud his speed (and we never trusted the bad guy anyhow); if it was the bad guy then we condemn his perfidy and hope he is properly shot later in the movie. But with nuclear weapons the stakes are different – what happens if we lower our guard and the other side goes for the quick draw? When the gun’s pointed at an entire nation and hundreds of millions of people I would suggest the stakes are somewhat higher than in a movie shootout. I might decide to risk my life on a quick draw (or on my trust that you’ll be honorable) – but I’m not likely to bet the lives of my wife, children, parents, extended family, friends, and so forth. How could anyone make a bet like that – to disarm completely and unilaterally – knowing that a mistake could lead to the end of your nation?
I don’t think that anybody today expects a nuclear war between the US, Russia, China, Britain, and/or France. But each of these nations continues to maintain its nuclear stockpiles – and the means to deliver their weapons – and there is no sign that this is going to end anytime soon. So we’ve reduced our nuclear stockpiles by an amazing amount – but we still have more than enough weapons to destroy the others many times over. As long as I am holding a single gun with a single bullet you’d be foolish to holster your weapon, turn, and walk away, no matter how much you might trust me.
Over the decades the US and USSR (and later China) might not have fully trusted each other enough to disarm, but they at least grew to understand that the others were really unlikely to pull the trigger. So we developed a sort of uneasy equilibrium based on our mutual experience and on the certainty that nobody really wanted to face an annihilating retaliatory response.
Maybe we can liken the Cold War situation to a couple of soldiers facing each other, neither wanting to pull the trigger and neither willing to turn and walk away – tense but professional, and with the sort of uneasy equilibrium discussed above. Now, what happens when we add an assortment of meth-addled gangsters and neighborhood watch captains? Well…at the least the equilibrium is going to be upset, and it’s probably safe to assume that tensions – and the number of weapons – will stop going down.
So will we ever get to zero nuclear weapons? In all honesty I have absolutely no idea. Given the enormous national prestige that comes from having them, as well as the terrible risk from NOT having them when faced with nuclear-armed opponents I’ve got to say that I’m not expecting to see a nuclear-free world in my lifetime. After all, I’m not going to eject the last bullet from my gun, leaving you with no reason not to shoot me. But maybe we can at least hope for a world in which there are too few weapons to destroy civilization – where only individual nations (and not all of society) are at risk. That would at least be a step in the right direction.