A competitive struggle between two or more states seeking to improve
their security relative to each other by building up their military
strength. The logic behind arms races is sometimes referred to as an
action–reaction phenomenon. If state A embarks on an aggressive military
acquisitions programme, a neighbouring state B may assume the
worst, i.e. that state A is preparing for war. Prudence, and the fact that
international relations occur in a ‘self-help’ environment, suggests that
state B should also increase its military spending to match that of state
A. Failure to do so would leave it open to the possibility of attack. But
the attempt to restore the balance of power by state B may not be
successful. State A may interpret B’s reaction as a hostile act and ‘upthe-
ante’ even further. The result is an increase in the level of hostility
between the two sides, an escalation in the quality and/or quantity of
the weapons available to them, and a decrease in the security of
both. Two examples illustrate the point.
In 1906, Great Britain launched the HMS Dreadnought, a new class
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of battleship. The ship was faster than existing naval vessels, armourplated,
and possessed batteries of powerful guns capable of firing shells
great distances. The launch of this ship worried Germany and so it
developed ships of similar power. This, in turn, led Great Britain to
build more of these powerful battleships to compensate. Finally, ships
called Superdreadnoughts were developed and put into service. Thus the
launching of a single new ship set off an arms race that changed the
face of naval warfare.
Similarly, the United States was the first country to develop and use
nuclear weapons. US policymakers argued that their use against
Japan was necessary to bring the Second World War to a speedy end.
But the weapons had a number of other benefits as well. First, they
appeared to enhance US security. No state would attack the US for
fear of being bombed with such an immensely destructive weapon.
Second, some policymakers believed that nuclear weapons gave the
United States considerable leverage when dealing with Stalin over the
future of Eastern Europe. However, although its possession of the
atomic bomb gave the United States a significant military advantage
over the former Soviet Union, the success of what was known as
‘atomic diplomacy’ depended on the assumption that the United
States would start a Third World War over a region of marginal
importance to America’s national security. In any case, in September
1949 the Soviets exploded their own atomic device and the US advantage
began to evaporate. The US responded by embarking on a largescale
nuclear weapons-building programme. Over the next 30 or so
years, each protagonist would devote enormous resources to achieving
a nuclear superiority over the other. By the early 1990s, the superpowers
are thought to have manufactured over 100,000 warheads
between them.
Arms races do not have to be a competition to increase the number
of bombs, tanks, planes, ships, and submarines that a state has relative to
an opponent. For example, in the years leading up to the First World
War (1914–18), France and Germany engaged in an arms race to
increase the number of men in uniform. Moreover, states can engage in
a race to improve their war-fighting technology. Alongside the nuclear
confrontation, for example, during the cold war both the United
States and the Soviet Union raced to improve the quality and accuracy
of their weapons delivery systems, early warning systems, and
intelligence-gathering techniques. Geo-stationary satellites and highresolution
cameras were important technological adjuncts to the
nuclear arms race.
At the heart of all arms races is an intense lack of trust between the
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parties. As an arms race escalates, tensions increase, cooperation
becomes difficult, and security becomes more costly to achieve. Quite
often arms races are also coloured by ideological and political assumptions,
and this introduces an irrational element into them. A number of
scholars argue that an arms race is often a sign that war is imminent.
The paradox, of course, is that as a state becomes entangled in an arms
race to improve its security position relative to a rival, this entanglement
can lead to chronic insecurity.
There is sometimes a tendency in arms races to overestimate a rival’s
actual strength. This partly has to do with the lack of accurate and
verifiable information concerning numbers of weapons. Also, states
tend to portray their opponents as more powerful than they actually
are. During the 1950s and the 1960s, for example, US policymakers
consistently overestimated the nuclear capability of the Soviet Union.
Today, a number of conventional arms races are under way. Most of
these are located in the African subcontinent and do not threaten
world peace. More disturbing, however, is the nuclear arms race beginning
to develop between India and Pakistan. Both states have detonated
nuclear devices, engaged in fighting over the Kashmir region, and
have threatened to go to war with each other. But arms races are very
difficult to stop once they have started. Arms control appears to be
the best diplomatic solution to arms races and one can only hope that
the tensions on the Indian subcontinent can be reduced through such
See also: arms control; cold war; collective security; deterrence; nuclear
proliferation; security; security dilemma