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date: 23 March 2017

To Arms, To Arms: What Do We Know About Arms Races?

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

The study of arms races produced a major stream of research during the Cold War. Of course interest in this topic was not just for the sake of research. Most observers saw an arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union (particularly the competition in nuclear weapons) and worried that it increased the chances of a world war which, if it went nuclear, would have been a catastrophe.

The arms race literature was dominated by two questions:

1. What drives arms races?

2. Do arms races increase the chances of war?

A great deal of the literature on the first question was driven by the Richardson equations. These equations specified that, for each state, the change in arms stockpile would be positively related to the change in the opponent’s stockpile (the grievance factor) and to the change in the country’s own stockpile. Richardson believed that increasing a state’s arms stockpile would create fatigue (therefore the coefficient would have a negative sign). But many who followed believed that internal factors (driven by interests within the state that favored arms accumulation—for example, corporations that produce armaments or organizational interests within the military) would lead to a positive coefficient. Most of the empirical work that followed in the Richardson tradition centered on whether arms races were externally or internally driven.

There were a number of perspectives on the second question. One was that as an arms race continues it increases the hostility between the two states, and this will ultimately erupt into war. An alternative perspective saw an arms race as a substitute for war; hence, it reduced the chances of war.

With the end of the Cold War, most scholars and policy makers lost interest in arms races. This was unfortunate for a couple of reasons. First, the scholarly community did not reach a consensus on the answers to the two questions that dominated the arms race literature. Second, it was inevitable that there would be arms races in the future; it would have been highly desirable to face these new occurrences with a solid body of knowledge about arms races. Now, with the rise of China and a resurgent Russia, arms competitions seem to be in the offing.