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Arms Racing

[ 13 ] March 7, 2013 |

Over at the Diplomat I have some thoughts on modern arms races:

The traditional logic of the arms race is bound up in the security dilemma; what makes one state more secure makes its adversaries less secure. Even defensive measures such as a wall (or a missile defense system) can render potential foes insecure by neutralizing their offensive deterrent.

In large part because of the examples of the World War I naval spring and the Cold War nuclear buildup, we’re primed to expect symmetrical arms races, where one side purchases some number of X system, the other side attempts to build X+1, and hijinks ensue. Perhaps more commonly, differences in national interest and national capability produce asymmetrical races, in which the competitors try to counter each other through dissimilar means (air defense systems vs. bombers, for example). These races are potentially less destabilizing than symmetrical races, although much depends on the geopolitical context.

Comments (13)

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  1. Ronan says:

    I wonder what you think of this by Kindred Winecof

    I think he’s overstating the case, but that seems to be an outgrowth of his general perspective on IPE .. but how strong is the case that US military spending needs to continue at its current rate to prevent a repeat of past arms races, and how important do you think it has been in stabilisising the international order since the end of ww2, then post cold war(I know this is basic but im having difficulty articulating it, you get the idea of what im saying though i hope)
    I like Winecoff, fwiw, but tried to argue, (before becoming incoherent) that in the Middle East anyway, ‘non military’ tactics have been more successful (aid, weapons sales etc) than overt military posturing or security alliances (or intervention) in ‘stabilising’ the region ..i dont really know what the reserch says though, so is there something to that, or….?

    • I think I’m overstating my case too, a bit. Trying to be a little provocative to get folks to drive home the point that complex dynamics are important, and that we need to conceptualize outcomes as resulting from non-linear (interactive) processes. That’s when the real hard thinking begins, not where it ends. I could be very wrong in my tentative conclusions, and it wouldn’t really bother me. I agree with Farley: having more players involved could lead to more public goods provision. It could also, as he notes, lead to more security dilemmas. I don’t have a particular political program or substantive conclusion that I’m pushing here.

      FWIW, I do in fact favor some reduction in American military spending (as, I believe, does Farley), just not nearly as much as (e.g.) Quiggin. Even there I could be wrong and it wouldn’t really bother me. What’s important is trying to parse this stuff in a realistic way. That requires emphasizing complex dynamics over comparative statics.

      • Ronan says:

        Yeah I see what you’re saying, it’s an interesting topic and perspective, and although my sympathies are probably closer to Quiggin, I’m just trying to devlop a clearer view of it

      • Ronan says:

        as an addendum, this line; “seems to be an outgrowth of his general perspective on IPE” reads a little more (hostile?) than I intended..what I meant was your tendency to view it on s system wide level (if that makes sense)

      • Robert Farley says:

        I don’t think that Kindred’s argument is at all absurd, although I’d need to see the empirical evidence. As I suggest in the above linked piece, I also think it’s possible that some kinds of arms expenditures avoid security dilemma dynamics.

      • cpinva says:

        “FWIW, I do in fact favor some reduction in American military spending (as, I believe, does Farley), just not nearly as much as (e.g.) Quiggin.”

        i think you could reduce US defense spending, gradually, by 10% (in constant dollars), and suffer no appreciable loss of security. you would have to be willing to deal with the howls from the defense industry, and the howls of their congresspersons, over lost jobs. this would have more of an impact on the economy, than it actually would to security.

        the military (and, more importantly, the military-industrial complex) got used to getting every goody it wanted, during the cold war, and was unhappy as hell when the wall fell. the “war on terrorism” recalled those boon times, with no appreciable increase in security resulting. transferring the primary responsibility for dealing with terrorism to our intelligence agencies (where it should have been to begin with), makes far more sense, on both a systemic and economic level: intelligence is what they do, and they tend to do it at far less cost than the military does.

        just my opinion.

        • I don’t find anything too objectionable in that. 10% or so seems reasonable to me. Probably a bit more, since we’d be cutting from an inflated level due to the wars. And I wouldn’t worry too much about the economic consequences, since that 10% can be redistributed to other spending programs or tax cuts.

          This is one reason why the defense parts of the sequester don’t concern me very much at all.

  2. cpinva says:

    out of curiousity (and this sort of ties in with the subject of this post), what are your thoughts on the latest loud noises out of n. korea, vis-a-vie, unilateral termination of the cease-fire, that ended over hostilities in the korean war, and the threat to fire nuclear warheads at the US? it seems even bejing is having some difficulty controlling it’s client state’s outbursts.

    • Robert Farley says:

      Weird and worrisome. I’d classify myself as more than mildly concerned, not quite moderately concerned.

      • cpinva says:

        that’s kind of how i see it, given my (admittedly very low) level of knowledge of the overall situation. i’m thinking the nearly hysterical level is possibly attributable, at least in part, to two things:

        1. the affects the current UN sanctions are having on n. korea.,


        2. the anticipated additional adverse affects that additional sanctions will have on n. korea.

        in the past, this level of threat has been the predicate act for extorting foreign aid, mostly in the form of fuel & food, from s. korea, china and the US.

      • ajay says:

        I’d classify myself as more than mildly concerned, not quite moderately concerned.


  3. HBinBoston says:

    Kenneth Boulding discusses these issues in a fairly sophisticated way in his Conflict and Defense (1962 !) and in many other places in his writings. He contrasts what he terms the “Richardson process” models with others that produce more options for conflicting parties (see Chapter 12).

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