In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Arms Races

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Contemporary and Emerging Arms Races

International Relations Arms Races
David Atkinson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0002


Arms races are an abiding feature of international relations. Despite the subject’s apparent straightforwardness, however, the scholarship has yet to produce one universally accepted definition. At the most basic level, scholars agree that an arms race is an intense armaments competition between two or more rival states, which can manifest itself either qualitatively (technological advancements) or quantitatively (numerical superiority), and which may or may not result in war. There are also unresolved debates concerning the relative influence of domestic or international factors, and disagreement over whether arms races constitute an effective deterrent or actually instigate interstate violence. In the broadest sense, arms race scholars generally investigate how, why, and under what circumstances arms races develop, and with what consequences. Much of the scholarship further investigates how arms races can be precluded, managed, measured, and resolved. The subject is resolutely interdisciplinary, and this is both its strength and its weakness. Researchers from international relations, political science, economics, history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and international law have all contributed to a vibrant and often profitable debate. Too often, however, scholars do not cross interdisciplinary boundaries to engage with one another. The scale, scope, and complexity of the literature will therefore excite some new researchers, and frustrate and bewilder others. Its quantitative and empirical orientation will also inhibit uninitiated undergraduate and graduate students.

General Overviews

The study of arms races can be a complicated and abstruse topic, especially for nonexperts, but a number of general overviews provide insights that will benefit both the novice and the specialist. Hammond 1993 is the most accessible, thorough, and broad introductory survey. It is ideally suited for undergraduate and graduate students. Glaser 2000 provides another extremely useful overview of the subject and suggests topics for future research. Downs 1991 and Buzan and Herring 1998 will prove equally comprehensible to new researchers, as they simplify complicated ideas and offer insightful critiques of the literature from which all scholars will profit. Huntington 1958 is essential reading for all students of arms races, and its straightforward style is particularly appealing. Jervis 1976 is another classic study with significant findings for arms-race theorists. It provides an especially eloquent analysis of deterrence and spiral theory. Bull 1987 is a collection of the author’s most influential and important essays on the subject and will also help to orient new researchers. Finally, Isard 1988 is a must-read for quantitative scholars in the peace-science and conflict-resolution field, although it is not for the inexperienced researcher.

  • Bull, Hedley. Hedley Bull on Arms Control. Edited by Robert O’Neill and David N. Schwartz. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1987.

    This collection of Bull’s important writings on nuclear arms race and arms control charts his intellectual development. All scholars of the subject must come to terms with Bull’s insights; this is a good place to start.

  • Buzan, Barry, and Eric Herring. The Arms Dynamic in World Politics. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1998.

    This extremely useful and updated primer on arms races addresses the role of technological revolutions, especially weapons of mass destruction. Very good on deterrence, with effective, clear outlines of opposing models, especially external factors (action-reaction models) and internal factors (domestic-structure model). Suitable for undergraduate and graduate students.

  • Downs, George W. “Arms Races and War.” In Behavior, Society, and Nuclear War. Vol. 2. Edited by Philip E. Tetlock, Jo L. Husbands, Robert Jervis, Paul C. Stern, and Charles Tilly, 73–109. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

    This essential introduction to the question of whether arms races lead to war provides a detailed survey and analysis of this literature, highlights ongoing debates, and pinpoints theoretical and methodological shortcomings. Downs rightly calls for greater intermethodological dialogue.

  • Glaser, Charles L. “The Causes and Consequences of Arms Races.” Annual Review of Political Science 3 (June 2000): 251–276.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.polisci.3.1.251

    A valuable review of the arms-race literature, especially concerned with the question of arms races and war. Argues that the literature overemphasizes external factors; scholarship requires deeper analysis of internal causes. Assesses positive and negative consequences of arms races and concludes that more research is needed on when states should rationally engage in arms races.

  • Hammond, Grant T. Plowshares into Swords: Arms Races in International Politics, 1840–1991. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

    The most accessible, wide-ranging, and useful introductory survey, clearly written and organized, taking a chronological and thematic approach. Deftly explores definitions, causes, and implications. Helpful bibliography for further research. Highly recommended for beginning researchers.

  • Huntington, Samuel P. “Arms Races: Prerequisites and Results.” Public Policy 8.1 (1958): 41–86.

    One of the first systematic studies, this posits an inverse relationship between arms-race length and probability of war. Longer arms races tend to have a stabilizing influence on international politics; quantitative arms races are more likely to result in war than qualitative ones. Essential reading for arms-races scholars of any level.

  • Isard, Walter. Arms Races, Arms Control, and Conflict Analysis: Contributions from Peace Science and Peace Economics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    An important, broad collection of interdisciplinary essays, offering a useful survey of various cognitive, behavioral, and “traditional” arms-race models, interpretations, and principles, with a heavy quantitative focus. Though occasionally opaque and challenging for novice researchers, it is especially significant for its seminal contribution to peace-science and conflict-management/resolution research.

  • Jervis, Robert. Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.

    This is a classic in international-relations theory for its innovation and insights. It blends psychology and foreign policy and offers exceptional and lucid analysis of the debate between deterrence theorists and spiral theorists. Uses historical examples as support.

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