An arms race denotes a rapid increase in the quantity or quality of instruments of military power by rival states in peacetime. The first modern arms race took place when France and Russia challenged the naval superiority of Britain in the late nineteenth century. Germany’s attempt to surpass Britain’s fleet spilled over into World War I, while tensions after the war between the United States, Britain and Japan resulted in the first major arms-limitation treaty at the Washington Conference. The buildup of arms was also a characteristic of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, though the development of nuclear weapons changed the stakes for the par

Over the past century, the arms race metaphor has assumed a prominent place in public discussion of military affairs. But even more than the other colorful metaphors of security studies–balance of power, escalation, and the like–it may cloud rather than clarify understanding of the dynamics of international rivalries.

An arms race denotes a rapid, competitive increase in the quantity or quality of instruments of military or naval power by rival states in peacetime. What it connotes is a game with a logic of its own. Typically, in popular depictions of arms races, the political calculations that start and regulate the pace of the game remain obscure. As Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr., has noted, “The strange result is that the activity of the other side, and not one’s own resources, plans, and motives, becomes the determinant of one’s behavior.” And what constitutes the “finish line” of the game is the province of assertion, rather than analysis. Many onlookers, and some participants, have claimed that the likelihood of war increases as the accumulation of arms proceeds apace.

A close examination of the historical evidence reveals a different picture. Political purposes almost always drive and govern arms races. It is common for a major race to be initiated by a state interested in changing the political status quo. In some cases, the response of states content with the status quo is swift and resolute, but in other cases it is constrained by domestic political or economic considerations or diverted by diplomatic calculations. The course of an arms race has frequently exacerbated a sense of rivalry and occasionally even determined the timing of a war; but most often it has ended in a political settlement between rivals or in a decision by one side to moderate its buildup.

The first competitive buildup in which contemporaries used the arms race metaphor seems to have been the naval rivalry in the late nineteenth century, in which France and Russia challenged Britain in the context of acute tensions over colonial expansion. The British responded with a determination to remain masters of the seas. The ultimate result was not war, but rather an Anglo-French political settlement in 1904 and an Anglo-Russian rapprochement in 1907 against the background of a rising German threat.

The German challenge to Britain in the early twentieth century involved the most famous naval arms race of all. As the post-Bismarck political leadership decided that Germany must become a world power, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz was able to justify building a large German battle fleet. When the British finally responded, the upshot was a competition that fit an action-reaction model more closely than any other arms race. The Germans in the end could not keep up, because of domestic difficulties in raising taxes and pressures to give greater priority to spending on the army. Though the naval arms race did poison Anglo-German relations, it was the actions of the German army, not the German navy, that ultimately produced war in 1914.

A third major naval arms race, involving the United States, Britain, and Japan, erupted at the end of World War I. It was fueled by Japanese efforts to expand their political influence in East Asia and by an American attempt to gain greater political leverage over Britain. This was a race that, for financial reasons, none of the participants wanted to run very far. It ended at the Washington Conference of 1921-1922 with the first major arms-limitation treaty ever and a new political settlement for East Asia.

Was there, then, no truth at all in the 1925 verdict of a former British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, that “great armaments lead inevitably to war”? In fact, an arms race among European armies had some part in the outbreak of World War I. In the July crisis of 1914, German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg took greater risks in brinkmanship than he might have otherwise done, because of a presumption that Russia’s stepped-up efforts to improve its military capability meant Germany would be in a stronger position to win a war in 1914 than later.

Similarly, Adolf Hitler was in a rush to attack France in 1940 and the Soviet Union in 1941, partly because of the dynamics of an arms race that he had started in the 1930s. Held back by domestic financial constraints, Britain and France had lagged behind. But they, and Germany’s other adversaries, had accelerated their rearmament in the late 1930s, and Hitler moved forward his program of conquest lest the German lead be overtaken.

Japan, too, succumbed to “now or never” calculations in 1941. Its naval leaders appreciated that the Japanese navy had gained a lead over the U.S. Pacific Fleet in every class of warship, but that a massive American naval program begun in 1940 would leave them far behind by 1943. Coupled with the effects of an American oil embargo against Japan, this playing out of the dynamics of an arms race helped to prompt an attack on the United States in December 1941. But in this case, as in the two European wars, hegemonic political ambitions fueled the conflict.

Leads and lags in an arms race against a background of a hegemonic struggle characterized the Cold War as well, but the deterrent effect of weapons of mass destruction made “now or never” calculations much less tempting for the superpowers of the nuclear age. The arms competition between the United States and the Soviet Union did not fit an action-reaction model very well. For domestic political and economic reasons, the United States was slow to rearm in the late 1940s even as it perceived hegemonic ambitions on the part of the Soviets. After the United States did greatly increase its nuclear and conventional arms during the Korean War, the Soviet leadership for its own domestic reasons made only a partial response. When from the mid-1960s the Soviets undertook the most massive peacetime military buildup in history, the United States chose to disengage somewhat from the race. Not until after 1979 did it reassess its posture. The new qualitative improvements embodied in the last American arms spurt of the Cold War made Soviet military leaders nervous and helps explain why they were willing in the mid-1980s to accept the new ideas promoted by Mikhail Gorbachev in hopes of raising the technological level of Soviet society. The arms race that had produced the greatest anxiety among contemporaries ended in the most astonishing political settlement of the past century.

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