Arms Race: 21st Century Style


Professor Till’s recent article on the potential for an arms race in East Asia made me think about how we traditionally conceive of an “arms race,” in what ways modern arms races might diverge from that definition, and what behavior we might see that could look like an arms race but that’s not motivated by traditional arms race logic.  Appreciating the logic of arms racing may help us identify when such races are happening, and what effects they can have.

Till identifies the most famous examples of arms races; the U.S.-UK-Germany dreadnought race of the 1910s, and the U.S.-Soviet nuclear delivery system race in the Cold War. 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.

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Of course, asymmetric arms races make arms control more difficult, in part because the sides have difficulty agreeing on the relative merit of weapon systems.  A dreadnought is a dreadnought and an ICBM is an ICBM, but what combination of submarines and DF-21s makes for an aircraft carrier? To the extent that the public pays attention to arms races (and its attention surely waxes and wanes), it seems to focus on numeric comparisons; do we have more battleships than the Germans, or more bombers than the Russians? Then again, few have seriously proposed arms control as a solution to the East Asian-maybe-an-arms-race.

It’s worth mentioning that some incentive for expending national treasure on arms comes from motives that have little to do with international security. Advanced weapons can buy influence abroad and prestige at home. Political leaders often relish the opportunity  to toss some money at key contractors and constituents, and defense spending can act as (clumsy) stimulus in uncertain economic climates.  Even if China’s growth slows, there is no guarantee that Chinese military spending will slow.

Given all this, one final possibility is that an arms race could, inadvertently, have salutary global effects.  If states build ships for prestige as much as for security, and if they build more because their neighbors build more, and if (as the Cooperative Strategy suggests) maritime power can be understood in positive sum terms, then naval arms races could make management of the global commons easier. The next maritime catastrophe of similar magnitude to the 2004 tsunami will, in all likelihood, witness the co-participation of Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Australian, and New Zealander amphibious ships in relief and rescue operations. If this happens, the people in jeopardy probably won’t worry too much about the wicked dynamics of the security dilemma.

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