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.
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.
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.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions and individuals. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email firstname.lastname@example.org to express your interest.
- Academic Theories of International Relations Since 1945
- Arab-Israeli Wars, 1967-1973, The
- Arab-Israeli Wars, The
- Arms Control
- Arms Races
- Asylum Policies
- Authoritarian Regimes
- Balance of Power Theory
- Bargaining Theory of War
- Challenge of Communism, The
- China and Japan
- China's Defense Policy
- China's Foreign Policy
- Civil Resistance
- Civil Society in the European Union
- Cold War, The
- Conflict Behavior and the Prevention of War
- Conflict Management
- Countermeasures in International Law
- Criminal Law, International
- Critical Theory of International Relations
- Cuban Missile Crisis, The
- Cyber Warfare
- Demobilization, Post World War I
- Democracies and World Order
- Democracy and Conflict
- Democracy in World Politics
- Deterrence Theory
- Diplomacy, History of
- Diplomacy, Public
- Disaster Diplomacy
- Eastern Front (World War I)
- Economics, International
- Embedded Liberalism
- Emerging Powers and BRICS
- Empirical Testing of Formal Models
- Epidemic Diseases and their Effects on History
- Ethics and Morality in International Relations
- Ethnicity in International Relations
- European Migration Policy
- European Security and Defense Policy, The
- European Union as an International Actor
- European Union, International Relations of the
- Fascism, The Challenge of
- Food Security
- Forecasting in International Relations
- Foreign Policy, Theories of
- French Empire, 20th-Century
- From Club to Network Diplomacy
- Game Theory and Interstate Conflict
- Genocide, Politicide, and Mass Atrocities Against Civilian...
- Genocides, 20th Century
- Geopolitics and Geostrategy
- Germany in World War II
- Global Civil Society
- Global Constitutionalism
- Global Environmental Politics
- Global Ethic of Care
- Global Governance
- Global Justice, Western Perspectives
- Greater Middle East, The
- Hague Conferences (1899, 1907)
- Human Rights
- Human Rights and Humanitarian Diplomacy
- Human Rights Law
- Intelligence Oversight
- Internal Displacement
- International Conflict Settlements, The Durability of
- International Criminal Court, The
- International Economic Organizations (IMF and World Bank)
- International Health Governance
- International Justice, Theories of
- International Law
- International Monetary Relations, History of
- International Negotiation and Conflict Resolution
- International Nongovernmental Organizations
- International Organizations
- International Relations as a Social Science
- International Relations Theory
- International Security
- International Society
- International Society, Theorizing
- International Support For Nonstate Armed Groups
- Internet Law
- Interstate Cooperation Theory and International Institutio...
- Intervention and Use of Force
- Iran, Politics and Foreign Policy
- Just War Theory
- Kurdistan and Kurdish Politics
- Law of the Sea
- Laws of War
- Leadership in International Affairs
- League of Nations
- Lean Forward and Pull Back Options for US Grand Strategy
- Military Science
- Minority Rights
- Multilateralism (1992–), Return to
- National Liberation, International Law and Wars of
- National Security Act of 1947, The
- Nations and Nationalism
- NATO, Europe, and Russia: Security Issues and the Border R...
- New Multilateralism in the Early 21st Century
- Nonproliferation and Counterproliferation
- Peace of Utrecht
- Peacebuilding, Post-Conflict
- Political Demography
- Political Economy of National Security
- Political Learning and Socialization
- Political Psychology
- Popular Culture and International Relations
- Post-Civil War State
- Post-Conflict and Transitional Justice
- Power Transition Theory
- Preventive War and Preemption
- Prisoners, Treatment of
- Prospect Theory in International Relations
- Public Opinion and the European Union
- Religion and International Relations
- Religiously Motivated Violence
- Responsibility to Protect
- Russian Revolutions and Civil War, 1917-1921
- Sanctions in International Law
- Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), The
- Shining Path
- Social Scientific Theories of Imperialism
- Soviet Union in World War II
- Space Strategy, Policy, and Power
- Spatial Dependencies and International Mediation
- State Theory in International Relations
- Strategic Air Power
- Strategic and Net Assessments
- Sustainable Development
- Teaching International Relations
- Territorial Disputes
- Terrorist Financing
- Terrorist Group Strategies
- The Changing Nature of Diplomacy
- The Queer in/of International Relations
- Theories of International Relations, Feminist
- Theory, Chinese International Relations
- Trade Law
- Transnational Actors
- Transnational Social Movements
- Trust and International Relations
- UN Security Council
- United Nations, The
- US and Africa
- US–UK Special Relationship
- Vienna Conventions on Diplomacy and Consular Relations
- Voluntary International Migration
- War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714)
- Western Balkans
- Western Front (World War I)
- Westphalia, Peace of (1648)
- Women and Peacemaking Peacekeeping
- World Economy 1919-1939
- World Polity School
- World War II Diplomacy and Political Relations