The Concept of Arms Race, Sino-Soviet-American Relations, and the Persian Gulf War”

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“The Concept of Arms Race, Sino-Soviet-American Relations, and the Persian Gulf War”

Political Science 170

Winter 2009

Dr. Kendall Stiles

February 12, 2009

For centuries, and particularly during the last one hundred years, nations have sought to develop, manufacture, deploy, and improve weapons in reaction to the similar efforts of their adversaries. We call this an “arms race”. As defined early on by Gray, an arms race involves the following characteristics: [T]here should be two or more parties perceiving themselves to be in an adversary relationship, who are increasing or improving their armaments at a rapid rate and structuring their respective military postures with a general attention to the past, current, and anticipated military and political behavior of the other parties. (Gray 1971, 40)

Note that this definition excludes parallel arms acquisition by allies or neutrals, gradual and moderate increases in weaponry, or unilateral increases in weaponry that is unconnected to others’ behavior. On the other hand, the definition includes all types of weapons – conventional and nuclear, personal and strategic. Also, the definition includes both quantitative and qualitative improvements, implying that manufacturing and deploying obsolete weapons could be one way to engage in an arms race where the adversary is focused exclusively on developing new military technology instead.

To what extent does this concept help us understand what took place in Sino-Soviet-American relations or the Persian Gulf War as described in as described in chapters 2 and 5 of the Stiles text, respectively? I will argue that the material makes clear that arms racing was a central dimension of the great power relations of the first case, but does not feature as prominently in the Persian Gulf situation. Specifically, the Cold War was largely a conflict over nuclear deterrent capacity rather than direct military confrontation between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., while in the case of the Persian Gulf War the United States injected itself in a regional conflict, mostly because Kuwait had been unable or unwilling to match Iraq’s military build-up and quickly succumbed to its forces once they attacked. This analysis offers a way to better understand that arms races are not the most unwelcome development in international affairs and may be preferable to alternative strategies.

In 1945, the United States successfully tested an atomic bomb and a few weeks later dropped it on Hiroshima, Japan. It is interesting to note at the outset that although the weapon was originally developed in response to Germany’s threat, and was used against Japan, the principal target of America’s atomic and later nuclear arsenal for the next half-century would be the Soviet Union – an ally of the U.S. when the bomb fell on Japan. But by 1947 American and Soviet relations had deteriorated to the point that they each saw the other as its principal adversary. When the Soviet Union detonated an atomic device in 1949, it was clear to all concerned that this was a signal to the United States. It signaled that both superpowers had the capacity to eliminate each others’ major cities (although, as pointed out in the text, it would take some time before the Soviets would have the capacity to deliver the bomb to a distant target – see page 32). The development of the hydrogen (or nuclear) bomb by 1953 and the successful testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles by both sides by 1957 meant that the populations, industries, and military installations of both superpowers were vulnerable to nuclear attack.

What took place in the first decade of the Cold War is a clear instance of an arms race. It was primarily technological in the early years and was both rapid and aggressive, as required by the definition. While one cannot speculate, it seems unlikely that the Soviet Union would have moved so quickly to develop nuclear-capable missiles had the United States not...
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