In Defense of the Arms Races… that End Arms Races

by GentzelThe Consequentialist2 min read15th Jan 20209 comments


WarAI Takeoff

All else being equal, arms races are a waste of resources and often an example of the defection equilibrium in the prisoner’s dilemma. However, in some cases, such capacity races may actually be the globally optimal strategy. Below I try to explain this with some examples.

1: If the U.S. kept racing in its military capacity after WW2, the U.S. may have been able to use its negotiating leverage to stop the Soviet Union from becoming a nuclear power: halting proliferation and preventing the build up of world threatening numbers of high yield weapons. Basically, the earlier you win an arms race, the less nasty it may be later. If the U.S. had won the cold war earlier, global development may have taken a very different course, with decades of cooperative growth instead of immense amounts of Soviet GDP being spent on defense, and ultimately causing its collapse. The principle: it may make sense to start an arms race if you think you are going to win if you start now, provided that a nastier arms race is inevitable later. 

2: If neither the U.S. nor Russia developed nuclear weapons at a quick pace, many more factions could have developed them later at a similar time, and this would be much more destabilizing and potentially violent than cases where there is a monopolar or a bipolar power situation. Principle: it is easier to generate stable coordination with small groups of actors than large groups. The more actors there are, the less likely MAD and treaties are to work, the earlier an arms race starts, the more prohibitively expensive it is for new groups to join the race.

3: If hardware design is a bottleneck on the development of far more powerful artificial intelligence systems, then racing to figure out good algorithms now will let us test a lot more things before we get to the point a relatively bad set of algorithms can create an immense amount of harm due to the hardware it has at its disposal (improbable example: imagine a Hitler emulation with the ability to think 1000x faster). Principle: the earlier you start an arms race, the more constrained you are by technological limits.1

I do not necessarily think these arguments are decisive, but I do think it is worth figuring out what the likely alternatives are before deciding if engaging in a particular capacity race is a bad idea. In general:

  • It’s nice for there to not be tons of violence and death from many factions fighting for power (multipolar situation)
  • It is nice to not have the future locked into a horrible direction by the first country/company/group/AI/etc. to effectively take over the world due some advantage derived from racing toward a technological advantage (singleton/monopolar power)
  • It’s nice for there to not be the constant risk of overwhelming suffering and death from a massive arms build up between two factions (bipolar situation)

So if an arms race is good or not basically depends on if the “good guys” are going to win (and remain good guys). If not, racing just makes everyone spend more on potentially risky tech and less on helping people. While some concerns about autonomous drones are legitimate and they may make individuals much more powerful, I am unsure it is good to stop investment races now unless they can also be stopped from happening later. Likewise, the consequences of U.S. leadership in such a race are likely to shape how lethal autonomous weapons proliferate in a more ethical direction, with lower probabilities of civilian deaths than the weapons that states would otherwise purchase.  It is also probably better to start figuring out what goes wrong while humans will still be controlling mostly autonomous drones than to wait for a bunch of countries to defect on unenforceable arms control agreements later in conflict and start deploying riskier/less well vetted systems.

If one thinks decision agencies will be better governed in the future, delaying technologies that centralize power may make sense to avoid locking in bad governments/companies/AI systems. However, to the degree competent bureaucracies can gain advantage from making risky tech investments regardless of their alignment with the general population, the more aligned systems must keep a lead to prevent others from locking in poor institutions.

Overall, arms races are wasteful and unsafe, but they may mitigate other even less safe races if they happen at the right time under the right conditions. In general, by suppressing the incentive for violence between individuals and building up larger societies, states pursuing power in zero-sum power races ultimately created positive sum economic spillovers from peace and innovation.


  1. As opposed to tech research continuing outside the military, and when an arms race begins there is a sudden destabilizing leap in attack capacity for one side or another. Return to Article
  2. You can see other related arguments in the debate on nuclear modernization here.