In Defense of Arms Races… for Ending Arms Races

In a recent article from the Future of Life Institute I noticed myself flinch slightly at how casually it is presumed that arms races are bad. While I do agree an arms race is often an example of defecting in the prisoner’s dilemma I do think it may actually be the globally optimal strategy in some cases. Below I try to explain this with some examples.

1: If the U.S. kept racing in its military capacity after WW2, the Soviet Union might not have become a nuclear power and proliferation might have effectively been stopped by the United States. Basically, the earlier you win an arms race, the less nasty it may be later. 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 singleton 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 smarter than human artificial intelligence, 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 take over the world due to the hardware it has at its disposal (improbable example: imagine Hitler with the ability to think 1000x faster). Principle: the earlier you start an arms race, the more constrained you are by technology limits.1

I do not necessarily agree with all these arguments, but I do think it is worth questioning how bad arms races are in different cases in order to encourage the best policy. 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)
  • It’s nice for there to not be the constant risk of overwhelming suffering and death from a 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 risky tech and less on helping people. I do think the worry about autonomous drones is legitimate, and that they will make individuals much more powerful, but I am unsure if it is good to stop an arms race now unless it can also be stopped from happening later. It may be better to start figuring out what goes wrong when humans are controlling mostly autonomous drones than to wait for a point when AI is controlling fully autonomous drones. Alternatively, it may be better to delay the tech so that there isn’t additional firepower and control available to early AI which may not be aligned with our interests yet. Overall, arms races are never safe, but they may mitigate other even less safe races if they happen at the right time under the right conditions.


  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.


  1. Nice examples. I think the title might be misinterpreted, since at least your examples 1 and 2 still have the premise that arms races are bad, and it’s just that some racing for arms now might reduce total long-run arms racing.

    Liked by 1 person

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