Why arms control is so rare

Arming is puzzling for the same reason war is: it produces outcomes that could instead be realized through negotiation, without the costly diversion of resources arming entails. Despite this, arms control is exceedingly rare historically, so that arming is ubiquitous and its costs to humanity are large. We develop and test a theory that explains why arming is so common and its control so rare. The main impediment to arms control is the need for monitoring that renders a state’s arming transparent enough to assure its compliance but not so much as to threaten its security. We present evidence that this trade-off has undermined arms control in three diverse contexts: Iraq’s weapons programs after the Gulf War, great power competition in arms in the interwar period, and superpower military rivalry during the Cold War. These arms races account for almost 40% of all global arming in the past two centuries.

Coe and Vaynman (2019)

September 7, 2023