The Reality of Hobbes’ Realism in the Arms Race: from the Cold War to the Present

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

“Every thinking person fears nuclear war, and every technological state plans for it.

Everyone knows it is madness, and every nation has an excuse”

― Carl Sagan, Cosmos —

In 1980, as the US and USSR became more entrenched in their separate camps, Carl Sagan warned us of the possibility of a nuclear war when the world was sorely agitated during the Cold War. The notion of two great power nations engaging in a power contest involving nuclear arms is nonetheless threatening to all of humanity, as nations faced a looming peril of an imminent doomsday. The War, as we see, is a manifestation of selfish desires culminating into inflection points marked by tense geopolitics. The discovery of nuclear fission had set the backdrop for decades of international unrest as nations competed to arm themselves with the most nuclear weapons. A tense, competitive phenomenon on the international stage is not strange—rather, Hobbes, in his work Leviathan, hypothesises the state of nature which explains why humans exist in continual fear of our neighbours. Our natural cynicism towards others is parallel to that of the arms race during and after the Cold War; hence states must be wary of existing in a Hobbesian state of nature for matters concerning international security.

In Leviathan, Hobbes expounds upon the fallibility of human nature and its implications for society. Humans are fuelled by an insatiable greed which has its roots in irrational decision-making, and, in turn, raises suspicions towards one another. Hobbes observes, “And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies.” [1] Unless we abide by the social contract, we can never break free from this cycle of destructive competition because of our inward pursuit of selfish glory. Hobbes believes that this creates “the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” [2] As we exist in a dog-eat-dog world, we lack the willingness to act for the common good; hence we require a “common power to fear” lest a civil war takes place. [3]

In the field of international relations, Hobbes’ theory of the state of nature belongs to the realist discipline of political theory, which emphasises the use of power to serve one’s self interests. Although realist thought may appear the most logical as it bases itself upon a negative outlook on human nature, it has the most potential to destabilise the overall international system. An arms race serves as an example of states behaving like individual agents who act out of the irrational fear of the other’s military might, prompting a stock up on strong weapons for themselves. Given the absence of a universally enforceable Leviathan (a strong world governance system), the world’s nations fall to the traps of realist theory. Canadian philosopher Leo Groarke in “Protecting One’s Own: Hobbes, Realism and Disarmament” notes that, “it is the lack of such a sovereign in the international arena which allegedly entails the conclusion that states can and must use force to secure their ends.” [4] The nuclear arms race between the USSR and the US proves the existence of irrational fear in Hobbes’ state of nature in international politics, yet the states’ inclination to appear stronger than their rivals leads them to behave irrationally and precariously.

After the total devastation following the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings in the Second World War, the United States proposed the Baruch Plan in 1946 to eliminate all atomic stockpiles and establish an international supervisory body to ensure the proper implementation of the statute. The Soviets offered a counterproposal, wishing the US to disarm first before other countries would follow suit. The conflict of interests between the two global powers foreshadowed a dangerous bilateral competition for arms control during the Cold War and the security dilemma (a situation in which the most logical option is for states to heighten their security) which still remains as a major governing phenomenon in the realist world. As a realist, Hobbes was alert to the natural distrust between states by believing in an individualistic proposition that states must rely on themselves for matters concerning security. In an anarchic international system, states want to appear stronger by opting to maximise their security and power—a tit-for-tat response that causes states to engage in a vicious cycle as rivals react out of reciprocity of action.

A tit-for-tat response.

The Cold War began out of the battle for world hegemony between the US, the Soviet States and the satellite nations. The Cold War lasted for about forty-five years after the eve of the Second World War, yet the two main antagonists did not engage in a direct war. Rather, it consisted of ideological conflicts, mass rearmament, and proxy wars. The superpowers battled over their ideological differences—the US promoted the virtues of democracy and capitalism whilst Soviet Russia vouched for communist ideals. As a result of their divisive ideological characters, both plunged into a decades-long calamitous competition for military weapons and technological advancements which included the resurface of nuclear bombs back into the picture. Seeing that the US employed the use of nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviets took to developing their own nuclear weapons. The US spent a total of six trillion dollars on increasing their stock of nuclear weapons which contained ten thousand warheads, while Russia only had half as many. [5] As President Reagan declared, “Nuclear superiority is the key to peace.” [6] Hobbes observes, “To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent, that nothing can be unjust.” [7] Since human’s irrationality spirals out of control as indicated by the military stock-up, states legalise this foreign policy out of self-interest.

To fully assess the validity and rationale of the arms race, we may use the game theory [8], also known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma, to best illustrate this phenomenon. Using the example of the arms race between the USSR and the US, the game theory matrix (see image) indicates that the two countries have the option to either arm or disarm. If both states choose to disarm, they will reach the ideal military strategy.

However, if one of them chooses to arm and the other to disarm, one will ‘win’ more points by appearing to be more powerful than the other. This poses a security dilemma and raises a concern if the armed nation chooses to attack, which is not a favourable condition for the disarmed nation to exist within. A simplified round of game theory can affirm the Hobbesian theory that fear and suspicion are legitimate reasons for one country to opt for a more dominant strategy by arming themselves, but they are not the wisest. The matrix clearly demonstrates that, although states may choose to act selfishly, to disarm altogether is the most favourable option. In an arms race, states engage in a competition for power, which they believe would generate peace. Yet, Groarke believes that “a policy of peace through strength entails an ever escalating arms race and ultimate disaster.” [9] A state that commits itself to an arms race must spend much of their government expenditure towards weaponry, which not only damages its domestic economy but also destabilises the international community—all of which are not in anyone’s best interests.

The arms race between the US and the USSR reached its height during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Many believed that the event was the closest the Cold War ever came to a full-scale nuclear war between the two powers. [10] The Crisis began when Nikita Khrushchev, the Premier Secretary of the Soviets, supplied Cuba with nuclear weapons in order to discourage a US invasion of Communist Cuba. He made a secret agreement with the Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro, to which the US responded by setting up a naval blockade to prevent more offensive weapons from entering the country. The US President Kennedy ordered the “removal of the missiles and the destruction of the sites,” [11] and Khrushchev conceded. At the end of the crisis, tensions began to re-escalate when Khrushchev struck back and commanded an upgrade of the Soviet nuclear stock which bore the potential to evolve the current state of affairs into a globally-fatal nuclear war. The two superpowers raced to produce the most nuclear bombs, sufficient to annihilate both sides, thus giving rise to a theory known as mutually assured destruction (MAD). The paradox contained in MAD holds that, if both countries have the power vested in strong weapons to use them against their enemy, then it would disincentivize both parties to engage in a conflict.

The Cuban Missile Crisis verifies the need for a Hobbesian belief that “covenants without the sword are but words, and no strength to secure a man at all.” [12] To protect oneself from security threats, a nation may opt to arm themselves with the “sword.” Hobbes believes that words are futile and that intimidation by possessing tangible weaponry is the most effective way to combat any insecurities and fears. On the other hand, Groarke offers a key fact: “Ten of [the United States’] 12,000 strategic warheads could create a crisis in the Soviet Union of unprecedented and unmanageable proportions.” [13] The heavily imbalanced ratio puts into perspective the rapid escalation of the matter at hand, and the large numbers that became the product of the growing conflict which have become largely unnecessary and dangerous. The bravado of power politics has undoubtedly increased the risks involved in the arms race, proving that the realist theory must not be analogous to international policy and security decisions. As a result, de-escalation of the conflict would be difficult to achieve, and it leaves a continuing legacy of generations of diplomatic relations to help quell and settle.

To help facilitate deterrence among nuclear-weapon states, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or the NPT, was signed in 1968. The primary objective of the treaty is to achieve nuclear disarmament and to deter the spread of nuclear weapons. [14] According to the United Nations, “the Treaty represents the only binding commitment in a multilateral treaty.” [15] Hence its signatories ought to fully heed the agreements contained in the Treaty. The end of the Cold War saw an optimistic change in nuclear disarmament, as evidenced by the reduction of arsenals previously owned by the US and the USSR. Although there is no system of world governance, the binding NPT agreement can fulfil the need for a Hobbesian Leviathan to alleviate the dire state of nature. Hobbes writes, “The only way to erect . . . a common power . . . is to confer all their power and strength upon one man or upon one assembly of men, that they may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices.” [16] Therefore, only a contractually binding agreement opens the doors for a peaceful global environment, working for the common defence for all. It should enforce a necessary social contract with the treaty’s signatories who expect to receive security. The preexisting multilateral tensions can be alleviated by a legal and administrative structure to aid disarmament, and in turn, create lasting peace.

Today, the arms race is still a relevant subject in international relations. More countries are expending their revenues on nuclear weapons, although the US and Russia still maintain their positions as the countries with the most weapons by a significant margin. Three countries are in possession of nuclear weapons but are not signatories of the NPT: India, Israel, and Pakistan. North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003, therefore the number of weapons they truly possess remains unknown. To make matters worse, “five countries have gone nuclear since [the NPT] was signed, [and] worse, game theory suggests that it’s rational for more states to follow.” [17] These worrisome realities pose a question regarding the efficacy of the NPT as a binding agreement, and remind us to be wary of matters pertaining to the modern-day arms race. Groarke emphasises, “The arms race is a manifestation, not only of the pursuit of national self interest, but also the pursuit of a certain conception of that self interest which is influenced by many irrational factors.” [18] It is impossible to turn back the clock; however the proper implementation of treaties such as the NPT will ensure global stability without posing another threat to security.

President Lyndon B. Johnson (far right) looks on as Secretary of State Dean Rusk signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968. (© Corbis/Getty Images)

Arms races are a testament that states, like individuals, tend to act irrationally because we exist in a Hobbesian state of nature. The Cold War provides evidence of the complexity behind a tit-for-tat response: when one state sees that their rival is stocking up on their nuclear forces, they will be guided by the desire to dominate. Nuclear-power states are extremely volatile, as they are able to risk global security overnight. Small diplomatic errors and possible technical failures have the capacity to bring a ripple effect to the international system, one that can lead to very disastrous outcomes. States have the ability to exert their power and dominance over other nations by forceful intimidation, however state leaders and governments must be so wise as to put humanity above power politics.

[1] Thomas Hobbes, “Leviathan,” in The History of Western Ethics (2011), 122.

[2] Ibid, 123.

[3] Ibid, 124.

[4] Leo Groarke, “Protecting One’s Own: Hobbes, Realism and Disarmament.” Public Affairs Quarterly 2, no. 1 (1988): 89-107. Accessed November 23, 2020. 90.

[5] C. F. Chyba, "Moving Toward Security," Science, 317, 5838, (2007)

[6] President Ronald Reagan, “Address of the President to the British Houses of Parliament,” White House News Release, p. 9; June 8, 1982.

[7] Hobbes, 124.

[8] “United States vs. Soviet Union: Prisoner’s Dilemma,” Cornell University Online Blog.

[9] Groarke, 92.

[10] Scott, Len; Hughes, R. Gerald (2015). The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Critical Reappraisal. Taylor & Francis. p. 17. ISBN 9781317555414. Archived from the original on July 29, 2016. Retrieved December 31, 2015.

[11] “The Cold War,” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

[12] Hobbes, 128.

[13] Groarke, 94.

[14] "UNODA - Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)". Retrieved 20 February 2016.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Hobbes, 129.

[17] Andreas Kluth, “This Nuclear Arms Race Is Worse Than the Last One,” Bloomberg. 18 June 2020.

[18] Groarke, 98.