USA v. USSR: Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Nuclear Arms Race



From the end of the Second World War in 1945 until 1991 the United States and the Soviet Union stared each other down backed by ever growing nuclear stockpiles. From the outside clearly the best choice was for both sides to disarm. Most will agree and say both sides should have disarmed however the reason while both sides refused to disarm is clear, a blatant lack of trust.

The United States and the Soviet Union where more than rival countries. Each country was a symbol for different ideology. The United States was the foremost supporter of capitalism and  democratic government while the Soviet Union supported communism. The world was split between two superpowers, each fighting for an advantage over the other. The easiest way to gain an advantage was clearly to have more weapons than the other country.

Neither country trusted the other would agree to disarm themselves. Both countries decided the best way to avoid nuclear war was not to dismantle their weapons stockpiles but to simply have more than the other. A larger stockpile was meant to act as deterrent against a rival nation. The Cuban Missile Crisis highlights many key aspects of the Cold War and the distrust between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both nations wanted to move missiles to a more strategic location, the United States had missiles in Turkey so the Soviets wanted missiles in Cuba. While not an unusual tactic the crisis demonstrated the unwillingness to cooperate with each other.


4 thoughts on “USA v. USSR: Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Nuclear Arms Race

  1. While it is clear that the stalemate between the US and USSR is a Prisoner’s Dilemma, I disagree that the best option for peace would be to destroy the stockpiles of nuclear missiles. Apart from the uncertainty of not knowing if each side has kept their end of the deal, the core issue with the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the world is not a closed system. If the world was controlled by the US and USSR and all of the possible nukes that will be made or have been made were in their hands, maybe then a full scale disarmament may be possible. But as we all know this is not the case. China, England, France, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea, and India all have nuclear weapons and have had them for many years, years which fall in the time of the cold war. So for either America or Russia to give up their nuclear weapons would actually be strategically disadvantageous.


  2. I agree with the comment made above that mentions how the United States and the Soviet Union are not the only countries who have nuclear weapons and how that would make complete disarmament very difficult. I think that if no country had nuclear weapons it might made war more common since shooting an AK-47 or a rocket propelled grenade has lower consequences when comparing it to a nuclear weapon. As discussed in class, the United Nations has outlawed war which I think has made a huge impact as well. I agree when you wrote on how the Cuban Missile Crisis showed how both the United States and the Soviet Union did not trust each other. This post helped give me an example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma that could help me better understand the concept.


  3. The dilemma mentioned in this post was also called as Security Dilemma, the action seeking their national security makes international relation unstable. This term was coined by John. H. Herz. When you explain this term, International situation before WW1 was referred as a common example, but I think this term could be applied to the arms race between USA and USSR because the expansion of the nuclear weapons in both countries created the situation like Cuba crisis, and Cuba crisis was often stated as the biggest crisis in international world after WW2 finished. With regard to nuclear weapons, I personally think the nuclear weapon could be a deterrent for war and other politically unstable countries like Iran, China. Therefore, it could be one of the positive effects on not causing war and making a stable situation in International world.


  4. Based on what we discussed in class on the structural level of what causes war, would reducing arms on both sides have really been a good idea? If the two dominant powers continue to decreases stockpiles then what happens when a third party that is trying to catch up puts itself into the fold? What if the arms race was still going on as China started to gain more military power? You then start to have a multipolar system which only adds to the instability. The question then is how does the prisoner’s dilemma change when it’s not just between two parties but between three or more?


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