Weapons Proliferation

 Iraqi airmen fire AK-47s during firing drills March 29, 2011, U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau, public domain

Iraqi airmen fire AK-47s during firing drills March 29, 2011, U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau, public domain

Weapons Proliferation

Since the early years of the study of international relations, we have seen the role that weapons and weapons proliferation have had on the international system and on international interactions between different actors. In this article, we will examine weapons proliferation in international relations, examining why we have seen the proliferation of weapons, as well as discuss different sorts of weapons in international relations.

Weapons Proliferation in International Relations

According to realists, power and security are the most important concepts in international relations. Many realists believe that states acquire power and power capabilities in order to ensure state survival. The way that they ensure their power is through weapons proliferation. As Payne (2013) states, “A basic problem with efforts to reduce the proliferation of weapons is that individuals embrace the Hobbesian worldview, which places the constant struggle for power and dominance at the center of international relations” (118). With this concern for security, state and non state actors often look to acquire weapons to ensure their protection, or, as we have seen in the history of international relations, use weapons for aggressive campaigns.

Payen (2013) effectively  lays out a dozen reasons as to why we have seen weapons proliferation throughout international relations. Many of these reasons are not time specific, although he does also include over context conditions that may have further led to additional weapons proliferation. His list is quoted below, and he explains that weapons proliferation in the international system has been a result of:

1). Superpower Rivalry During the Cold War: Geopolitical considerations influence the United States and the Soviet Union to transfer weapons to their respective allies. For example, both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact justified the proliferation of weapons in terms of collective self defense.”

2). Military Burden Sharing: Reluctant to engage in direct military confrontation, both superpowers provided weapons, technical assistance, and arms production technologies to their allies so that they could defend themselves…

3). Regional Balance of Power: Arms sales are often defended on the grounds that such transfers contribute to regional stability and diminish the likelihood of war.”

4). Political, Military, and Economic Influence: Given the dependence of the United States on petroleum supplies from the Middle East in general and Saudi Arabia in particular, arms transfers are instrumental not only in bolstering these countries’ security but also in enabling the United States to gain and maintain access to those countries’ political, military, and economic elites.”

5). Economies of Scale: Many countries export weapons to obtain resources to finance the development and production of more advanced weapons.

6). Self-Reliance: Many countries develop their own weapons to preserve or enhance their independence.

7). Economic Factors: Much of the global weapons trade is motivated by financial considerations.

8). Ethnic Conflicts: Ethnic conflicts generate demand for weapons transfers.

9). Authoritarian Regimes: Governments that rule without the consent of the people generally rely on military force to exercise control.

10). Global Criminal Activities: Terrorism, drug trafficking, smuggling, money laundering, and other criminal activities stimulate demand for weapons.

11). Cultural Values: Beliefs in using force to resolve conflicts and the right of individuals to own weapons contribute to the proliferation of weapons.

12). The Disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Fall of Communism. Many countries in the Soviet bloc reduced their armed forces and have excess weapons, especially small ones.”

When looking at weapons proliferation in international relations, Viotti & Kauppi (2013) argue that “[t]here are five major areas of concern [with regards to weapons proliferation]: nuclear or radiological weapons, chemical weapons, biological weapons, ballistic missiles, and advanced conventional weapons systems” (250) which we argue could also include the prevalence of small arms in the international system. We have covered nuclear weapons in a different article, and thus, this article will pay particular attention to chemical and biological weapons, ballistic weapons, along with more conventional and small arm weapons.

Small Arms

While small arms are not new to the world and to international relations, the rise of availability of small arms has increased in recent decades. Many argue that the reason for this stems from the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Not only were the United States and Soviet Union providing weapons to various allies (Sernau, 2012), but as mentioned above, there were many small arms available due to reductions in military (Payne, 2013). One of the most popular small arms in the entire world is the Ak-47 Kalashnikov automatic rifle. This gun is believed to probably be “[t]he deadliest weapon the world has ever seen in terms of the sheer numbers of people killed” (161). This gun, created in 1947 for the Soviet Union military, it has been used by militaries, non-state fighting groups, and criminals around the world. It is said that “[t]here may be 50 million of these weapons in the world” (Sernau, 2012: 161). Part of the reason for its popularity is that the gun shoots many bullets very quickly (Sernau, 2012) (roughly “thirty rounds in just three seconds” (Payne, 2013: 119), “is relatively inexpensive, widely available, has only nine moving parts, weighs roughly  10 pounds, [and] has a range of more than 1,000 yards…” (Payne, 2013: 119).

But while this is a popular weapon that has been a part of the overall weapons proliferation in the international system, it is far from the only small arm to be available for individuals, and far from the most firepower in terms of capabilities. If one looks that the illegal gun market, it is evident that individuals have been able purchase grenade launchers, and much more sophisticated weapons such as “a Stinger: a shoulder-fired,  heat-seeking missile designed to bring down high-altitude aircraft” (Sernau, 2012: 161).



Payne, R. J. (2012). Global Issues. New York, New York. Pearson.

Sernau, S. (2012). Global Problems: The Search for Equity, Peace, and Sustainability. Third Edition. New York, New York. Pearson.

Viotti, P. R. & Kauppi, M. V. (2013). International Relations and World Politics, Fifth Edition. New York, New York. Pearson.

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