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The myth of strategic stability

The history of the 20th century was shaped by two major changes in the global international system. First, the multipolar European order, established in the early 19th century, collapsed with the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the early 1940s.

Second, the end of World War II gave rise to bipolar system, which, by historical standards, was a short-lived moment of geopolitical transition and collapsed with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The immediate post-cold war world was characterised by a de-facto unipolarity but the 9/11 attacks and the Bush administration’s disastrous foreign policy brought an abrupt end to US quasi-hegemony.

The idea of strategic stability, despite being a widely misunderstood term, has been the central concept within international relations literature, in both multipolar and bipolar systems, but in the 21st century it has come under increasing strain. At this point, many experts believe that the quest for strategic stability is increasingly becoming impossible because nuclear weapons cannot provide a useful deterrent against the threats imposed by violent non-state actors.

The entire global system is passing through a process of profound transformation, which cannot be controlled or stopped. In today’s world, transnational terrorist networks pose the most potent threats to global security. And terrorist groups hardly take well thought-out rational decisions, as states are believed to take. More alarmingly, the cold war’s deterrent framework of mutually assured destruction (MAD) cannot provide the certainty needed to guarantee that there would be no naval clash between international players in the South China Sea.

The sum of these fears gives us a strong reason to believe that we are living a less predictable and more diverse world. In such a situation, universal support for the idea of strategic stability at the cost of neglecting non-traditional security challenges can be a major hindrance in the way of nuclear disarmament and arms control. Yet the advocates of strategic stability and deterrence are so assertive in their views that their influence in both academia and policy-making circles can easily be seen.

More importantly, though, powerful lobbies in almost all nuclear weapon states have developed stakes in vast nuclear establishments, spending budgets of billions of dollars. These vested interests always resist efforts to cut down nuclear weapons. In 2010, President Obama had to earmark $185 billion to modernise nuclear warheads and delivery systems over the next 10 years in the bargain for smooth passage of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia.

The myths and misconceptions attached to the idea of strategic stability make it a particularly controversial concept. For decades, theorists and experts have fared no better at defining the term than policy analysts working for national governments. The logic behind the idea was to stabilise the bipolar confrontation of the cold war by strengthening retaliatory capabilities, thus reducing the possibility of a surprise nuclear attack.

This is based on the assumption that the prospects of war will be reduced if both sides are confident of their second-strike capabilities. In such a situation, each side would know that a deliberate nuclear attack to disarm one’s opponents might fall short of what is needed to achieve that goal.

In policy circles, the concept of strategic stability loosely refers to a rough parity in the field of strategic nuclear weapons or the absence of indicators of potential conflict. However, significant confusion persists over its different meanings and particularly the distinction between ‘weapons-oriented’ and ‘holistic conception of strategic stability’. There is also no question among theorists regarding what the means are to ensure strategic stability. Is it a result of common diplomatic understanding or the effect of nuclear parity?

The concept was first systematically defined by David Thaler and Glenn Kent in the early 1990s as a situation in which, “after considering the vulnerability of strategic forces on both sides, neither leader perceives the other as pressured by the posture of forces to strike first in a crisis (and) either leader sees an advantage in striking first to avoid the potentially worse outcome of incurring a first strike if he waits.” Strategic stability also describes the absence of incentives to build up or use nuclear forces.

The contradictory character of the idea is evident from the fact that assessments about the number of weapons required for deterrence have always been arbitrary. During the cold-war period, the US intelligence agencies estimated that such a capability required at least hundreds of nuclear warheads. However, in the post-cold war period, this number is much lower and, according to a former commander of the US Strategic Command, the retaliatory capability of almost 300 nuclear weapons should be considered a strong deterrent. This shows that the appropriate number of nuclear weapons necessary to maintain a credible second-strike capability is generally based on the number of weapons available to use against enemy, not the other way round.

Historical records reveal that the idea of strategic stability is too fragile to be relied upon and the fear of massive nuclear retaliation is not always able to prevent countries from taking the course of action they want. During the cold war, deterrence could work only in a few cases. But a single case of failure has the potential to lead to a nuclear war.

More alarmingly, deterrence threats, due to their inherently uncertain nature, sometimes lead enemy nations to behave in ways that are quite inimical to achieving the goal of deterring aggression. The continued existence of nuclear weapons is also the reason for their gradual spread. As long as even one country has nuclear capability, others will also want to acquire that status.

Email: rizwanasghar5@unm.edu

Rizwan Asghar, "The myth of strategic stability," The News. 2015-07-14.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political history , Strategic relation , Strategic stability , International relations , International diplomacy , Nuclear weapons , Nuclear technology , Nuclear proliferation , Global security