Michael KreponIncreasingly Tenuous Strategic Stability

Quote of the week:

“Strongman politics are ascendant … whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained—the form of it—but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning.” — Barack Obama’s July 17, 2018 speech in Johannesburg on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth.

The advent of “strongman politics” isn’t good for strategic stability. Neither is the weakening of alliances nor the shifting fortunes of major powers. Especially when the United States is deeply divided and isolationist sentiment is on the rise.

If the state of US-Russian and US-Chinese relations are in good working order, if there are no flash points and perceived opportunities for significant gains in the event of crises, and if dangerous military practices are avoided, strategic stability is well within reach. What makes the current passage so troubling is that relations between major powers are now increasingly uncertain, flash points are clearly evident, as are dangerous military practices. Compounding these dangers are growing fissures between Washington and its allies in Europe and Asia and growing insularity among Republican voters in the United States, reminiscent of the 1920s and 1930s. These trends are reflected in the public statements of Donald Trump that, in turn, increasingly shape the views of his staunch supporters.

These shifts and uncertainties add up to an increasingly tenuous strategic stability in addition to wobbly deterrence stability. For some, the disposition of nuclear forces and the extent of perceived nuclear dangers is the most important aspect of strategic stability. While undeniably important, this focus seems too narrow, especially after states achieve the ability to retaliate with devastating effect in the event of a surprise attack. If relations between major powers are in good working order, friction resulting from strategic modernization programs can be accommodated. When conditions of strategic stability are absent, friction resulting from strategic modernization programs is magnified. The state of relations between major powers has more of a bearing on strategic stability than the state of nuclear arsenals.

So far, nuclear weapons have contributed to the absence of nuclear exchanges and full-blown conventional war between major powers. Lines on maps have changed as the Soviet Union dissolved and borders created by post-world-war mapmakers have come undone. Countries such as Yugoslavia, Iraq and Syria have suffered terrible fates due to misrule and foreign intervention. These conflicts have had wrenching humanitarian consequences but have not posed fundamental threats to strategic stability. The closest one can come to making this case is to add vast migration flows to escape poverty, warfare and domestic abuses of power that have accentuated political divisions in western democracies and boosted the fortunes of strongmen. Even these developments, at least by my reckoning, do not create major threats to strategic stability.

Such threats emanate primarily from the ambitions and missteps of major powers. At some point down the road, the result could be another Cuban missile-type crisis, one principal difference being that, next time, the crisis is likely to play out in Russia’s backyard or close to China’s periphery. If the United States doesn’t rise to the occasion or stumbles badly in such a crisis, another could well follow, and then another. If the outcome of crises between nuclear-armed states, as has widely been noted, has become the substitute for the outcome of wars, the perceived balance of power could shift markedly as states accommodate themselves to new power equations in sensitive regions. Washington enters this dangerous terrain at a time when Donald Trump plays the part of Vladimir Putin’s patsy, has begun a trade war with China, and has made a habit of deriding or disregarding allies.

Nuclear weapons provide an ominous backdrop to any crisis between major powers. Some argue that imbalances in nuclear capabilities induce caution by the weaker contestant and essential war-winning capabilities in the event deterrence fails. Far more convincingly, others have looked at the same nuclear-tinged crises and have concluded that outcomes are largely unrelated to the nuclear order of battle.

The touchstone of analyses on this subject — the Cuban missile crisis — is not conclusive, since the United States enjoyed overwhelming nuclear and localized conventional superiority over the Soviet Union. Even so, President John F. Kennedy was deeply risk-averse and sensitive to the possibility of accidents and developments beyond his control that could lead to a crossing of the nuclear threshold and uncontrolled escalation. Notably, the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis reflected fairly even trade-offs rather than nuclear and localized conventional imbalances. Subsequent revelations about the Cuban missile crisis lead to the conclusion that what leaders didn’t know at the time was just, if not more important as the information they had right in front of them.

Whatever plans for the employment of nuclear weapons might exist in locked safes and whatever new schemes for tailored deterrence and low-yield warheads might be in the works, national leaders of sound mind will seek to avoid crossing this threshold during a crisis. This conclusion presumes that a risk-taking leader views a crisis as an opportunity for gain rather than an invitation to Armageddon. This also presumes that a risk-taking leader, unlike Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, believes a crisis to be “manageable” and would unfold without nasty surprises or breakdowns in command and control.

If a crisis between nuclear-armed states occurs and results in limited conventional clashes, as was the case in the 1969 Sino-Soviet and 1999 India-Pakistan border disputes, conventional military capabilities at points of engagement have had more sway over events than the nuclear stockpiles and force balances. This is likely to be true in the event of a future crisis between major powers, as well. Again, this presumes that leaders of sound mind would not wish to cross the nuclear threshold because first use would likely lead to subsequent use, nullifying advantages and resulting in a world of hurt.

The most oft-stated purpose of outlandishly expensive strategic modernization programs is to reinforce deterrence so that these weapons are not used on battlefields. A largely unstated reason is that if deterrence fails, nuclear war-fighting advantages would matter greatly. The underlying reasoning here is that a peer nuclear competitor would oblige Washington’s preferences as to how a nuclear war would be waged. There has been no supporting evidence for this assumption with the only peer competitor out there, whether the Soviet Union in the past or Russia today.

One would think that Beijing, which seeks to compete with the United States in domains other than nuclear weapons, has every incentive to avoid crossing this threshold in a crisis with the United States. If this assumption is correct, it follows that the United States Congress would be wiser to spend more on attack submarines and surface combatants and less on strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. Whatever is procured will take many years before delivery to operators, but at least US naval capabilities are usable in the event a crisis escalates to armed clashes, while nuclear capabilities would presumably be held in reserve. No one can argue with absolute certainty “how much is enough” with respect to strategic modernization programs, but if the answer diminishes sums spent on conventional capabilities, then it’s the wrong answer.

Wonks: I recommend reading a collection of essays, Strategic Stability: Contending Interpretations (2013), edited by Bridge Colby and Michael Gerson, freely accessible online from the US Army War College. One good chapter after the next, especially the essays by Ron Lehman and Chris Ford. One insight from Ron’s essay: “The key to preventing disasters is nearly always found in the successful management of lesser events that might otherwise encourage or enable dangerous outcomes we wish to avoid.” I also highly recommend Alexei Arbatov’s essay about Russian views of strategic stability and arms control in Meeting the Challenges of the New Nuclear Age: U.S. and Russian Nuclear Concepts, Past and Present, recently published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.