Michael KreponLet’s Discuss Strategic Stability

“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” – Richard Powers, The Overstory

“Life has a way of talking to the future. It’s called memory.” – Richard Powers, The Overstory

Washington and Moscow have agreed to a resumption of dialogue under the rubric of strategic stability. These discussions are necessary and overdue. They were not advisable during the Trump administration, when Trump’s words and actions suggested being beholden to or seeking favors from Vladimir Putin.

Despite an intense U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms competition, several conditions allowed for a modicum of strategic stability during the Cold War. After harrowing crises in Berlin and Cuba, both superpowers agreed not to play with fire in especially sensitive locales. A second condition, related to the first, was agreement to respect the status quo in Europe, codified in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. Existing borders on the Continent were to be respected, while the West tried to make them more permeable.

Another condition for strategic stability, explored most trenchantly by John Mueller, is sufficient recognition of the inadvisability of conventional warfare between major powers — and not just because war could escalate across the nuclear threshold. Big wars cost big money and do not lend themselves to successful outcomes. Ditto for “little” wars when “victors” are punished for their gains.

Even so, U.S. and Soviet nuclear arms racing didn’t stop. The twin pursuits of seeking advantage and seeking to avoid disadvantage fueled strategic modernization programs and the growth of deployed warheads past the five-figure mark. Overkill had cross-cutting effects, however, since worst-case thinking also clarified the inadvisability of crossing the nuclear threshold. Nuclear weapons undermined and reinforced strategic stability at one and the same time.

Overkill still exists, even after deep cuts in U.S. and Russian force levels. How many other conditions for strategic stability remain in place after the end of the Cold War, the implosion of the Soviet Union, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, NATO expansion, the diminishment of U.S. power from unwinnable wars and domestic division, and the rise of China?

The status quo is clearly less stable now than during the Cold War, in part because a trio of major competitors is inherently less stable than two over-armed superpowers, especially when two of the three are unhappy with the status quo. All three have unequal constituent elements of national power, and two seek advantage at the expense of the third.

Even so, there is space for measures to avoid unintended escalation as well as to stabilize aspects of the competition — so long as the contestants wish to avoid war. If, however, a major competitor is so unhappy with the status quo that it is willing to run significant risks, the status quo and strategic stability will be endangered.

The Taiwan issue looms large, and Beijing is in muscle flexing mode. The focus here is on Moscow, which remains aggrieved by NATO expansion. With thirty member states, NATO is less militarily purposeful and more politically incoherent than during the Cold War. George W. Bush wanted to place Georgia and Ukraine in the queue, and Putin pushed back. He trampled on Ukraine’s sovereignty, annexed Crimea, and doubled down on “independent” enclaves on Georgian soil.

The post-Cold War order in Europe still remains vastly in Washington’s favor. Is Putin’s annexation of Crimea a harbinger of the future? Or will he resort to shadowy measures to try to claw back influence and ground lost after the Soviet Union imploded? My guess is the latter, which would require rejoinders but would not rise to the level of a threat to strategic stability. Because the Biden administration can walk and chew gum at the same time, it can address Putin’s methods while still seeking measures to reduce nuclear danger.

This playbook isn’t new; the choices are familiar. During the Cold War, Washington gave priority to reducing nuclear dangers without recognizing Soviet control over the Baltic states. Sometimes, biding one’s time is the best approach to these matters; at other times, more active measures are warranted. In the case of Ukraine, I’m inclined toward the latter; the Biden administration appears to be taking a wait-and-see approach.

The nuclear blunderbusses that Putin spends money on won’t help him change the status quo. At the low end of this scale, he doesn’t need to “escalate to de-escalate” using tactical nuclear weapons. This fever dream can be put to rest because Putin has far more effective methods in cyber and hybrid warfare. The United States knows how to deter the use of Putin’s nuclear weapons, but still hasn’t come up with an effective deterrence strategy for the other arrows in Putin’s quiver.

One thing that hasn’t changed since the Cold War is that rivals habitually compete. Because they compete, guardrails are needed. These guardrails provide the elements of strategic stability. One guardrail is not playing with fire. Another is refraining from dangerous military practices. A third is respecting borders. When a rival jumps over guardrails, the ambit of diplomacy shrinks while defense preparedness grows.

A fourth element of strategic stability is arms control, including reductions in weapons that are terribly powerful, prone to escalatory use, and yet militarily ineffective. It’s reasonable to conclude that weapons that haven’t been used in warfare for over seven decades could be reduced further — but reason doesn’t always prevail in such matters.

Washington will continue to spend large sums for nuclear weapons and the submarines, missiles, and bombers to carry them. Large sums will also be spent on national missile defenses that have suspect and unproven effectiveness. If, as a result of these deployments, Putin worries about prospective disadvantage or if he is obliged to curtail spending on nuclear forces, he might be amenable to reductions at the margin. Biden might, as well. We’ll see, but the growth in Beijing’s strategic nuclear forces won’t help matters.

What about other elements of strategic stability? There are plenty to chose from. Moscow has expressed a strong interest in discussing new military technologies, U.S. deployments prompted by Putin’s material breach of the INF Treaty, the offense-defense equation, and long-range conventional strike capabilities. These topics do not lend themselves to negotiating breakthroughs.

Some seek negotiating breakthroughs by widening the scope of New START limitations to include tactical nuclear weapons, all warheads, and intermediate-range missiles. These topics are worthy of serious discussion, but they are extremely hard to address even in the absence of an intensified competition. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were able to reverse gears, but Reagan, unlike Biden, had the domestic political leeway to do so, the Soviet Union was weak and Gorbachev knew it, and Putin isn’t Gorbachev.

Where, then, can progress toward strategic stability be made? At the outset, these talks might make headway in trying to reach common understandings of what constitutes strategic stability. Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev tried their hand at this in 1972. The effort had no lasting effect, but might be worth trying again. At a minimum, there is value in clarifying actions that would trigger strenuous pushback.

Reaffirming the three norms of No Use, no testing, and nonproliferation deserve pride of place in strategic stability talks. If these norms are breached, regional and strategic stability would take severe hits; if they are reaffirmed and extended, ambitious objectives are possible, including stabilization.

Using strategic stability talks to advance ambitious negotiating agenda items seems unavoidable, but Moscow and Washington have very different ideas about how to proceed. Meanwhile, near-term steps to reduce nuclear dangers are needed. Does the intensified state of competition lend itself to stabilization measures? One place to find out is by seeking to revive and update agreements between Washington and Moscow that aim to reduce dangerous military practices at sea, in the air, and for ground forces operating in close proximity.


  1. Doctor Weasel (History)

    What actions of Trump’s led you to believe he was “beholden to or seeking favors from Vladimir Putin”?
    Was it expanding fracking and other drilling in the US, so US oil producers could compete more effectively against Russian producers?
    Was it when he pushed NATO to live up to funding commitments, so NATO could be stronger against Russia?
    Was it when he pulled out of the INF treaty due to Russian cheating?
    Was it when he authorized air attacks against Russian mercenaries in Syria?