The End of Strategic Stability?: Nuclear Weapons and the Challenge of Regional Rivalries

  • Published

The End of Strategic Stability?: Nuclear Weapons and the Challenge of Regional Rivalries edited by Lawrence Rubin and Adam N. Stulberg. Georgetown Press, 2018, 314 pp.

The term “strategic stability” originated from the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. It referred to the idea that, despite their global competition, Washington and Moscow had a vested self-interest in establishing a stable, balanced deterrent relationship between their respective military forces and avoiding nuclear war. Reducing incentives for nuclear arms racing or launching a preemptive nuclear strike thus became central organizing principles for Cold War diplomacy and the pursuit of superpower detente.

Despite decades of talks, however, a fully realized and jointly shared understanding of strategic stability proved elusive. Both parties agreed strategic stability was an important end state, but neither could agree on a concrete definition of the term. As Adam N. Stulberg and Lawrence Rubin discuss in their introduction to this edited volume, this phenomenon persists in the Great Power competitions and regional rivalries of today. The concept of strategic stability remains a touchstone for scholars and policy makers attempting to understand the complex role played by nuclear weapons in contemporary international affairs. But it also remains devilishly difficult to define, negotiate, and implement between today’s nuclear rivals.

The book makes a compelling case, however, that despite these difficulties, ongoing efforts to redefine and adapt the concept can offer key insights into how nuclear weapons contribute to stability or instability in the complex regional and international security dynamics of today. The book’s chapters, each written by a different expert, provide an impressive depth and breadth of analysis into how “strategic stability” continues to represent a lodestar for efforts to address both the current competition between the United States, Russia, and China and between regional powers in East Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. At the same time, each author also provides a clear-eyed assessment of how the term can be contested, leading to differing and divergent conclusions regarding whether nuclear weapons resolve or exacerbate present security dilemmas.

Several chapters merit particular attention from international relations scholars and national security policy professionals. Sadia Tasleem of Quaid-i-Azam University and Happymon Jacob of Jawaharlal Nehru University, for example, provide in-depth analyses of Pakistan and India’s understandings of strategic stability and how these compare and contrast both with each other and with the United States’ Cold War understanding of the concept.  As Tasleem describes, Pakistan views its nuclear arsenal as essential to securing it against a bitter rival whose conventional strength it cannot match. This disadvantage leads Islamabad to attempt to realize “a balance with full-spectrum [nuclear] deterrence” (p. 80) that drives Pakistan’s ongoing pursuit of multiple nuclear delivery systems and weapons, to include “tactical” weapons intended to halt any Indian armed force that breaches its border. Whether this creates the conditions for bilateral stability, however, is uncertain; as Tasleem notes, the utility or credibility of this deterrent might come into question very early within a high-stakes showdown or clash of arms with India. Jacob then juxtaposes Islamabad’s understanding of strategic stability with New Delhi’s. The latter’s arsenal is primarily for the purpose of confirming India as a first-tier scientific and military power. Indian strategies and policy makers are relatively unconcerned with the mechanics of possible nuclear warfighting with Pakistan, pointing to violent extremist organizations aided (or at least not abetted) by Islamabad as the primary source of instability on the subcontinent. As Jacob explains, each side is committed to leveraging asymmetric advantages to achieve a form of “stability” that is inimical to the interests of its rival. These differences have repeatedly derailed bilateral and Track 1.5 efforts aimed at negotiating some form of strategic stability for South Asia; at present, neither side views the quantitative and qualitative improvements of their nuclear arsenals as part of an arms race that both have an incentive to slow or limit.

Three other chapters that should receive broad circulation within the strategic studies community are authored by Tong Zhao of the Carnegie Endowment, Dmitry Adamsky of the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya, and Ala’ Alrababa’h, a PhD candidate at Stanford. All three share the strength of authors who are experts in the military and international affairs literature of the country on which they focus. Zhao provides a detailed examination of Chinese scholars and military officers grappling with the potential implications of hypersonic delivery systems for their country’s security and the viability of their nuclear deterrent. His survey of these works provides critical context to China’s decision to pursue these platforms due to deep concerns that its own nuclear deterrent is vulnerable to the United States, particularly as the latter improves its missile defenses. From this perspective, fielding hypersonic delivery systems contributes to stability vis-à-vis the United States. Adamsky’s chapter is an excellent description of Russia’s views of cyberspace as a critical strategic domain and its efforts to employ means of information warfare to redress what it considers a dangerous and destabilizing strategic imbalance with the United States. From the Kremlin’s perspective, this deficit allows it to counterpunch against a United States it concludes is committed to negating Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent. Alrababa’h’s chapter focuses on Saudi Arabia, a state for whom strategic stability is synonymous with regime stability. He uses this paradigm to explain why the kingdom is relatively unconcerned about the nuclear opacity of Israel but deeply worried about the potential nuclear ambitions of Iran. His chapter provides an important window into understanding how a non-nuclear state’s understanding of strategic stability is very different from the language and concepts of the United States and other nuclear powers. 

Readers may disagree with certain arguments in specific chapters, but they will leave the volume better informed about how differing perspectives on nuclear weapons are an important driver of policy, strategy, and statecraft in regions key to US and allied security. The only discordant note in an otherwise well-orchestrated volume is that most of the chapters appear to reflect research completed prior to the last two years. This does not diminish its effectiveness in describing how different approaches to strategic stability are rooted in longstanding national perceptions of security, but in some cases the reader is left with questions as to how recent developments may have altered the strategic calculus of certain states. For a literature historically dominated by works focused on the Cold War, however, this volume provides a welcome and valuable contribution into how Great Powers and regional actors believe nuclear weapons—whether fielded by themselves, by an ally, or by an adversary—either undergird or undermine strategic stability, however they define it. 

Justin Anderson





"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."