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

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

In The End of Strategic Stability, editors Lawrence Rubin and Adam Stulberg bring together 17 regional experts to examine contested understandings of deterrence and strategic stability among existing and potential nuclear actors. Rubin and Stulberg are professors at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs. They approach the idea of stability from three angles: regional approaches to strategic stability, their implication on multidomain deterrence, and practical recommendations for US policy. Their analyses enrich our understanding of the international security environment by examining how other nations conceptualize and articulate their national security interests.

The first section contends that there is no consensus among different actors on the meaning of strategic stability and deterrence. This is important because global order during the Cold War—and its immediate aftermath—was built on the assumed mutual understanding of strategic stability and deterrence. With the end of the Cold War, the US promoted a system for global strategic stability based on restraint, emphasizing risk reduction and disarmament. The restraint-based approach to strategic stability does not translate well in regions where a balance-based understanding of stability drives calculations. Misaligned strategic priorities and historic and cultural context drive these discrepancies, evident in both internal policy discourse and observed force posturing.

As an example, the contributors point to India and Pakistan where the idea of stability shows little correlation with parity and transparency. Challenging traditional conceptions of strategic stability built on mutual second strike capabilities, the disparity in conventional forces and the plausible risk of successful limited nuclear escalation may actually be one structural support for stability in the India-Pakistan balance, so long as both parties are able to mitigate potential crises at the political level. Ultimately, the contributors stress that cognitive flexibility to adapt current doctrine to operate in any gradient of the spectrum is key for enhancing stability. In fact, one of the contributors suggests in a possible reference to the latest US nuclear modernization efforts, that actors that have traditionally exhibited restraint oriented behavior are shifting towards limited forms of balancing.

Part two examines how the lack of consensus on strategic stability, and ultimately the transparency behind the actor’s intent, affects multi-domain deterrence. Contemporary Russian and Chinese strategic discourse both emphasize the ability to fine tune the strategic environment through the employment of kinetic and non-kinetic options in one domain to deter threats in another. Russia views its conception of New Generation Warfare as a stabilizing measure reduces the chances of a kinetic escalation against NATO forces through the use of information operations. However, the inherent opacity behind the intent and scope of this approach has the potential to be highly destabilizing, especially as Moscow openly contemplates the use of limited tactical nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe as part of their deterrence posture.

The final section of this anthology outlines policy implications for the United States. The unique historic, cultural, and geopolitical circumstances that prompt state actors to seek greater security through multi-domain operations create sources of instability that must be carefully navigated on an actor-specific basis to prevent inadvertent escalation. The editors highlight the risk of entanglement, as regional actors can deliberately trigger a crisis to provoke US intervention in a conflict, exploiting the asymmetry in threat perception and tolerance for nuclear escalation with the goal of re-negotiating the status quo on favorable terms. The editors conclude that while the absence of a shared understanding of stability is not necessarily a source of instability in itself, it is crucial for all parties to recognize and communicate the differences.

The timely research supporting this volume contribute important nuances and details to the strategic landscape described in the 2018 National Defense Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review. Readers should note that the volume predates significant shifts in regional balance, namely the suspension of the JCPOA in Iran, as well as denuclearization efforts on the Korean peninsula following the historic Singapore summit. This does not detract from the importance of the research and analyses presented in this volume, which makes a powerful case for the need to rethink old models of stability given new regional actors and technologies. This book deserves a place on the bookshelf for scholars and practitioners who will find in its well curated pages an insightful framework to further the discussion on formulating effective multi-domain deterrence.

1st Lt John Lee, USAF
Robins AFB, Georgia

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