Theories on war and diplomacy (Part 1: Conflict theories)

Theories on war and diplomacy (Part 1: Conflict theories)

Phuah Eng Chye (4 June 2022)

Theories on war and diplomacy have deep historical roots. Chinese strategists study lessons from the Warring States (481 BC to 403 BC) and Three Kingdoms (220 AD to 280 AD); the West from European conflicts and the Cold War (post-World War 2). Classic tracts such as Sun Tzu’s Art of war, Niccolò Machiavelli’s The prince and Carl von Clausewitz’s On war are still as relevant today as in the past.

Conflict theories neither possess predictive qualities nor can be used to construct a definitive win-loss paradigm. Rather, conflict theories provide a framework for wargaming military and diplomatic scenarios to construct strategies for establishing the “rules of the game” to control conditions (either to gain an advantage, or ensure conflict is orderly, predictable and does not escalate out of control). Conflict theories have evolved and several frameworks are popular today.

Thucydides’ and Kindleberger traps

Graham Allison’s analogy of the Thucydides’ trap – that perceives ancient Sparta and Athens as representing US and China respectively – has become mainstream and generated much controversy. Graham Allison explains “the Greek historian’s metaphor reminds us of the attendant dangers when a rising power rivals a ruling power – as Athens challenged Sparta in ancient Greece, or as Germany did Britain a century ago”. “The defining question about global order for this generation is whether China and the United States can escape Thucydides’s trap”.

Graham Allison argues “when a rising power is threatening to displace a ruling power, standard crises that would otherwise be contained, like the assassination of an archduke in 1914, can initiate a cascade of reactions that, in turn, produce outcomes none of the parties would otherwise have chosen”. War is not inevitable as four of the 16 cases in review did not end in bloodshed. However, “in 12 of 16 cases over the past 500 years, the result was war. When the parties avoided war, it required huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions on the part not just of the challenger but also the challenged. Based on the current trajectory, war between the United States and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than recognized at the moment”.

This hypothesis has been challenged by several scholars[1]. Steve Chan notes “ancient Sparta was an agrarian society ruled by an oligarchy, and it drew its military strength from the hoplites (infantry) fighting in phalanx formation. Sparta’s ruling class was constantly worried about a rebellion by its slaves (the helots). In contrast, Athens was a democracy by the standards of its day, and it drew its strength from thriving overseas trade and its naval prowess. Its leader Pericles was a proponent of imperial expansion. We would have to overlook such factors pertaining to a state’s political system, its economic and military orientation, and its professed foreign ambitions to accept Sparta (the supposed established power) as a fitting analogue for today’s US, and Athens (the ostensible rising power) for today’s China (which, in contrast to the US, has an authoritarian political system, is primarily a land rather than maritime power, and remains essentially a regional actor without an extensive global network of alliances and military bases or a crusading ideology). Moreover, we would have to ignore that major developments in the intervening 2,500 years, such as the advent of the modern territorial state, nationalism, and nuclear weapons, could compromise the validity of the basic claim being advanced by Thucydides’ Trap. What exactly would this proposition expect states caught in a transition process to fight over, and why would this fight be worth their while given the destructiveness of modern weapons and the costs of economic disruption?”

Steve Chan argues otherwise: “in claiming that war is more likely when two states approach power parity, Thucydides’ Trap challenges the longstanding claim by most realists that a balance of power helps to keep interstate stability and peace”. He cautions many factors contribute to the outbreak of a conflict. “A preoccupation with the bilateral balance of power distracts attention from these other considerations, and it distorts and oversimplifies the processes leading to war…creates the danger of self-fulfilling prophecy if leaders in Beijing and Washington…act on this belief to prevent or hasten this transition. Chinese and American leaders may also be seriously misled if they buy into the proposition that there is an imminent power transition – a problematic conclusion…Finally, international relations are rarely a matter of bilateral balance of power; rather, war outcomes depend on coalitional strength. There is little doubt about whether China or the US has more powerful allies”.

From a different perspective, Joseph S. Nye, Jr. argues the US should not only be wary of the Thucydides Trap but also “worry about the Kindleberger Trap: A China that seems too weak rather than too strong”. “Charles Kindleberger, an intellectual architect of the Marshall Plan…argued that the disastrous decade of the 1930s was caused when the US replaced Britain as the largest global power but failed to take on Britain’s role in providing global public goods. The result was the collapse of the global system into depression, genocide, and world war. Today, as China’s power grows, will it help provide global public goods…such as a stable climate, financial stability, or freedom of the seas – are provided by coalitions led by the largest powers…When they do not, global public goods are under-produced. When Britain became too weak to play that role after World War I, an isolationist US continued to be a free rider, with disastrous results. Some observers worry that as China’s power grows, it will free ride rather than contribute to an international order that it did not create”.

Offensive realism vs defensive realism

Realism theories offer an alternative framework and is divided into two schools of thought – offensive realism vs defensive realism. Sverrir Steinsson notes John Mearsheimer, who is a skeptic on China’s peaceful rise, expounds offensive realism as “built on five bedrock assumptions. The first assumption is that there is anarchy in the international system, which means that there is no hierarchically superior, coercive power that can guarantee limits on the behavior of states. Second, all great powers possess offensive military capabilities…Third, states can never be certain that other states will refrain from using those offensive military capabilities. Fourth, states seek to maintain their survival (their territorial integrity and domestic autonomy) above all other goals, as it is the means to all other ends. Fifth, states are rational actors, which means that they consider the immediate and long-term consequences of their actions, and think strategically about how to survive…In an international system filled with such uncertainty regarding states’ intentions, the nature of states’ military capabilities and other states’ assistance in a struggle against hostile states, Mearsheimer argues that the best way for great powers to ensure their survival – a goal which is favored above all others – is to maximize power and pursue hegemony. The pursuit of regional and global hegemony among all great powers gives rise to constant security competition with the potential for war. This is the so-called Tragedy of Great Power Politics: security-seeking states forced to engage in conflict to ensure their security”.

Sverrir Steinsson notes Kenneth Waltz has similar assumptions but reach “dissimilar conclusions” with defensive realism. Heargues fears over China’s intentions is over-exaggerated and can be mitigated “through costly signaling and by increasing the cost of conflict”. “Mearsheimer fails to distinguish between bidding for hegemony and being the hegemon. Being a hegemon gives a state the most security it can hope for. Bids for hegemony are so risky and so rarely successful, however, that such bids do not make sense for rational, survival-minded states except under extraordinary circumstances”. In addition, “it would irrational for China to try for hegemony. China shares a region with indigenous great powers (Russia, Japan and India) and shares the world with a state (the United States) that has the capability to project power across the world. A bid for dominance over Asia…would therefore contradict the assumptions that China is rational and survival-minded”.

Thus, different conclusions arise because “Mearsheimer concludes that states will ceaselessly pursue power while Waltz emphasizes how the balance-of-power constrains power maximizing behavior and makes states content once they have enough power to be secure”. Sverrir Steinsson notes Waltz also postulates a balance-of-power theory as “states ally with weaker states to balance stronger states…Waltz consequently argued that states were not power maximizers but rather security maximizers. Once states had enough power to be secure, they were content and would not pursue greater power. After all, given the inevitability of a balance-of-power, states bidding for hegemony would provoke other states in the international system to join an encircling alliance against the rising power, compromising the bidder’s security”. “Mearsheimer…argues instead that states can never truly be secure and that only through power maximization can states ensure their survival…rejects the inevitability of balance-of-power is due to the collective action problems involved in balancing. As states are wary of incurring the costs of challenging strong states by allying with weaker states, they will buck-pass (meaning that they let other states balance the threatening power) until their own security is in grave danger…As with collective action problems in the economic sense, rational behavior on an individual basis may lead to a collectively inefficient outcome”.

Steven E. Lobell points out “for offensive realists, security is scarce. The anarchic nature of the international system compels states to maximize their share of world power and to seek superiority, rather than equality, in order to make themselves more secure and thereby increase their odds of survival. The ultimate goal of every major power is to become the hegemon. The rationale is that the more power and the stronger the state, the less likely it will be a target, since weaker powers will be dissuaded from challenging it. John Mearsheimer is clear that “states quickly understand that the best way to ensure their survival is to be the most powerful state in the system”. Uncertainty about intentions of other states combined with the anarchical nature of the international system compels great powers to adopt competitive, offensive, and expansionist policies whenever the benefits exceed the costs. Specifically, since intentions are never clear and a state might become more aggressive in the future, all of the major powers adopt a worst-case scenario and therefore increase their power through expansion which leads to high levels of competition. Moreover, for offensive realists, offensive actions often succeed and conquest often pays”.

Steven E. Lobell notes “for defensive or positional realists, security is plentiful. Major powers seek to maximize their security by preserving the existing balance of power through mostly defensive strategies. Defensive realists maintain that the international system encourages states to pursue moderate and restrained behavior to ensure their survival and safety, and provides incentives for expansion in only a few select instances. The rationale is that aggression, competition, and expansion to maximize power through primacy and preponderance are unproductive because they will provoke the security dilemma and counterbalancing behavior, and thereby thwart the state’s effort to increase its security…For defensive realists, since the international system rarely provides incentives for expansion, structural modifiers, including the offense-defense military balance and geography, and domestic and unit-level pathologies such as elite beliefs, perceptions, and logrolled imperial coalitions, explain overexpansion, underbalancing, self-encirclement, and overextension”. “Thus, great powers are often satisfied with the existing balance of power, rarely seek to change it through military force, security is abundant rather than scarce, and states have little incentive to seek additional power”.

Steven E. Lobell elaborates “the distribution of power among the states in the international system also affects the level of fear. Structural realists differentiate between bipolar (two major powers) and multipolar (more than two major powers) distributions of capabilities. Mearsheimer further distinguishes between balanced multipolar and unbalanced multipolar distributions of power. Most offensive and defensive realists (other than hegemonic realists) agree that bipolar systems are more stable and less war prone than multipolar systems, and both are more stable than a unipolar system…Offensive and defensive realists disagree on whether multipolar systems, and especially unbalanced multipolar systems (the most unstable distribution), compel a potential regional hegemon to expand to become a regional hegemon or encourage a major power to act with restraint to prevent counterbalancing behavior”. Hence, “in balanced multipolar systems, security competition is also high, but less so than in unbalanced multipolar systems. For Mearsheimer, buck-passing is more common in a balanced multipolar system…Where buck-passing rather than balancing is more prevalent, expanders will face less opposition and greater opportunities to expand while the other major powers are engaged in passing the buck and debating who will bear the burden of balancing the aggressor…A bipolar system is the most stable system and produces the least amount of fear among the great powers. In this system, there is usually a rough balance between the major states in the system. Buck-passing cannot occur, and bipolarity discourages miscalculations and is more efficient since balancing occurs through internal mobilization (rather than counterbalancing alliances which can be slow to form)”.

Steven E. Lobell notes “for defensive realists, conquest rarely pays. The reasons are manifold: aggression and military buildup will provoke counterbalancing alliances; modern nationalism makes conquest costly because it spurs the defenders to fight harder, makes it hard to subdue and manipulate people in defeated states, and repression will provoke massive popular resistance; modern information economies are difficult to subjugate, especially those that are built around information technologies and depend on openness and freedom of movement and transaction to function smoothly. Moreover, skilled labor may be more difficult to exploit. In addition, the nuclear revolution and second strike capability make it difficult for states to fight each other. Finally, control over politically hostile societies is expensive; the price of maintaining empire and especially the high levels of defense spending erode a great power’s economy; economic resistance and repression will reduce modern societies’ social surplus; and the gains from conquest are rarely additive. Thus, it is difficult to exploit conquered territories. Offensive realists counter by arguing that the gains from conquest are greater and the barriers to the formation of counterbalancing alliances, especially in (balanced) multipolar distributions, are higher than defensive realists recognize”.

In this context, Steven E. Lobell notes “offensive and defensive realism present opposing policy prescriptions and advocate grand strategies of offshore balancing, selective engagement, or primacy. For offensive realists such as Mearsheimer, regional hegemons should pursue primacy in their locale and seek to block any peer rivals in other regions. For the US, this means that it will remain the regional hegemon in the western hemisphere and will act as an offshore balancer in Europe and Asia, though Germany, Russia, and China could emerge as potential regional hegemons, shifting both regions to unbalanced multipolar – the most unstable and war-provoking distribution”. Others consider “the current unipolar distribution of power is both stable and durable” and “call for systemic activism by the US to use its unique window of opportunity to reshape the international system to reflect its long-term security interests. This behavior is possible because the US does not face the traditional external or systemic constraints that previous major powers encountered in bipolar and multipolar distributions (including the threat of counterbalancing by secondary states)”.

Steven E. Lobell concludes “defensive realists argue that the US should pursue either selective engagement or offshore balancing grand strategies rather than primacy…the danger of America’s current pursuit of predominance or extraregional hegemony is that it will provoke the emergence of old states and new powers to counterbalance the US, it encourages terrorists to target the US, the US will become entangled in overseas commitments, and finally it contributes to imperial overstretch which will erode US predominance. American power has not yet provoked hard balancing…defensive realists argue that it has provoked soft balancing or tacit balancing short of formal alliances…the concentration of American global power has led the European states, through the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), to move toward greater autonomy and to cautiously balance US power…American preponderance has led secondary states to engage in the early stages of balancing behavior against the United States…the result is to form diplomatic coalitions against the United States, and…the consequence has been leash-slipping by its allies”. In this context, “selective engagement is a strategy that aims to preserve America’s key alliances and its forward-based forces…it establishes priorities: it assures protection of America’s vital and highly important interests. Selective engagement has been criticized because it has not been very selective, with US forces still engaged in places like Europe despite the disappearance of the Soviet Union. An alternative…is for the US to act as an offshore balancer, intervening in vital locales when there are threats to American interests. The advantage of this strategy for Walt is that it husbands the power upon which U.S. primacy rests and minimizes the fear that U.S. power provokes. One criticism of offshore balancing is that a less engaged US will let the world become more dangerous and less prosperous”.

Nuclear: Strategic stability and deterrence

The existence of nuclear weapons greatly affects conflict theory. Alan Kaptanoglu and Stewart Prager notes “Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev once said that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, and five major nuclear weapon states, including the United States, repeated this statement earlier this year”. The spectre of mutual mass destruction dissuades rivals from direct conflict and to respect each other’s “bottom lines”. Hence, superpowers have generally confined military activities to specific theatres and limited activities that fell short of provoking a violent response.

The strategic stability framework is used to analyse bargaining outcomes – whether strategies lead to escalation or arms control. Mikhail Troitskiy notes strategic stability “emerged in the 1980s as the international community came to realize that a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union would not only be unwinnable but would also jeopardize the survival of humankind. As the Cold War came to an end, the two nuclear superpowers looked for ways to provide mutual reassurance and prove to other countries that they no longer needed to worry about an outbreak of hostilities between Washington and Moscow. Towards this end, both sides declared a commitment to what they called strategic stability. The initial purpose of the concept was to describe the conditions under which the threat of a major globally destructive conflict between the two nuclear superpowers would be reduced. In their June 1990 Joint Statement on Future Negotiations on Nuclear and Space Arms and Further Enhancing Strategic Stability, the sides defined strategic stability as the lack of incentives to conduct a nuclear strike”.

Mikhail Troitskiy notes strategic stability became the “catchphrase employed in US-Russia negotiations…a key shared objective that could form the basis for a constructive dialogue”. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I (START I) and START II provided clear guidance for arms control. “Even more importantly, the two sides signaled their promise to work together to minimize the risks of a nuclear confrontation, despite risks and costs of such signaling. For the United States, pursuing strategic stability meant constraining missile defense projects, while Russia under START II agreed to a ban on installing multiple nuclear warheads on its missiles – a measure that would have reduced Russia’s ability to retaliate against a potentially superior US force. Such costly signals are necessary if the sides are to build trust and consider cooperation on matters of mutual interest”. “

Steven E. Miller notes “by the end of the 20th century, reflecting decades of painstaking effort, an extensive architecture of multilateral and bilateral arms control arrangements helped to structure the security environment and provided an array of guidelines and guardrails that were thought to constrain nuclear dangers and reduce the risk of nuclear catastrophe…In the intervening two decades, much of that arms control infrastructure has been eroded or dismantled. Arguably, the tide began to turn when the US Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1999…In 2001, the Bush Administration opposed progress on the Biological Weapons Convention Verification Protocol. In 2002, the US withdrew from the ABM Treaty – an agreement of indefinite duration that was widely regarded as the cornerstone of strategic arms control. Russia suspended its observance of the Conventional Forces in Europe Agreement (CFE) in 2007…withdrawal…in 2015. In 2012 Moscow decided to terminate the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, one of the pioneering arms control initiatives of the post-Cold War era that involved extensive cooperation between the nuclear weapons establishments of the former Cold War rivals. The retreat from arms control reached a crescendo under President Trump, with rejection of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the unsigning of the UN Arms Trade Treaty, and withdrawal from both the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Agreement (INF) and the Open Skies Treaty”.

Steven E. Miller points out “arms control has been largely off the agenda. There have been no serious arms control negotiations for a dozen years, there is no momentum, the priority attached to arms control seems to have diminished, and there is no new agreement in sight. Europe’s arms control architecture has been substantially dismantled”. “It will be difficult to alter this picture of arms control because a confluence of trends has produced an environment in which it is difficult to achieve security cooperation and negotiated restraint. The international context has grown more demanding and complex, the domestic politics of arms control are challenging in some key countries, the military environment is marked by modernization and technological advancement, the line between conventional and nuclear operations has blurred, while the fortunes of arms control have waned”

As the prospects for strategic stability fades, countries are left to choose between nuclear superiority, with the risks of escalating the arms race, or minimal deterrence, which provides the best prospects for arms control. The US policy choices are influential as they are realistically the only country that can pursue nuclear superiority. Matthew Kroenig[2] explains “the foremost goal of US nuclear strategy is to deter nuclear attack. But if deterrence fails, the United States will not accept its assured destruction. Rather, it will do what it can to limit damage to itself and its allies. This can be done by seeking the de-escalation of the conflict. It can also be achieved by offensive strikes against an adversary’s nuclear forces and by using missile defenses to blunt an incoming nuclear attack…A robust nuclear force contributes to the American ability to pursue counterforce targeting and damage limitation strategy. If Washington were content to destroy one or two enemy cities, a handful of nuclear weapons may be enough. But a larger force is required to target a wide range of adversary nuclear sites. Moreover, outside analysts estimate that it takes two offensive nuclear weapons to destroy each enemy nuclear target. What if the first strike fails? A second warhead increases the probability that the target, such as a hardened ballistic missile silo, is destroyed. The larger the size of the American nuclear force, the better able it is to cover the full range of enemy nuclear targets. Moreover, the larger the size of the US nuclear arsenal, the more enemy nuclear weapons required to conduct a counterforce strike against the United States, and the fewer enemy weapons left over to directly target Americans. As a result, sophisticated nuclear exchange modeling demonstrates that the quantitative nuclear balance of power between states is the most important (but not the only) determinant of the war’s outcome. In other words, the larger the size of the US arsenal and the smaller the size of the adversary’s arsenal (all else being equal), the less damage that the United States and its allies would suffer in the event of a nuclear war. Every nuclear weapon cut from the American force or added to the adversary’s force, therefore, increases the potential number of American and allied citizens that will die in the event of a nuclear war”.

Matthew Kroenig argues “nuclear superiority also helps the United States to deter nuclear and nonnuclear attack. Nuclear deterrence has long been conceptualized as a game of nuclear chicken. Conflicts of interest among nuclear states do not go away because of nuclear weapons. Nuclear powers still disagree over many things. In these disagreements, neither country wants a nuclear war, but both countries want to achieve their objectives. Rather than back down immediately, therefore, countries often engage in nuclear brinkmanship. They use conventional military force, make nuclear threats, place nuclear weapons on alert, and take other steps to raise the risk of nuclear war in the hope that the adversary backs down first…Rather than conceptualizing deterrence as black and white (the adversary is deterred or not), it is more helpful to think in shades of grey. What is the level of risk that the adversary is willing to run? Are they willing to initiate and escalate crises against the United States? The greatest risk of nuclear war does not come from a bolt-out-of-the-blue attack, but from the risk that lower-level regional conflict escalates. By deterring lower-level challenges and escalation, the United States also deters nuclear and nonnuclear strategic attacks. The nuclear balance of power directly contributes to these competitions in risk taking. Other things matter too, such as the interests at stake in the crisis. So, the nuclear balance of power is not the only thing that matters, but it is a factor…a robust nuclear force reduces the United States’ expected damage in the event of conflict. This bolsters the resolve of US leaders and, ultimately, enhances deterrence. If the United States is more resolved than its adversaries, then it can stand its ground in these disputes and defend US interests…The maintenance of nuclear superiority over rivals contributes to the credibility of these extended nuclear deterrence guarantees. It helps assure allies that the United States can defend their interests while limiting the risk of damage to the US homeland. It assures allies that the United States can stand firm in crises involving their interests. For these reasons, vulnerable frontline allies watch US nuclear posture closely”.

Keith B. Payne[3] points out detractors of US nuclear modernization “contend that they preserve a pointless arms race, threaten future deterrence and arms race stability, and are unacceptably expensive”. In this regard, “advocates of minimum deterrence would prefer to scale down American and Russian strategic nuclear forces to several hundred deployed weapons on each side. These smaller numbers of deployed weapons, according to minimum deterrence theorists, would still provide enough survivable firepower to inflict unacceptable damage against any attacker. The prospective loss of many if not most of its major cities and social infrastructure should deter any rational policy maker. Minimum deterrence advocates also point to cases in which the efficacy of small nuclear arsenals in deterring attacks, even from states with larger numbers of weapons, has been demonstrated. Superior numbers of US nuclear weapons did not deter the Soviet Union from emplacing nuclear missiles in Cuba[4] in 1962”.

Impact of technology on stability and deterrence

Two developments have undermined the concepts of strategic stability and deterrence – technological advances and the rise of China. Mikhail Troitskiy argues “while vocalizing a commitment to strategic stability, the sides eagerly engaged in activities that would be considered destabilizing under almost any definition of the term. Such activities included developing new weapons, exploring and testing new conflict domains, or ruthlessly competing for allies. While doing that, the sides kept demanding that the concept of strategic stability be revised to accommodate the new reality that purportedly came into being irrespective of their will. Desired revision would commonly imply broadening the scope of strategic stability by factoring in new weapons, strategies, tactics, and even geopolitical balances of power. Eventually that rendered the originally neat concept of strategic stability barely meaningful. It also resulted in its dilution beyond credibility for almost any audience, including the two nuclear superpowers themselves… undermined faith among benign international actors in the commitment of nuclear superpowers to the global survival of humankind – the core inspirational slogan of the late 1980s. Strategic stability may have turned into a figure of speech at best and a smokescreen at worst – one designed to embellish the actual approach of the two nuclear superpowers to the possibility of resorting to nuclear weapons in a conflict”.

A Rand report Disrupting deterrence: Examining the effects of technologies on strategic deterrence in the 21st century notes “the effects of technologies on two major aspects of deterrent relationships – their effectiveness and stability; that is, are deterrent threats credible, do they work, and is the essential equilibrium or stability of a deterrent relationship strong? In terms of effectiveness, a technology could undermine the strength of a deterrent threat; if the military applications of AI furnished Russia with an ability to stage a crippling, short-notice attack on the Baltics, U.S. and NATO deterrent threats could be undermined…A capability to launch a no-warning first strike would undermine both deterrence effectiveness and stability. But in other cases, a technology might provide a gradually increasing advantage that does not create instability but does call into question the effectiveness of U.S. deterrent threats…In some instances, technological developments may alter the ability of a deterrer to conduct an effective defense and inflict battlefield damage on an attacker (deterrence by denial). If technology makes an attack more difficult or costly, then deterrence will likely be strengthened. If, however, technology provides a meaningful advantage to an attacker, then deterrence may be weakened or destabilized. In other cases, new technologies might alter a deterrer’s ability to punish the challenger for an attack by striking at critical strategic countervalue targets (deterrence by punishment). Technologies that are hard to defend against are likely to strengthen deterrence; conversely, those that offer the prospect of a successful and overwhelming disarming first strike are likely to weaken or destabilize it”.

The Rand report points out that among near-peer rivals, it is possible that both sides possess technological capabilities that cancel each other either on a symmetric basis – where both sides have the same weapons – or an asymmetric one – where “one side may be able to reduce the effectiveness of a rival’s technology with a different set of technologies of its own”. “New technologies can negatively affect stability by introducing new attack vectors or making current ones available to new adversaries, thereby increasing the reach and likelihood of hostile actions. The creation of new attack vectors could erode stability by causing an escalatory tit-for-tat interaction between adversaries, especially if these attacks are difficult to attribute and are perceived as falling below an escalation threshold. Uncertainty surrounding the use and intent of these technologies – particularly by nonstate actors, whose preferences are often less well-known – could further magnify effects on deterrence stability. It may also become more difficult to predict or comprehend an adversary’s decisionmaking process during a conflict if a new technology increases the pace of decisionmaking required for a response. Technologies, or combinations of technologies that impact decisionmaking timelines, will increase uncertainty surrounding those decisions, especially during a conflict. The uncertainty that accompanies an increased pace of decisionmaking and response could either prompt rapid escalation – by encouraging one side to strike preemptively out of concern that an attack is imminent given the ability of the other side to rapidly deploy its technology or by prompting quick retaliation once a first strike from either side occurs – or strengthen deterrence if both parties believe they would not be able to react quickly enough to the decisions of the other side. We also found that new technology could push the pace of further technology development and acquisition as adversaries seek to remain ahead of their competitors, thus elevating the risk of escalation. The rapidly developing pace of new technologies would be especially likely to have such unstable effects in the context of an arms race environment”.

The Rand report highlights risks from high-speed AI-driven systems. “It is not clear how effective fail-safe mechanisms could be integrated into such systems. They could create an intense fear of first-mover advantage and speed of unfolding conflict that would risk producing hair-trigger, lightning-speed, machine-driven, interconnected systems highly sensitive to initial moves”. In addition, there are risks that “adversaries or other actors who have classically been at a disadvantage can target more-powerful actors like the United States by developing technologies that hit those actors in blind spots or gaps – places where powerful actors do not yet have a given technology, do not have recourse to respond for normative or legal reasons, or have overlooked because they have not traditionally been an area of strategic importance (e.g., a particular geographic area where they lack access)”.

Steven E. Miller notes “momentum is not in the direction of restraint and cooperative management of the nuclear order. Rather there appears to be a strong tide pulling the nuclear weapon states in the direction of competitive armament…a new arms race has begun.” “Rapid modernization is reinforcing the impact of the evolution of technology, raising difficult challenges for arms control, in at least two dimensions. Advances in precision, surveillance, and lethality hold potential to threaten the survivability of deployed nuclear forces, thereby undermining stability and provoking responses that erode the constrained and predictable strategic environment sought by arms control. The problem is compounded by the increasingly competitive spread of modern military capability into new domains, such as space, where anti-satellite assets can have disruptive and destabilizing effects. In addition, an array of emerging or emerged technologies – cyber, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, robotics – have significant strategic implications but possess attributes that will not be easily constrained by negotiated agreement. Cyber threats, for example, evoke fears of preemptive attack on nuclear command and control, but it is hard to imagine how an arms control agreement could verifiably limit such capabilities. Traditional arms control may simply be unable to cope with some of the issues that are now pressing on the security agenda”. In addition, “the growing capabilities of advanced non-nuclear weapon systems are blurring the line between conventional and nuclear. Because conventional systems are able to undertake strategic strikes, it will be hard to exclude consideration of such forces from future arms control discussions, nor will it seem desirable to ignore the destabilizing consequences of strategic conventional assets – such as the ability to degrade adversary command and control. But the dual-use character of these system means that nuclear arms control negotiations will have implications for the entire defense posture of the states in question – a much more complex context in which there will be additional substantial impediments to agreement”.

Steven E. Miller argues “arms control has been undermined by concerns about its effectiveness and its reliability. Critics in key countries such as the US, Russia, and Iran perceive the record of arms control to be marked by failures – each reaching this judgment from its own distinctive national perspective. One corrosive force has been persistent concerns about non-compliance – whether Russia’s violations of the INF agreement, Iran’s transgressions of its NPT obligations, or Russian and Iranian complaints about US behavior. It is inevitable that the value of arms control will be questioned if there are recurrent instances in which parties do not abide by or are believed to be cheating on the terms of agreement…An additional corrosive force is repeated instances in which existing arms control treaties are rejected. Permanent agreements, such as the ABM Treaty, turn out to be impermanent, standing arrangements (such as Cooperative Threat Reduction program) are terminated, painstakingly negotiated deals like the JCPOA[5] are rejected long before agreed expiration dates, multilateral commitments, like the 2000 NPT Review Conference’s 13 disarmament steps, are unilaterally abandoned by important states. When arms control measures die premature deaths, the benefits of arms control are foreshortened and come to be regarded as unreliable. There is less incentive to invest in arms control if it is not viewed as a dependable and effective instrument of policy”.

Steven E. Miller points out “critics of arms control, at least in the US…see it as a failed Cold War experiment and view support for arms control as reflecting a debilitating arms control ideology…The case for arms control is no longer sufficiently persuasive to create political conditions for successful agreements. In short, the international politics of arms control are problematic, the domestic politics of arms control, at least in some key countries, are intractable, the imperative of modernization seems irresistible, some of the issues on the agenda do not appear to be amenable to arms control solutions, and the uneven record of arms control undercuts its appeal. Some respond to these circumstances by asking whether we have come to the end of the age of arms control. There are those that doubt whether it will ever again play a role as central as it once did, whether treaty-based arms control is viable in a world where key states are reluctant to negotiate and unable to ratify agreements, whether arms control will be relevant to the challenges posed by emerging technologies. This is a serious and plausible set of propositions that suggest we ought to be doing some thinking about how to manage in a world with less arms control or without arms control. The record of the first quarter century of the nuclear age, almost completely empty of arms control, is far from heartening, marked as it was by intense arms racing, recurrent scares, dangerous crises, and prodigious accumulations of weapons”.

China’s rise and tripolar instability

The second development unbalancing strategic stability is China’s rise. Steven E. Miller notes “America’s increasingly toxic relations with Russia and the increasingly testy relations with China heighten the sense of rivalry and competitiveness, produce high levels of distrust, inspire greater investment in military capability, and increase the emphasis on nuclear weapons in the doctrines and concerns of the major powers. Intensified friction and rivalry inhibit diplomacy and make agreement seem both remote and domestically untenable…The growth of Chinese power means that in the context of the great powers bilateral calculations are no longer sufficient. This was reflected in the Trump Administration’s insistence that nuclear agreements must include China in order to be acceptable to the US and by the recent Congressional effort to mandate that all future nuclear arms control must be trilateral. In addition, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by North Korea, India, and Pakistan has resulted in regional nuclear balances in Northeast Asia and South Asia. This produces a complicated set of nuclear relationships that are overlapping and interacting. Steps taken by one party can reverberate through the system via a web of linkages that connect the core triangle – Russia, China, and the US – with a regional triangle in South Asia – China, India, and Pakistan – and a nuclear-armed quadrangle – North Korea, China, Russia, and the US – in Northeast Asia”.

Previously, China maintained a relatively small nuclear force with 200 or so operational warheads. Fiona S. Cunningham and M. Taylor Fravel note “our earlier research has showed that Chinese experts appeared confident that a U.S.-China conflict wouldn’t go nuclear. But the rapid deterioration of political relations with the United States has almost certainly shaken that confidence. Chinese analysts also perceived that aspects of the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review Report lowered the threshold for nuclear use”. “Two shifts in China’s nuclear thinking may be happening. First, Chinese leaders believe that they now need to threaten the United States with greater nuclear damage to deter a U.S. nuclear first-strike: a handful of warheads is no longer enough. Second, China’s leaders may be finding Beijing’s promises not to engage in a nuclear arms race increasingly difficult to fulfill – or less of a priority than deterring U.S. nuclear use with more confidence”. In this regard, “China has long worried about the survivability of its small force for two main reasons…Chinese experts worry that U.S. defenses could diminish China’s ability to retaliate if the United States attacks it with nuclear weapons…A larger nuclear arsenal, kept at a higher state of readiness, would leave China better equipped to deter any nuclear attack its adversaries might be tempted to initiate. And capabilities…Chinese weapons overcome new missile defenses – a reminder to the United States that missile defenses can trigger counter-innovations”.

Fiona S. Cunningham and M. Taylor Fravel notes “the Defense Department’s annual report on China’s military power assessed that its nuclear arsenal could quadruple by 2030… But even if the Chinese arsenal does quadruple by 2030, it would still be roughly one-third the size of the U.S. stockpile of 3,750 warheads”. They suggest “a larger nuclear arsenal might boost China’s chances of deterring the United States from any kind of nuclear use – but also increase China’s confidence about deploying its conventional capabilities. This is what scholars call the stability-instability paradox: When adversaries worry less about a conflict going nuclear because their nuclear arsenals are stalemated, they’re more likely to start nonnuclear conflicts”. In this regard, “China’s expanding arsenal will pose challenges to the U.S. nuclear posture, forcing the U.S. to plan to deter both Russia’s and now China’s large and sophisticated arsenal. How this new nuclear environment affects U.S. nuclear modernization plans and future strategic arms control with Russia will depend on whether planners decide the U.S. could face major conflicts with both rivals at once or in quick succession. And how U.S. allies view the credibility of its extended nuclear deterrence guarantees will also be a factor. Alternatively, the U.S. and China could try arms control. Yet there are few promising signs that either country has the political appetite to discuss their nuclear weapons at all, let alone limits on capabilities”.

James M. Acton, Thomas Macdonald and Pranay Vaddi notes “there is broad consensus within the U.S. national security community about the importance of engaging China in arms control – not least to prevent China from challenging the United States in warhead numbers. Washington, however, cannot force Beijing to negotiate. Instead, if the United States is to have any chance of engaging China, it will have to craft proposals that mitigate Chinese concerns about transparency, while also identifying suitably valuable American concessions that could form part of a mutually beneficial quid pro quo”. They are hopeful though that there are practical measures to address each state’s specific security concerns and the shared dangers of arms racing and inadvertent escalation. Their proposals include engaging with China to head “off a Chinese-U.S. arms race, reducing the danger of escalation as the result of a test or space launch, and protecting the survivability of key nuclear C3I assets”; and to work towards establishing a framework of longer-term, legally binding measures – comprising bilateral and trilateral treaties – “to build a more durable and robust risk-reduction architecture”.

Andrew Krepinevich Jr. cautions “in developing a nuclear arsenal that will soon rival those of Russia and the United States, China is not merely departing from its decades-old status as a minor nuclear state; it is also upending the bipolar nuclear power system. For the 73 years since the Soviet Union’s first nuclear test, that bipolar system, for all its flaws and moments of terror, has averted nuclear war. Now, by closing in on parity with the two existing great nuclear powers, China is heralding a paradigm shift to something much less stable: a tripolar nuclear system. In that world, there will be both a greater risk of a nuclear arms race and heightened incentives for states to resort to nuclear weapons in a crisis. With three competing great nuclear powers, many of the features that enhanced stability in the bipolar system will be rendered either moot or far less reliable”.

Andrew Krepinevich Jr. points out “with three great nuclear powers, deterring a first strike in a crisis situation will also become more challenging. For one thing, strategies for managing the poor second problem seem likely to prove elusive. Assume that China, Russia, and the United States had roughly equal arsenals. At first blush, the situation might appear akin to having three scorpions in a bottle, where even a successful attack by one scorpion against another would increase the danger of the attacker’s becoming a victim to the third scorpion. If China attacked the United States, for example, it would deplete some of its arsenal in doing so, thus reducing its ability to deter an attack from Russia. The incentives for any of the three powers to strike first would seem to decrease. But the poor second problem does not concern the choice between, on the one hand, attacking and facing an assured counterattack and, on the other, not attacking and not being attacked at all. Instead, it is driven by the gunfighter’s assumption that you must shoot first or get shot. Moreover, now there would be a second adversary with a gun, who could easily take advantage of you if you had dispatched your first rival but were now wounded. Hence, in a crisis situation, if the United States suspected that a Chinese attack on its nuclear arsenal was imminent, not only would it see itself disadvantaged for failing to strike China’s arsenal first; it could also reasonably conclude that it was potentially more vulnerable to Russia’s arsenal for not doing so. Even if, after withstanding a Chinese attack, the United States were able to retain an assured destruction capability against both China and Russia, the loss of a significant part of its arsenal would leave it far more exposed to coercion or aggression from either. Moreover, the threat posed to the United States by two hostile great nuclear powers might well convince many U.S. allies that the U.S. nuclear umbrella that has long shielded them had sprung fatal leaks”.

“This brings us to the problem of parity. In a tripolar system, it is simply not possible for each state to maintain nuclear parity with the combined arsenals of its two rivals. Assume, for example, that China deployed the same size nuclear force as Russia and the United States: 1,550 weapons. At that point, U.S. strategists might rationally conclude that they need to add an additional 1,550 weapons to achieve parity with the combined forces of China and Russia. Meanwhile, Russian strategists would likely want the same. China, having established an arsenal on par with the two great nuclear powers, would not be inclined to forfeit its newly won status – and so a tripolar system risks collapsing into a Red Queen’s arms race, in which parity is continuously sought but never achieved”. Andrew Krepinevich Jr. argues “the point is not that nuclear war in a tripolar rivalry among China, Russia, and the United States is inevitable but that maintaining stability in crisis situations will likely be significantly more difficult than it is now. Although it may seem far-fetched to imagine a great nuclear power choosing to attack a comparably armed adversary, the costs of failing to understand the incentives for such an attack are potentially catastrophic”.

Andrew Krepinevich Jr. points out “as China pursues its nuclear ambitions, it may inspire other aspirants to seek larger arsenals of their own. For example, in the face of a much larger Chinese nuclear program, India, its rival, may have an incentive to increase its own nuclear forces significantly, perhaps causing Pakistan to do the same. And with less certainty about extended deterrence, U.S. allies, such as Japan and South Korea, may do likewise. Such developments would make stability even more difficult to achieve. In astrophysics, this situation is called the n-body problem -trying to predict the movements of an arbitrary number of celestial bodies – and reaching a solution is even more taxing than it is for the three-body problem. With the emergence of a tripolar nuclear system, then, a crucial challenge is how to prevent more states from boosting their arsenals”.


Conflict strategies were built on the concepts of strategic stability and deterrence to prevent mutual destructive confrontations. But these traditional risk reduction concepts are inadequate as the modernisation of warfare proves to be escalatory and as memories of the nuclear horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki[6] fade after more than 75 years. Rising geopolitical tensions has ended the decades-long pause in military and economic confrontations among superpowers. Trust levels have fallen to new lows after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and intensifying competition between US and China. The arms race has restarted with rising defence budgets, military modernisation and intensifying competition for alliances. The emergence of integrated and ambiguous warfare strategies is likely to further undermine the goals of strategic stability and deterrence.


Adam Lowther (ed) (October 2020) “Guide to nuclear deterrence in the age of great-power competition”. Louisiana Tech Research Institute in cooperation with Cyber Innovation Center.

Alan Kaptanoglu, Stewart Prager (2 February 2022) “US defense to its workforce: Nuclear war can be won”. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Andrew Krepinevich Jr. (May/June 2022) “The new nuclear age: How China’s growing nuclear arsenal threatens deterrence”. Foreign Affairs.

Anthony H. Cordesman (7 April 2021) “The other sides of renegotiating the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement”. Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).

Bret Devereaux (5 December 2019) “Collections: A trip through Thucydides (fear, honor and interest)”. A collection of unmitigated pedantry.

Fiona S. Cunningham, M. Taylor Fravel (11 November 2021) “China’s nuclear arsenal is growing. What does that mean for U.S.-China relations?” Washington Post.

Gan Yang ​(October 2021) “Thucydides and the Thucydides Trap”. Reading and Writing the China Dream Project. Introduction and Translation by David Ownby.

Graham Allison (24 September 2015) “The Thucydides trap: Are the U.S. and China headed for war?” The Atlantic.

James M. Acton, Thomas Macdonald, Pranay Vaddi (16 December 2021) “Reimagining nuclear arms control: A comprehensive approach”. Carnegie Endowment.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr. (9 January 2017) “The Kindleberger Trap”. Project Syndicate.–nye-2017-01

Michael J. Mazarr, Ashley L. Rhoades, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, Alexis A. Blanc, Derek Eaton, Katie Feistel, Edward Geist, Timothy R. Heath, Christian Johnson, Krista Langeland, et al. (2022) “Disrupting deterrence: Examining the effects of technologies on strategic deterrence in the 21st century”. Rand Corporation.

Markus Brunnermeier, Rush Doshi, Harold James (2018), “Beijing’s Bismarckian ghosts: How great powers compete economically”. The Washington Quarterly.

Mikhail Troitskiy (October 21, 2021) “What strategic stability? How to fix the concept for US-Russia relations”. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Phuah Eng Chye (5 June 2021) “Global reset – Two whales in a pond”.

Steve Chan (29 August 2019) “Thucydides’ trap: Caveat emptor – analysis”. Eurasia Review.

Steven E. Lobell (1 March 2010) “Structural realism/offensive and defensive realism”. International Studies.

Sverrir Steinsson (6 March 2014) “John Mearsheimer’s theory of offensive realism and the rise of China”. E-International Relations.

Steven E. Miller (February 2022) “Hard times for arms control: What can be done?” Hague Centre for Strategic Studies.

[1] Bret Devereaux provides a detailed historical account. Gan Yang critiques Graham Allison’s hypothesis. Markus Brunnermeier, Rush Doshi and Harold James compares the China-US conflict to the rivalry between Bismarck’s Imperial Germany and Great Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth.

[2] See Adam Lowther.

[3] See Adam Lowther.

[4] Alan Kaptanoglu and Stewart Prager note it is often overlooked that during the Cuban missile crisis, “Khrushchev stood down because of a secret agreement with Kennedy to remove similar missiles from Turkey. In other words, diplomacy prevailed.”

[5] See Anthony H. Cordesman for an analysis on the renegotiation of the JCPOA Iran Nuclear Agreement”.