The Future of Strategic Stability and Nuclear Deterrence

Article excerpt


Strategic stability is a catch-all expression used by scholars and practitioners to describe a set of interrelated concepts (such as mutually assured destruction), theories (for example, nuclear deterrence), policies (massive retaliation; flexible response; no-first-use), and treaties (Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty), all designed during the cold war for one purpose - to stabilize the longest nuclear rivalry in history to prevent a nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia. The key was to balance strategic forces so that each side could survive a pre-emptive nuclear attack with a sufficiently large stockpile of ballistic missiles to launch a retaliatory strike. The logic was (and remains) elegant and persuasive - so long as the retaliatory (second) strike threatened sufficient devastation, there would be no rational reason to launch first.

Policy-makers throughout the cold war were preoccupied with three central questions: What deters? How much is enough? And what if deterrence fails? The enormous appeal of nuclear deterrence theory was its simple (and impeccable) logic, which provided straightforward answers to the core questions and guidelines for how to achieve deterrence stability. To work well, according to the theory, the balance of strategic forces had to promise crisis stability so that neither side would perceive an advantage in escalating violence in a crisis; arms race stability to minimize incentives to build more weapons; and survivability to maximize second-strike potential and mutual vulnerability.(1)

Although the perfect balance of air-, land-, and sea-launched strategic missiles was never entirely clear, there was one principle to which both sides adhered - nationwide ballistic missile defence systems were to be prohibited. In the context of a highly charged and competitive cold war environment, national defence systems would be provocative, destabilizing, and exceedingly dangerous. They would undermine crisis stability by increasing pressure in a conflict to pre-empt so as to overwhelm the opponent's defences, jeopardize mutual vulnerability by making an opponent's second-strike less threatening (and a firststrike less costly and more rational), and create enormous incentives for vertical proliferation.

The United States decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty and to accelerate the testing and deployment of a limited, layered ballistic missile defence system by 2004 obviously raises important questions about the future of strategic stability and the evolution of nuclear deterrence. Given Canada's longstanding commitment to the nuclear arms control, non-proliferation, and disarmament regime (NACD), itself founded on principles, theories, and doctrines developed throughout the cold war, the demise of the treaty raises equally important questions for Canadian officials who remain exclusively committed to multilateral arms control.

How significant are these decisions? Do they indicate fundamental shifts in US-Russian nuclear doctrine? Is the shift permanent, especially in the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001? What are the implications for the future of strategic stability? Are the concepts (mutual assured destruction or MAD), theories (deterrence), policies and treaties (ABM) that were the cornerstones of strategic stability still valid and/or relevant? Do we need a more complex approach to strategic stability and arms control that acknowledges emerging threats of terrorism and proliferation to new and aspiring nuclear powers? If so, what would a future oriented approach to deterrence and arms control encompass? Finally, what are the implications for Canada and Canadian policies and preferences for multilateral approaches to security?


Although the cold war officially ended over a decade ago, we are only now experiencing the effects of a transition from one nuclear environment to another. …


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