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How to keep future cold wars cold: Mind the missiles

Nuclear states China, India and Pakistan are not party to the web of treaties, as were the U.S. and USSR

At a time when we are reflecting on the lessons from the Cold War amid growing concern about the current U.S.-Russia relationship, we should be looking ahead to anticipate how changes in technology and geopolitics create new challenges to peace and stability among the world's major powers.

The Cold War stayed cold largely because the United States and the Soviet Union possessed nuclear weapons that raised the risk of an armed conflict between them to an unacceptable level. The destructiveness of nuclear weapons and the lack of effective defenses against them contributed to the strategic stability between the superpowers. Neither side had an incentive to strike first, and this calculation was unaffected by external shocks, false alarms or marginal shifts in the balance of power.

Since the end of the Cold War, three challenges to strategic stability have emerged. The first is the increasing complexity of deterrence relations among the nuclear weapon states. Whereas the first nuclear age was shaped by the bipolar global ideological and military competition between the United States and Soviet Union, the second nuclear age has been marked by the emergence of a multipolar nuclear order composed of states linked by varying levels of cooperation and conflict. Rising nuclear powers such as China, India and Pakistan are not party to the web of treaties, regimes and relationships that girded strategic stability between the United States and Soviet Union (and now Russia).

Moreover, most nuclear weapon states face security threats from more than one source, which breeds a “security trilemma,” when actions taken by a state to defend itself against one state have the effect of making a third state feel insecure. As a result, changes in one state's nuclear posture can have a cascading effect on the other nuclear-armed states. The trilemma helps explain Russian and Chinese reactions to American missile defenses aimed at Iran and North Korea.

The second challenge is the emergence of a suite of advanced nonnuclear military technologies that have the potential to replicate, offset or mitigate the strategic effects of nuclear weapons. Missile defenses and long-range precision weapons, for example, reduce strategic stability by endangering the ability of nuclear-armed states to credibly threaten retaliation following a surprise attack. Anti-satellite weapons and cyberweapons pose threats to the integrity of early-warning and command-and-control systems.

The potential for rapid advances in these technologies will make it more difficult for states to accurately assess others' capabilities, which may foster worst-case analyses and arms races. This dynamic reinforces the “zero-sum” mentality that feeds the security trilemma.

The third challenge is found in South Asia, which is the region most at risk of a breakdown in strategic stability. India and Pakistan face more severe security challenges than those of the other nuclear weapon states because of their geographic proximity, history of conflict, higher levels of domestic instability, the dispute over Kashmir and the threat of cross-border terrorism.

The two countries have been engaged in a nuclear and missile arms race since 1998 that shows no signs of abating. Pakistani development of short-range nuclear-armed missiles and India's pending deployment of sea-based nuclear weapons raise further concerns about command and control and the heightened vulnerability of these weapons to accidents and terrorism.

Furthermore, because of the security trilemma, the deterrence relationship between India and Pakistan is intertwined with that of China. This trilateral linkage increases the region's susceptibility to outside shocks and amplifies the risk that regional developments will have far-reaching effects.

Each of these dynamics is worrisome on its own, but the combination of them could be particularly destabilizing. The United States should proactively shape the second nuclear age before it finds itself trapped in a new nuclear order that is less stable, less predictable and less susceptible to American influence.

Working in concert with the other established nuclear weapon states, the United States should promote transparency and confidence-building measures to mitigate the destabilizing influences of advanced nonnuclear military technologies, encourage strategic dialogue among China, India and Pakistan, build capacity in India and Pakistan to engage in such dialogue, and establish a multilateral forum that includes India and Pakistan in discussions among the established nuclear weapon states on issues affecting strategic stability.

Gregory D. Koblentz is an associate professor in the School of Policy, Government and International Affairs at George Mason University and author of the Council on Foreign Relations report, "Strengthening Strategic Stability in the Second Nuclear Age." 

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