Strategic stability—nice for those who benefit

By Liviu Horovitz, November 7, 2014

In this roundtable Wu Riqiang and Tatiana Anichkina have consistently argued in favor of maintaining strategic stability in the nuclear arena. I have presented a number of reasons for questioning strategic stability's value. But do I disagree with my roundtable colleagues because my views on nuclear weapons are fundamentally different from theirs? No—I disagree because I look at strategic stability from a different vantage point than Wu and Anichkina do.

My colleagues believe that mutual vulnerability among great powers eliminates coercive force as an instrument for settling disputes among those powers. This, they argue, prevents arms races and diminishes the risk that tensions will escalate into conflict; the world becomes more stable and secure and all states benefit. Strategic stability among great powers is a global good, my colleagues believe, and everyone ought to cherish it.

I certainly understand why Wu and Anichkina don't want their own nations (China and Russia) to become exposed to US military superiority, and why they argue in favor of mutual vulnerability in the nuclear realm. But their argument becomes deeply flawed when it is applied universally. "Stability" might align well with Russia and China's interests, but there is no reason to think it aligns with the interests of everyone else.

The international system, for better or for worse, is highly competitive. Governments advance their own interests through every instrument of power at their disposal. Nations cooperate at times, but it's more often the case that one state can achieve its interests only at the expense of another. In such an environment, strategic stability among great powers can have undesirable consequences for less fortunate states. That is, mutual vulnerability among the United States, China, and Russia would diminish Washington's ability to constrain the actions of both Beijing and Moscow. This would free China and Russia to pursue their interests, as they see fit, within their own neighborhoods. In Russia's case at least, historical experience does not suggest that greater "stability" would produce what Anichkina calls a "common security space in Europe." To the contrary, it would allow the powerful to get their way while the weak would pay the bill.

The last time Russian power was unconstrained, the Soviet Union expanded its European sphere of influence to within Germany's former borders. It imposed on its satellite states a political and economic order that failed to produce the wealth and prosperity that the Western system, imposed elsewhere by the United States, did produce. Any attempt to evade Russian dominance was quickly crushed. Later, when the Soviet Union collapsed, a weak Russia had no choice but to accept numerous US-imposed constraints on its power. But now, two decades later, a resurgent Russia resents limits on its influence and uses military force to bring entire provinces under its control.

I am no adherent of moralistic approaches to international politics—I know that the strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must. I understand why Russia wants to preserve military access to the Black Sea and I appreciate why Russians want "strategic stability." Yet there is no reason that policy makers in Central and Eastern Europe should relish the prospect of Russia gaining greater scope for maneuver.

Therefore, I still maintain that the interests of American allies in Central and Eastern Europe are furthered by US missile defense deployments. Even if US missile defenses are ineffective, they reinforce the transatlantic bargain. That is, a faraway hegemon provides European nations a benign security environment in exchange for the right to maintain a few military bases, participation in distant US wars by a handful of local military personnel, and some minor economic perks.

From the perspective of Central and Eastern European countries, the most important aspect of this arrangement is that it encourages democracy and promotes economic growth. For this, minor powers such as Romania are willing to accept the idea that missile defense might potentially provoke strategic instability. To be sure, arms races among great powers would be problematic. Any escalating crisis among them would be very worrisome. But the benefits of "stability" are likely to accrue to great powers at the expense of the small. So nations in Central and Eastern Europe—as long as Russia's pursuit of influence does not promise them the same benefits that the transatlantic bargain delivers—will do what they can to ensure that the United States retains its foothold on the continent.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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