Coalition Management and Escalation Control in a Multinuclear World

Last updated December 10, 2014

This project focuses on crisis management, escalation control, and strategic stability in a multinuclear era. Dual-use, nuclear-relevant technologies are proliferating and a number of non-nuclear states are reassessing their security options, including the development or procurement of nuclear weapons capabilities. The reasons for this include the fraying of U.S.-alliance relationships and increasing doubts about the credibility of American extended security guarantees. Moreover, this comes at a time of increased regional power competition and the emergence of new power centers, some of which are seeking to exert greater influence on the global stage as well. Not only do such trends suggest a need for increased coordination among allies and partners, especially in the context of coalition responses to crisis confrontations and potential nuclear blackmail, but they also demand new thinking about deterrence and escalation management overall.

Reinforcing the requirement to think about escalation control strategies in a multinuclear world is the emergence of a spate of non-nuclear technologies that have the potential to influence escalation and de-escalation in a crisis situation in unique ways. Advances in technology, particularly advanced non-nuclear technologies capable of achieving strategic effects, give rise both to new escalation risks and to the need to consider innovative ideas for coalition management and escalation control. This is especially true in view of the rise of nationalism and renewed historic rivalries among regional powers, To date, however, there has been inadequate focus both inside and outside government on how nuclear and conventional escalatory options can be synchronized to shape, control, and complicate escalation management in a multinuclear world, or against an adversary that may possess escalation dominance.

Finally, Russian and Chinese nuclear modernization efforts stand in sharp contrast to ongoing reductions in U.S. strategic force structure and budgetary constraints restricting all U.S. military research and development efforts. While the strategic relationship with Russia has been tested over time, there is still the prospect for overreach or unintended escalation in a crisis ignited by a U.S. ally or partner having its own interests in a particular situation. Moreover, as U.S. nuclear forces are reduced (either unilaterally or via a new arms control accord), the resulting force levels may well result in a situation of nuclear parity or strategic equivalence with China, whose own nuclear and non-nuclear strategic forces continue to multiply. At a time in which the Sino-American relationship is fraught with new challenges that could easily result in a military confrontation, including a crisis involving a U.S. ally or partner (e.g., Japan) into which the United States is inevitably drawn, the consequences of strategic parity could be profound both in terms of the political willingness of the United States to intervene in a crisis and with respect to its tools for managing the escalation and de-escalation chains. Against this backdrop, the need for new thinking about coalition management and escalation control looms as a top priority, as essential today as it was at the beginning of the nuclear age. In fact, it may even be more important, as the risk of independent actors taking strategic actions that could drag the United States into—so-called catalytic warfare—increases and the dynamics of nuclear coalition management become more complex and less readily manageable than they were in the Cold War setting.

Principal investigators for this project are Dr. Jacquelyn K. Davis and Dr. Robert L. Pfaltzgraff.