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Crisis Stability in the Twenty-First Century

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This paper defines crisis stability, places it into a broad historical context, and outlines some of its challenges today. For the purposes of our discussion, “crisis stability” is a state in which parties to a confrontation do not have incentives to preempt or escalate, either as a result of mutual deterrence, mutual confidence, or for other reasons.

A crisis is an intermediate point between peace and war. In a crisis, opponents may use coercive signaling through threats, changes in force postures, and manipulated alert levels, alongside diplomatic efforts to resolve the situation while advancing their interests. However, seemingly routine actions taken by both sides to prepare their respective military forces for a possible war could conflict with the political steps taken to prevent it. Their military establishments’ innate desire to exploit surprise and achieve decisive effects early in a conflict could add further preemptive and escalatory pressures.

During the Cold War, crisis stability was generally understood by U.S. and Soviet experts as “first strike stability” in the strategic nuclear context and, together with arms race stability, was viewed as a component of bilateral “strategic stability.” But, crisis stability was also one of the associated goals of “crisis management,” a framework of political and military approaches to restrain preemption in a crisis, especially one that could escalate to nuclear use.

In today’s security environment, a variety of new technologies force us to rethink the components of crisis stability beyond the purely military realm, to include the implications of cyber threats and information and communication activities. At the same time, military activities and force plans, nuclear and conventional, are also evolving while some of the constraints that have helped contribute  to stability in the past are in danger of disappearing. What, then, does crisis stability mean today and into the future, and what steps can be taken to strengthen it?

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