The future of strategic stability

This paper was drafted and translated into English with the support of the Center for Analysis, Forecast and Strategy (CAPS) of the French Europe and External Affairs Ministry and of the Military Applications Division of the French Atomic and Alternative Energies Commission (CEA/DAM). The authors remain solely responsible for its contents.


A review of recent policy literature provides three indications:

  • The concept of strategic stability, sometimes perceived as a vestige of the Cold War,Thomas Scheber, "Strategic Stability. Time for a Reality Check," International Journal: Canada's Journal of Global Policy Analysis, Fall 2008. is in fact still relevant to the expert community, judging from the volume of work published on the subject.
  • Authors express various concerns about the future of strategic stability, with a focus on analyses of the resistance of the concept to various technological innovations and,See for instance: Todd Sechser, Neil Narang, Cailin Talmadge, "Emerging technologies and strategic stability in peacetime, crisis, and war,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 2019 ; Heather Williams, "Asymmetric arms control and strategic stability: Scenarios for limiting hypersonic glide vehicles," Journal of Strategic Studies, 2019 ; Christopher Chyba, New Technologies & Strategic Stability, Daedalus, MIT Press, 2020 ; James Johnson, "The AI-cyber nexus: implications for military escalation, deterrence and strategic stability,” Journal of Cyber Policy, 2019 or Margaret E. Kosal, "Emerging Life Sciences: New Challenges to Strategic Stability," in Margaret E. Kosal, ed, Disruptive and Game Changing Technologies in Modern Warfare, Springer, Cham, 2020. equally important, its adaptation to a new international environment.Christopher Kuklinski, Jeni Mitchell and Timothy Sands, "Bipolar strategic stability in a multipolar world," Journal of Politics and Law, 2020 ; Dmitri Trenin, "Strategic Stability in the Changing World," Carnegie Moscow Center, March 2019 ; Zeeshan Hayat, Tanzeela Khalil, "Great Power Competition and Global Strategic Stability," CISS Insight Journal, 2020.
  • The collapse of the traditional arms control regime raises questions about the preservation of a certain level of strategic stability and the forms it might take in the future.Steven Keil and Sophie Arts, "Strategic Spiral: Arms Control, U.S.-Russian Relations, and European Security," Policy Paper, GMF, March 2020 ; Corentin Brustlein, "The Erosion of Strategic Stability and the Future of Arms Control in Europe," Proliferation Papers, Etudes de l'IFRI, November 2018 or Dmitri Trenin, "Stability amid Strategic Deregulation: Managing the End of Nuclear Arms Control," The Washington Quarterly, 2020.

These studies and reports are characterised by great scepticism and, for some of them, genuine pessimism about the capacity of actors to adopt measures and behaviours that enable strategic stability to adapt to the challenges it faces. At the same time, they demonstrate that the strategic community holds a strong attachment to a concept that appears to be essential to the maintenance of peace between major powers with potentially divergent interests.

A more detailed analysis allows a better understanding of the nature of these difficulties, in particular the inability of the main countries concerned to agree on the nature of strategic stability and what needs to be done to preserve it. These divergent visions have been fully visible in the various iterations of strategic dialogues organised between officials and non-officials, between the United States and Russia, the United States and China; and are reflected in the absence of such dialogue between India, Pakistan and China. They are expressed in forums such as the P5 and are based on the different analyses in the strategic documents of the different states.

In this context, it is probably impossible to envisage a global, universal and inclusive definition of strategic stability that could be acceptable to all and resistant to the various challenges and risks that characterise the current period and the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to reflect on a set of measures that can contribute to a form of strategic stability in particular contexts. These measures may be of limited geographical application, without however disregarding the interdependencies between different theatres. They may also be targeted at specific segments, in particular to respond to technological developments whose full impact and consequences are not known.

This note proposes to question the future of strategic stability. In the first part, it recalls the different definitions of the notion and examines the meaning that can be given to it today. It then discusses the challenges that are transforming this notion and the different evolutions it is facing. Finally, it suggests ways of envisaging a form of strategic stability in the future (within a relatively predictable time scale of about fifteen years) and makes recommendations for developing a more active European position on these issues.


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