Middle Powers and Accidental Wars: A Study in Conventional Strategic Stability

Author: Loo, Bernard
The traditional understanding of strategic stability, as a condition wherein adversarial states refrain from waging a strategic war, is in the first place flawed as it conflates the concept with the wider issue of causes of war, it places too great an emphasis on arms racing and crisis management, and it has focused too much on nuclear strategy. This study situates the concept directly with the phenomena of accidental or inadvertent wars, and proposes an understanding of strategic stability as a condition wherein policy-makers do not feel pressured into knee-jerk decisions concerning the use of military force. This study proposes a framework of conventional strategic stability. It includes a geographic and strategic cultural milieu that frames the processes by which policy-makers and strategic planners identify and assess the threat posed by potential adversaries. It directs attention away from armaments to other military-strategic factors such as interpretations of strategic doctrines and intelligence and early warning processes. Finally, drawing from the Clausewitzian politics-war paradigm, it focuses on how domestic and external political conditions provide clues as to how and why strategic stability either maintains or fails, because decisions for war are ultimately political in nature.


“One of the central preoccupations of strategic studies has been stability. Some of the seminal work in the field has been focused on the question of what constitutes strategic stability, and many of the more important theoretical tools developed over the past fifty years have addressed this question. Moreover in the policy world, questions of stability have loomed large. Weapons have been promoted as stabilizing or criticized as destabilising, while stability was a arguably the key aim of arms control and underpinned many of the arms control policies developed by successive administrations, particularly in the United States. The attention given to strategic stability by both the academic and policy world however has been myopic. It has focused almost exclusively on the issue of nuclear stability … conventional stability remains under-theorised.

Does this matter? After all, the increasingly abstract and complex theorizing over nuclear stability appeared to get nowhere, with strategists eventually concluding that deterrence was probably ‘existential’ and stability almost a natural occurrence. Well yes it does. Although conventional conflicts can be awful and awesome in the death and destruction they cause, they do not begin to approach the potential catastrophe of a nuclear war. Moreover we have plenty of empirical evidence to suggest that conventional wars continue to occur despite the high levels of death and destruction involved. In other words, nuclear weapons had not only a material but psychological effect on stability – they were seen as being different and nuclear stability was therefore different. Conventional stability also matters because conventional war remains a possibility, albeit in some areas of the world more so than others. If nuclear strategy was sometimes criticised for its overly abstract and unworldly nature, then in contrast the possibility of conventional war is a very real concern.

It is in this context that this book is to be heartily welcomed as a systematic and important contribution to our understanding of this issue. Maybe history will tell us whether or not the theorizing over nuclear stability was an important factor in avoiding nuclear war; but while the jury is out on this matter, it is incumbent upon strategists to help understand not only how to fight conventional wars should they happen – the traditional role of strategist – but to consider how they might be prevented.” – (from the Commendatory Preface) Professor Colin McInnes, Professor of International Politics, University of Wales Aberystwyth

“This is an interesting and intelligent attempt at something thoroughly worthwhile – an elaboration of the causes of accidental or inadvertent war in terms of the absence/presence of factors making for ‘stability’ in the pre-war strategic balance between the actors. It is rare to see such a thing attempted outside ‘nuclear balances’, but the author here carries out his task well with highly pertinent case studies to buttress his argument.” – Professor Ian Bellany, Department of Politics and International Relations, Lancaster University

“This book revisits the concept of strategic stability and its causes in fresh and convincing ways. Bernard Loo detaches the notion of strategic stability from its arms racing and crisis management moorings and breathes new life into the concept through a superb analysis of how culture, geography, and military strategy affect strategic ability. An important and novel contribution to the strategic studies literature.” – Yuen Foong Khong, Faculty Fellow, Oxford University

Table of Contents

List of Tables
1. Introducing Strategic Stability
2. Strategic Stability and Strategic Culture
3. Strategic Stability and Geography 4. The Military-Strategic Elements of Strategic Stability
5. Crises and Politics – The Trigger of Strategic Instability
6. Conclusion