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Challenges to Managing Nuclear Crises

Center for Global Policy Program Director Kamran Bokhari sits down with  Moeed Yusuf at the U.S. Institute of Peace to discuss Yusuf’s brand new book, “Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia.”

 Yusuf, associate vice-president for the Asia Center at the United States Institute of Peace, says he hopes to change the conversation about nuclear deterrence, because most of what the world knows about bargaining comes from the Cold War. Regional nuclear standoffs, however, operate on a different dynamic. Yusuf says he focuses on stronger third parties that intervene when tensions rise between regional nuclear rivals such as India and Pakistan. Nobody wants a nuclear war, Yusuf says, and he has found that in crisis moments, more powerful third parties will suspend their broader foreign policy objectives for the sake of avoiding nuclear war. When multiple outside powers are involved in de-escalation, he says, they will even cooperate with each other — or at least avoid undercutting each other’s efforts.

Although his book focuses on South Asia, Yusuf says the logic of his argument steers to other regional nuclear dyads or potential nuclear conflicts on the regional level, such as tensions between Iran and Israel and between North and South Korea. Those situations are more complex, however. For example, with the Koreas, the United States plays two roles: an adversary to North Korea interested in protecting South Korea and a third party that wants to avoid nuclear war. Similarly, should a nuclear standoff ever erupt between Israel and Iran, the United States would be expected to support its ally. In those cases, other outside parties need to intervene to de-escalate tensions. China, for instance, stepped into the Korean situation and coordinated with the United States even as Washington signaled publicly that its interest is in protecting South Korea.

Mutually assured destruction plays some part in keeping regional nuclear tensions from boiling over, Yusuf says, but the process of engagement between the two regional rivals and the third party is what shapes the rivals’ behavior. And third-party intervention is likely to become more common as smaller nuclear powers gain more modernized weapons and more regional rivalries emerge.