Arms Control and Limited War

What can often be overlooked is that cooperation and coordination in the midst of a “mixed-motive game” between two parties can possibly emerge from what are seemingly trivial or insignificant details or factors. Thus, an important rule of thumb when analyzing game situations is to avoid being consumed by abstraction. And while action and psychic organization take precedence over communication and words when it comes to fostering coordination and cooperation, finding a solution to a problem that is afflicting a wide range of people is ultimately improbable without some sort of communication and dialogue.

Much of what we witness in a game is one side “daring” or “testing” the other side in order to see how far it can go in terms of calibrating and setting the aims and objectives of the game. Russia is very much in the business of “daring” and “testing” NATO in order to see what it can get out of NATO countries from a bargaining and diplomatic standpoint, in addition to calibrating and setting the aims and objectives of the conflict with the West. But the daring and testing ultimately impacts the pace of the game. In turn, the pace of the game can either be incremental or out of hand, and then the goal becomes one of controlling the pace of the game for all the parties that are impacted and involved.

“Limited War” – a concept or term which became popularized by American defense officials soon after World War II when the international community entered into an age of “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD) resulting from the advent of nuclear weapons – is a means of controlling the pace of the game, lest the game lapse into an all-out war and thus all-out destruction. Yet, the question which confounds Western decision-makers and strategists even to this day is whether war in the European continent – if it were to ever break out, and it now has broken out as a result of Ukraine – can be kept as a limited war, or whether an escalation into an all-out war is inevitable in Europe given the complexity of the long-standing dynamics and factors involved in the perpetual conflict between Russia and the West. Also, for the West, the conflict with Russia – as in the case of any other conflict – involves a diplomatic component that I have touched on in previous blog posts.

One of the mechanisms available for decision-makers and statesmen in limiting the pace and scope of the game is arms control dialogue and negotiations. In a nutshell, the basic aim of arms control dialogue and negotiations is not necessarily to go into the weeds about this or that machine or weapon. Rather, the basic aim of arms control dialogue and negotiation is to prevent the escalation of limited war into an all-out war. It is worth noting that in a situation defined by asymmetry between two parties in terms of military power, the situation does not necessitate or prompt dialogue and negotiations over arms control. In a state of asymmetry, one side clearly has the advantage over the other, thus allowing the more powerful side to forego dialogue and negotiations while wielding the ability to bend the other side to its political will.

“Latent force” – namely, the force which is not used by the more powerful side in an asymmetric power arrangement – is a major part of bending the weaker side to the will of the powerful side. It is only when some sort of symmetry arises between two parties in terms of military power – as in the case of Russia and NATO for instance – when arms control dialogue and negotiations become a viable tool or instrument in preventing a “limited war” from becoming an all-out war. And while the war in Ukraine has all the emblems and markings of a “limited war” thus far, it is not uncalled for if the West were to take proactive measures to make sure that the “limited war” in Ukraine does not escalate into an all-out war in Continental Europe.  

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