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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchAverting Major Power War: The Logic of Mutual Assured Survival

Averting Major Power War: The Logic of Mutual Assured Survival

Author: Paul B. Stares

Affiliation: Center for Preventive Action

Organization/Publisher: Council on Foreign Relations

Date/Place: February 2023/USA

Type of Literature: Policy Paper

Number of Pages: 28



Keywords: Global Security, Collective Coexistence, Peace, Common Threat



In a world marked by escalating tensions among major powers, there is a growing concern of a potential major conflict involving the United States, China, India, and Russia. Recent events, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s assertive actions towards Taiwan, have only heightened these concerns. The consequences of such a conflict would be devastating, with widespread loss of life, extensive destruction, economic turmoil, and even existential threats to humanity. The United States, in particular, is uniquely vulnerable due to its global security commitments and its role as the principal guardian of the international order. The current U.S. strategy relies heavily on deterrence through military strength, drawing parallels with the Cold War era. However, it is crucial to critically evaluate the suitability of Cold War-era policies in the present context and explore alternative approaches to promoting stability and cooperation among major powers. 


One pressing issue is the ability of major powers to cooperate on critical global challenges. Challenges such as climate change, the potential for deadlier pandemics, and the rise of artificial intelligence require international collaboration. However, the deteriorating relations between major powers cast doubt on the assumption that common interests will consistently outweigh mutual mistrust. To address these challenges, the article proposes a comprehensive strategy called “mutual assured survival.” This approach aims to build trust and foster cooperation among major powers through a deliberate process of mutual reassurance and reciprocated restraint. The ultimate goal is to create a more stable and less costly relationship among these powers, enabling them to effectively tackle shared global challenges. The article recognizes the current tense state of relations between the U.S., China, and Russia but emphasizes the potential for future opportunities. It highlights the importance of being prepared to seize such openings for change while concurrently taking practical steps to reduce the immediate risk of a major power conflict. In a geopolitical environment marked by heightened tensions, adopting a strategy of mutual assured survival offers hope for a more peaceful and cooperative future among major powers. The article introduces three primary strategies for achieving global peace, each rooted in self-help policies. However, it underscores the necessity for a nuanced approach that incorporates reassurance and restraint among potential adversaries to reduce the likelihood of miscalculations and unintended conflicts. 


The article emphasizes the interconnected nature of international security and survival, particularly in the face of diverse existential threats. The proposed strategy, known as “collective coexistence,” envisions a state in which major powers cooperate and exercise restraint to effectively mitigate risks. Central to this strategy is the concept of “mutual assured survival,” wherein great powers engage in deliberate negotiations or informal arrangements to enhance existential security, minimize crises, and tackle shared global threats. The article emphasizes that tangible measures are crucial for international security. Declarations of goodwill and commitments to principles like national sovereignty and peaceful dispute resolution hold value, but must be accompanied by tangible actions. Such actions involve refraining from behaviors perceived as existentially threatening, such as inciting public sentiment against other nations, disrupting essential services through economic actions, or deploying threatening military forces near state borders. One of the most significant existential security concerns for major powers revolves around the safety and viability of their nuclear deterrent systems. To maintain strategic stability, confidence in the ability to retaliate effectively after a first strike is paramount. Declarations against nuclear war hold value, but must be substantiated by transparency regarding nuclear doctrine and operational practices. Sharing technical expertise and safeguarding second-strike retaliatory forces is of utmost importance. 

While diplomatic resolution of contentious issues may not be immediate, the article suggests that some points of friction can be rendered less dangerous. This includes defining rules of responsible behavior, committing to UN Charter principles, establishing clear protocols to prevent unintended clashes, and ensuring transparency in military activities in sensitive areas. The article acknowledges that crises are inevitable but advocates for initiatives such as dedicated communication channels, agreed-upon crisis management protocols, and enhanced multilateral responses to regional conflicts. These measures are essential to reducing the risk of dangerous escalation in the event of a crisis. As major power rivalry intensifies, there is a risk it may hinder international efforts to address global issues. Therefore, it is crucial for major powers to agree on ground rules that facilitate cooperation for the common good. This includes avoiding linkage politics, conducting discussions discreetly, and not undermining humanitarian assistance to affected communities during conflicts. The article also addresses objections to promoting collective coexistence, highlighting that past failures do not invalidate the practice of deterrence. Mutual assured survival would not prevent the US from investing in its national defense or deterrence efforts but would emphasize deterrence by denial rather than punishment. Additionally, the strategy would not prevent the US from criticizing oppressive domestic policies or human rights abuses. 


In conclusion, amidst a world plagued by escalating tensions among major powers, adopting a strategy of mutual assured survival offers hope for a more peaceful and cooperative future. Establishing a relationship of collective coexistence through mutual assured survival would ultimately depend on whether each power finds greater security in cooperation than in competition. A policy of mutual assured survival emphasizes the importance of transparency, tangible actions, crisis prevention, and cooperation on shared global threats. By prioritizing these aspects, major powers can work towards a more stable and secure world order.


By: Omar Fili, CIGA Research Assistant



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