Outsourcing Escalation Control

In the extended deterrence literature, third party defenders play an important role in resolving a crisis primarily due to their credibility to retaliate. But the strategic dynamics in South Asia provide a complex environment for third party defenders/mediators where extended deterrence relationship is not formalized by any agreement and the hostile parties are also nuclear weapon states. It is however ironic that though the third, neutral state party, does not exercise any control over deterrence dynamics between the two hostile states, it remains the most important contributing factor in the region for crisis stability.

Let us examine two hypotheses: (a) presence of third party with high resolve in a crisis where both states have nuclear weapons bolsters the chances of limited war and extends the duration of the crisis (b) presence of third party with low resolve in a crisis where both states have nuclear weapons will push the two states away from crisis escalation thus shortening the duration of the crisis.

Now lets play a game.

The Game

Two states A and B are two nuclear weapon states moving towards a nuclear crisis. C is a third party that is also a nuclear weapon state. Nature (N) moves about the resolve of third party C (high resolve, low/no resolve). C with high resolve offers mediation. C with low or no resolve offers no mediation. Players A and B do not know the true nature of C’s resolve. But they believe that they accept C with high resolve with a probability p and C with low resolve with a probability 1-p. A and B after perceiving C with a high resolve have two options each: either to accept the offer of C’s mediation or to escalate. If they accept the offer of mediation without any concessions/carrots by C, the game ends. But if they reject the offer the game continues to the next level where both A and B choose to escalate. If they choose to escalate, C offers concessions/carrots (f) to both A and B. If A and B accept, the crisis does not escalate and A and B choose the negotiating table. If A and B do not accept, the crisis escalates to the next level. If the crisis escalates and inches towards limited war, C at this time offers better concessions/carrots (2f) to both A and B. If both accept, crisis is managed. If not, game continues till they accept offers by C that are lucrative for both. During this time of steady escalation, A and B dangerously continue to exploit C’s vulnerability and proceed with the game. C has stakes in the game, which could come from C’s forces stationed in close proximity to A and B; C’s past reputation as a mediator or C’s credibility as a superpower.

When both A and B perceive C with low resolve with a probability (1-p) with no offer of mediation, they realize that they can only push it too far before crisis spirals out of control. In this scenario, A and B have only two choices each, to escalate or not escalate. If they choose not to escalate the game ends and crisis is managed bilaterally without third party mediation. If they choose to escalate, both suffer the risks of actual war fighting. The payoffs for not escalating, for both, are greater than the payoffs for fighting and thus like the game of chicken, both A and B would find an equilibrium in not escalating.


 Extensive Game of Crisis Bargaining and Third Party Intervention



Consider a scenario where two hostile state parties are India and Pakistan and that they have ‘outsourced’ escalation control to a third party, the U.S. Consider that both India and Pakistan have manipulated the U.S. into being responsible for their escalation control while they continue to play limited war games under the nuclear shadow. Both India and Pakistan have knowledge that U.S shows high resolve in mitigating any crisis that unfolds between them and the past history of their crises shows that U.S. intervention has been successful in managing their crisis from spiraling out of control. The fact that both India and Pakistan have outsourced escalation control (though not formally but as a foregone conclusion) to the U.S. is especially worrisome and the ‘expectation’ from the U.S. to forever guarantee a positive outcome of their escalatory playoffs is an especially dangerous expectation. In the absence of third party mediation, it is expected that the game of chicken will be played with higher payoffs for not escalating or even refraining from exploring options for limited war scenarios to begin with. Since A escalating, B~escalating equilibrium will not hold under nuclear scenario given the higher cost of A escalating and threatening to use nukes, one can assume that limited war will not be attempted. It however still remains a dangerous game since inadvertent or accidental use of nuclear weapons can happen leading to disastrous consequences.

I believe that once third party dependence is unavailable and the burden of escalation control will lay squarely with parties in direct conflict, crisis will have minimal chances of escalation. For this to hold, I of course am assuming that both parties are rational actors. For states like India and Pakistan, developing bilateral mechanisms for escalation control is an absolute requirement for mutual deterrence to hold. Outsourcing escalation control to a third party, such as the U.S., is a dangerous trend and while it has helped in averting crises escalation in the past, it has perpetuated strategic and doctrinal immaturity in both states even after fifteen years of their nuclearization. It is time to grow up.




Posted in , Deterrence, Escalation Control, India, India-Pakistan Relations, Nuclear, Pakistan, Research, Theory

Rabia Akhtar

Rabia Akhtar

Rabia Akhtar is Director, Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research, University of Lahore. She holds a PhD in Security Studies from Kansas State University. Her research focused on U.S. non-proliferation policy towards Pakistan and foreign policy analysis of executive-legislative interactions in U.S. foreign policy making and related issues in congressional oversight of U.S. foreign policy towards Pakistan from Ford to Clinton. She is a Fulbright Scholar (2010-2015). Her co-authored research monograph on “Nuclear Learning in South Asia” was published in Jan 2015 by the Regional Center of Strategic Studies (RCSS), Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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7 thoughts on “Outsourcing Escalation Control

  1. Excellent think-piece. Time has come that both India and Pakistan should bilaterally work out a cooperative framework to strengthen nuclear deterrence in South Asia. Thumbs up for the author.

  2. When I first started reading the piece I was hoping that C=China. Of course, it seems unlikely that India would be amenable to “outsourcing” escalation control to China at this point. Assuming that the U.S. withdrawal from the region comes with a decline in desire, capability and legitimacy to be the third party in your game (an assumption in the realm of the near-term plausible), does that leave space in the future for China to take a more direct interest in I-P crisis management? If so, how would C=China change your gaming and analysis above?

  3. Sadiq, thank you for your kind comments.

    Toby, its an interesting question.

    First, I don’t think that China has been staying away from I-P crisis management because the center stage was occupied by the U.S. all this time. China has mainly stayed away from actively engaging with I-P during their crises because of its non-interference policy and thus is a country with ‘low resolve’ and might not offer any incentives to both parties in crisis to deescalate.

    Second, Chinese equation with Pakistan is different than Chinese equation with India given its geo-strategic competition with the latter and though India reluctantly accepted U.S. crisis management (because U.S. signaled its ‘neutrality’ with high resolve on several occasions), it will never accept China in the same role.

    Third, I am not sure whether China is ‘ready’ to play an active role in I-P crisis management even if we assume that there will be a decline in U.S. desire post-withdrawal. I say this because China has developed stakes on both sides of the border. Its economic and strategic cooperation with Pakistan and its economic interdependence with India leaves little room for it to act neutrally in future I-P crisis even if it wanted to. Furthermore, Agni V with a range of 5000 km complicates the dynamics of Sino-Indian deterrence and Indo-Pak deterrence (a dual edged sword to deter any possible Sino-Pak collaboration against India). In any future I-P crisis, outsourcing escalation control to China e.g., will thus amount to neutralizing any deterrence advantage India is seeking through Agni V.

    Therefore, replacing C=China might not work well in this game. China will remain a country with low resolve and U.S. will remain a country with high resolve. Even after U.S. withdrawal from the region, it is unlikely that their desire for I-P crisis management will die down. Post-withdrawal while Chinese concerns about U.S. encirclement might ease, its concerns with rising geo-strategic competition with India will remain. It is to India’s benefit that U.S. retains high resolve in I-P crisis given the leverage it exercises over Pakistan through its carrots and sticks policy. China will not fit the bill.

    What China can do is help both countries develop bilateral mechanisms so that there is less dependency on the U.S. for future crisis management. Like I said, Agni V changes the deterrence equation in the region and any potential escalation in future I-P crisis, will have consequences for China. So while it is in the interest of China that the crisis should not escalate, it is unlikely that it will ‘manage’ the crisis for both India and Pakistan.

    The thought however remains. Both India and Pakistan need to break off the ‘dependency’ on ‘any’ third party, be it U.S. or China and deal with design their own mechanisms.

  4. Rabia:
    Excellent piece.
    US-Pakistan relations have had their ups and downs. If bilateral ties deteriorate in the future, and if Beijing isn’t acceptable to New Delhi, is there no other mutually acceptable party that can serve as the crisis manager/escalation controller?

  5. Thank you, MK. I ask you, must there be a third party? Why can India and Pakistan not be trusted to deescalate on their own? One starts to wonder as to what role would the U.S. be left to play, if, both India and Pakistan become self sufficient in deterring one another without any outside party ‘managing’ it for them, regardless of the state of Pak-U.S. or Indo-U.S. relations? When you ask, if not U.S. and China, then who? you are essentially saying that the I-P cannot do without third party managers.

    Look at it from another angle: I say there are two kids (lets say 6 & 10) fighting with each other. They will devise and strategize ways to harm or deter each other to the best of their capabilities. Every time they fight, an adult steps in and saves them from severe consequences of their actions. They both are ‘aware’ of this fact that they will never feel the ‘severity’ of their actions as long as the adult is there to step in and call time-out. As they age, they will find space to experiment with dangerous weapons to hurt the other continuing to believe that it will never ‘tip over’ as long as the adult is there to manage their fights and settle it for them. Once they know that the adult will no longer protect them, both will eventually find ways to damage/deter each other with little or manageable consequences. They will get hurt but they will LEARN. Each other’s limits and red lines will be taken seriously and respected. They will ‘grow’ into responsible adults.

    Any state party be it the U.S., China, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia or xyz, has to allow both India and Pakistan to grow and become their own managers. This can only happen if there is no mollycoddling from anyone at any stage. Both states are acutely aware of each other’s red lines. All they need is to develop credible deterrence mechanisms whereby crisis situations do not arise as frequently as they have been in the past. And to my mind, this can only be done when they know that they are their own managers. They need to find means to deescalate on their own. Its not that the world doesn’t care anymore. But because they realize that the reality of mutually assured destruction is as ugly as the theory says it is.

  6. Highly thought provoking and as a result list of questions and a comment follows;

    Comment: To begin with the ‘kids analogy,’ well, at times they do fail to learn ‘ways to damage/deter each other with little or manageable consequences.’ And as a result the story ends with one killing the other.

    Questions: 1. What if one of the two key actors A and B (in the absence of C), thinks escalation would bring more payoffs helping her exercise blackmail or compellence with an expectation to finally diffuse the crisis on terms favorable to her interests. As a result the subject might try to test the other side’s resolve leading to crisis escalation. (Besides, how about fog of war during that period of escalation)?

    2. As far as a bilateral framework is concerned, it could be stabilizing. But the question for me here is; a. do A and B look at ‘stability’ as their primary objective?
    b. Is there sufficient degree of resolve in A and B to move towards bilateral arrangements?
    c. Would a bilateral framework be effective between two adversaries characterized by ‘deep power asymmetries’?

    3. And here is one related to but beyond the scope of the game played above; What if one among A and B is interested in outsourcing escalation control while the other is not? How would it play out with reference to the dynamics of crisis?

  7. Thank you for your comment and questions, Sadia.

    1. In the first question, the game will then be played between A & B in the absence of C. Both states have incentives to either ‘continue’ the game of escalation or ‘cease’. There are negative payoffs for continuing the game and there are positive payoffs for ceasing the game. If they both continue escalating then negative payoffs will be for both the challenger and the defender. When both states are nuclear weapons states, compellence is not the best strategy, cooperation is. It is highly unlikely that India and Pakistan, both rational actors and responsible nuclear weapons states, in the absence of U.S. mediation, will continue to escalate, knowing fully well that if they continue to play the game of escalation, there will be no winners. Once there is an acknowledgement that there won’t be any fall back or promise of face saving situations, both countries will ‘avoid’ getting into situations that will have a chance of uncontrollable escalation to begin with. I am not saying that there won’t be any crisis, there might be, but both would know that their payoffs for ‘resisting’ escalation are greater than their payoffs for ‘increasing’ escalation and I strongly believe, efforts for finding equilibrium will be serious and the crisis will not prolong (given that they both won’t be waiting for a messiah).

    2. You ask about resolve for stability as the primary objective for both A&B given deep power asymmetries (although nukes change the traditional equation), well I sure hope so, Sadia. Its been fifteen years since nuclearization and both states realize they cannot afford to be reckless with their weapons. Stability is and should be the only primary objective for both countries, if it isn’t already. I will refrain from passing a judgement here. I am an optimist and I believe there is a resolve for stability. Both states should work towards strengthening mutual deterrence and respecting each other’s red lines for stability in the region.

    3. Well, if one wants to outsource escalation and the other does not, then it means they both are playing different games :) Ok, seriously, if the expected utility of bringing C in the game is higher for A and lower for B, then finding equilibrium(s) will take a long time. It would also depend on who C is. If it is a state which has leverage over both states and has stakes in the outcome of the game, then the dynamics of the game can change considerably and drastically because C will join the game with or without invitation :) One can play out number of scenarios thereafter.

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