Crumbling CBM Frameworks and the Risk of Inadvertent Escalation


In 1962, the world witnessed the most precarious event in ages. The USA and USSR were engaged in a perilous standoff over the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba and a small error or miscalculation could have reverted humanity into the Stone Age. Auspiciously for humanity, the crisis de-escalated and begot the first Confidence Building Measure (CBM) of the Cold War: the famed hotline communication between Washington and Moscow. In the subsequent years, the two superpowers concluded numerous CBMs, which significantly enabled mitigation of Cold War tensions thereby lowering the annihilation endangerments haunting humanity. In the meantime, the CBMs were aggrandized to assume a global scope after several countries in the geographical zones adapted CBMs as a viable tool to ease tensions. Other areas, however, saw very little progress on CBMs thus retaining their “flashpoint” status.

The assorted trend of CBMs extended into the post-Cold War period and numerous CBMs covering arms control, economics, and human rights issues saw acme in some regions but could not make noteworthy headway in other troubled zones. The piece succinctly discourses the CBMs’ trends during post-Cold War in four important regions namely Europe, the Middle East, Asia-Pacific, and South Asia.

Europe – regarded as a dreamland for liberal peace and post-Cold War CBMs – is the geographical sphere to host the 21st century’s potentially most risky conflict. Starting with the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and its support to armed separatists in Eastern Ukraine, numerous efforts to avoid escalation went in vain primarily owing to the widening trust deficit between Russia and US-led NATO, and finally, the full-fledge Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 resuscitated the Cold War-style East vs West conflict. Even before, the resurgence of Russia under Putin and the withdrawal of the USA from the ABM and INF treaties had dealt a jolting blow to CBMs between the two military superpowers.

By implication, the Russian invasion of Ukraine proved to be the last nail in the coffin of the Russia-West post-Cold War conciliation. The European countries swiftly transitioned to revert mostly economic CBMs with Russia instituted over decades while NATO wholeheartedly accepted membership applications from previously nonaligned Finland and Sweden. The landmark developments herald a new era of intense and even more perilous security competition in Europe and as the trust deficit between the contending parties looms highest in decades, the space for CBMs as a tool to reduce tensions has been further curtailed.

The most drastic turnaround on CBMs post-Cold War took place in the Middle East. The traditional antagonists Israel and the Arab nations after CBMs are currently making headways in strengthening peace. This despite the root cause of tensions – the Israel-Palestine Conflict – remains outstanding, however, without evoking much interest or support from the new generation of Arab rulers who are least beholden to the Palestinian cause.

The expansion of Iranian influence and Iran’s nuclear program, nonetheless, have added new dimensions to the tensions in the Middle East with the risk of the USA also getting embroiled in a hot war with Iran. Nevertheless, given the destructive concomitants of such an undertaking, the USA and its Arab allies have been cautious not to escalate tensions with Iran. The arduously reached Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program could have contributed meaningfully to reducing tensions in the region but was torpedoed by the Trump administration, which also pushed the Middle East to the brink of war by recklessly eliminating the top commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Following, the Biden administration’s endeavors to return to the deal and persuade Iran to reverse its actions that belie JCPOA encountered impediments and the negotiations have lately become hostage to Russia-West resuscitated powers struggle. Though the Biden administration has been carefully trudging the fine line in the Middle East, with minimum CBMs in place between the USA-led coalition and Iran, inadvertent escalation in the region remains plausible.

The Asia-Pacific region currently hosts the two most powerful countries on the planet, the USA and China, and despite both sides pledging to manage their relationship, the vicious dynamics of great power politics have hindered the institutionalization of CBMs. Emboldened by its risen status, China is expanding its military outreach in Western Pacific – areas traditionally dominated by the USA and its allies – and with no existing CBMs in the form of the operational framework for the contending militaries, the conflict avoidance strategy by both the sides is prone to failure raising the risks of inadvertent escalation, especially in volatile areas like the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. To add is the intensifying techno-economic war and the absence of arms control CBMs between the two sides, which clubbed together are speedily rendering the strategic environment in Asia-Pacific more challenging than ever.

The most troubled zone in Asia-Pacific, Korean Peninsula, has seen many ups and downs in tensions during the last three decades. North Korea went nuclear in 2006 and since then has been using nuclear tests occasionally and missile tests frequently to pressurize its adversaries. Several conflict avoidance strategies were adopted by the USA and its regional allies, specifically during President Trump’s reign. In June 2018, Trump became the first US President to meet a North Korean leader followed by another inconclusive meeting the next year hosted by Vietnam. In June 2019, Trump became the first US President to step foot on North Korean soil as he walked alongside Kim Jong Un from the demilitarized zone into North Korea only to walk back into South Korea. Though the optics were high, the meetings were largely the result of President Trump’s eccentric personality and lacked Washington’s institutional backup. Fast forward to 2022, even the CBM forbidding the missile tests has been abandoned by Pyongyang and the relationship between the two countries is back to square one with missile tests by North Korea acting as a primary destabilizer and raising the risks of inadvertent escalation.

Among the regions that maintained their “flashpoint” status, South Asia holds the distinction. The rollercoaster of hostilities and parleys between India and Pakistan makes South Asia one of the most volatile regions of the world. In 1988, the two countries signed a landmark agreement prohibiting attacks on each other’s nuclear installations, and after the countries declared their nuclear status in 1998, the Lahore Declaration and MoU marked noteworthy CBMs only to be rendered ineffective by the outbreak of the Kargil War. Following the Twin Peak crisis, General Musharraf’s regime made headways in negotiations with India, and many CBMs were concluded, most notably the 2003 ceasefire agreement, while out-of-the-box solutions were considered to resolve the festering Kashmir Conflict. The 2008 Mumbai attacks proved to be a tipping point in India-Pakistan negotiations and since then no new substantive and institutionalized dialogue has taken place between the two countries, apart from occasional confidence-building initiatives, which are usually relapsed by the outbreak of a new crisis. Previously agreed dialogue frameworks and CBMs, nonetheless, are being followed despite the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi issuing vile threats to undermine some of those, such as his threat to deprive Pakistan of its share of water settled under the landmark Indus water treaty. The perturbing propensity is further compounded by Modi’s intertwining of India’s domestic electoral politics with anti-Pakistan jingoism. In 2019, after having failed to deliver on his socio-economic promises during his first five years as India’s PM, Modi tapped Pulwama Crisis to secure a landslide victory in Indian elections but in the process pushed the region to the brink of nuclear holocaust. As the things stand, the trust deficit between the two countries is predictably high, and though the hostilities along the LoC have ceased thanks to a UAE-brokered resumption of ceasefire, the breakdown in meaningful dialogue persists essentially creating a veritable stalemate.

Hamdan Khan
Hamdan Khan
Hamdan Khan is currently working as Research Officer at Strategic Vision Institute Islamabad. He is an alumnus of the National Defence University Islamabad and has previously worked for the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) and the Pakistan Council on China (PCC). Hamdan studies Global Affairs with a focus on Great-Power Politics, Programs and Policies of Nuclear Weapons States, and Emerging Military Technologies.


Philippines joins Blue Carbon Action Partnership to Strengthen Coastal Ecosystems

The Government of the Philippines’ Department of Environment and...

Brazil gears up to become fourth largest oil producer

Brazil's National Agency of Petroleum, Natural Gas and Biofuels...

Russia takes control of Iraq’s biggest oil discovery for 20 years

Preliminary estimates suggested that Iraq’s Eridu oil field holds...