How can the use of "unthinkable" means of warfare be avoided? How can states successfully observe mutually desired limitations on "taboo" forms of combat? These questions are important because of concern that nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and terrorism will spread and be used. The growing number of states--e.g., Israel, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Ukraine--that have such means of inflicting harm increases the likelihood that any future conflict will involve a desire for restrictions. Countries may pursue restraint because popular opinion vilifies certain weapons; because leaders calculate that escalation would damage their domestic and international political support; or because states fear retaliatory attacks. Unfortunately, even when nations agree that limitations are desirable, restraint does not always endure. A key source of this disparity can be found in accidents and inadvertent escalation. In contemporary affairs among major powers, the apparent absence of grounds for intentional aggression, against a backdrop of change and instability, makes the unintended expansion of conflict a central concern. States may not seek a spiral of hostility but still can stumble into escalation. Why?

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 1994

Publisher Statement

Copyright © 1994 President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This article first appeared in International Security 18: 4 (Spring, 1994), 108-142.

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