Stop Confusing Deterrence with Strategy
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Stop Confusing Deterrence with Strategy


Deterrence is no substitute for strategy, and there’s danger in confusing the two. A resurgence of debates about deterrence and coercion are necessary given their neglect in post-Cold War foreign policy discussions. But even “successful” deterrence has little hope of solving national security challenges and a high likelihood of generating second-order problems.

Mainstream academic research all but abandoned deterrence at the end of the Cold War. Some of the biggest journals—International Studies Quarterly, International Organization, and Journal of Conflict Resolution—became obsessed with research on things like institutions, treaties, and the mediating effects of economic ties. As a tenured political scientist friend of mine (at an R1 institution) recently remarked, “The incentives of the academy since the 1990s are geared toward IPE [international political economy], institutionalism, human rights. Just look at the specialties that universities are hiring for every year. If you want a job as a tenure-track professor, don’t specialize in security studies.”

For U.S. policymakers though, the importance of deterrence (and security studies in general) never waned, nor did the deterrence literature simply stop evolving with the Cold War’s end; it just stopped receiving attention from the public and from most top tier political scientists. When I worked as a Pentagon strategist, deterrence concepts were part of daily discussion among some of us, and I was part of the original crew to establish extended deterrence consultation mechanisms with our South Korean and Japanese allies. I was even lucky enough to be part of the Minerva Research Initiative, a low-cost, high-impact program that funds social science research of relevance to the national security enterprise.

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But even in the Pentagon there were many policy civilians who found talk of deterrence “a little too Cold War,” “passé,” and a euphemism for aggression. The military services and Joint Staff were sometimes more embracing of deterrence, but most viewed it as a “left of boom” (boom=conflict) concept that had no place in military operations, which were all about achieving “kinetic effects.”  Their philosophy was to identify the destructive effect that needed to be achieved, and then work backwards to identify what capabilities should be brought to bear to best achieve that effect. Thomas Schelling’s notion of “the threat that leaves something to chance” was elusive.

So needless to say I’m glad that deterrence is again becoming a part of mainstream foreign policy discussions. With increasingly undeniable Chinese and Russian expansionism, global publics and pundits have begun re-engaging with deterrence, the logic of which is most applicable when dealing with competitors willing to resort to violence for the sake of political aims. Rod Lyon, Andrew O’Neil, and other Australian defense thinkers have brought renewed attention to deterrence in the nuclear context.  A friend and former colleague who previously served as a deputy assistant secretary in the Pentagon, Dr. Brad Roberts, has a new book coming out that emphasizes the deterrence and assurance necessity of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. And a recent Project Atom report shows that nuclear deterrence thinking is creeping back into the world of Washington think tank analysis. Even Vice News, a hipster documentary news show, recently dedicated an entire episode to deterrence vis-à-vis Russia and Crimea (I highly recommend watching it).

This is all great. More discussion and research relating to coercion in general is needed to aid decision-making. But four points need to be made that should temper our enthusiasm.

First, nuclear deterrence is only a narrow cross-section of deterrence thought, and its importance can no longer be separated from deterrence and conflict involving space, cyberspace, and conventional operations—what some call “cross-domain” deterrence.  Focusing too narrowly on how we can squeeze more coercive juice out of nuclear weapons risks repeating some of the mistakes of the 1950s, when the United States contemplated nuclear preventive strikes, made dubious nuclear threats against multiple adversaries who subsequently decided to pursue nukes of their own, and placed nuclear weapons at the center of U.S. defense strategy, which constrained U.S. decision-makers during crises, most notably with China in the 1950s.

Second, deterrence is difficult—very difficult—and more research probably won’t change that.  There’s even a hefty body of research suggesting that deterrence never really works on its own, needing to be combined with assurance “off-ramps” so adversaries can back down when threatened without looking like they backed down. The idea that you can prevent someone from doing something they’d like to do by threat of force ignores basic understandings—from neuroscience to psychology to political philosophy—about how human beings respond to perceived injustices, and there are few things less just than being the victim of coercion. So deterrence as a strategy in itself generally has a high risk of failure.

Third, as Alexander George and Richard Smoke concluded in their seminal work on deterrence in U.S. foreign policy, the best thing deterrence can buy you is time. A bad strategy is therefore one that places deterrence as an end in itself. Sometimes deterrence can be necessary—especially when dealing with aggressors—but its ultimate success must be judged based on how time purchased with deterrence threats is used to ameliorate the thing that made deterrence necessary in the first place. For instance, one of the reasons we have a nuclear North Korea is because deterrence has long been the primary goal of U.S. and South Korean policy, even above preventing a nuclear North Korea. The alliance has deterred major North Korean aggression, but in the intervening period, North Korea has pursued a nuclear arsenal while the alliance has been more or less satisfied with maintaining a general deterrence posture.

Finally, it’s self-defeating to go around manipulating risk to solve your problems. Out-escalating competitors may work in specific instances, but it’s not even close to a panacea. Eventually you’re going to either be wrong and trigger conflict, or stimulate balancing coalitions against you, which will make your security environment even less favorable over time. Old school deterrence thinkers like Robert Jervis, Alexander George, Wallace Thies, and Patrick Morgan urged an abundance of caution in the employment of deterrent threats. Indeed, the entire “third wave” of deterrence research in the 1970s and 1980s was one giant cautionary tale about the perils of using threats to solve ones problems. The world has changed, but it hasn’t changed enough to ignore the wisdom they have to offer.

New thinking about deterrence is necessary given changes in the contemporary security environment. But if deterrence studies of the past have anything to tell us, it’s that thinking about deterrence shouldn’t be a substitute for critical thinking.

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