Deterrence theory

Deterrence theory

Deterrence theory gained increased prominence as a military strategy during the Cold War with regard to the use of nuclear weapons, and features prominently in current United States foreign policy regarding the development of nuclear technology in North Korea and Iran. Deterrence theory however was identified as a military strategy long before this time. In Thomas Schelling’s classic work of 1966,[1] the concept that military strategy can no longer be defined as the science of military victory is presented. Instead, it is argued that military strategy was now equally, if not more, the art of coercion, of intimidation and deterrence.

Schelling[1] goes on to explain the foundations of deterrence theory based on diplomacy. Diplomacy between states is defined as a form of bargaining that seeks outcomes for each state that though not ideal for either party, are better for both than other alternatives. In order for diplomacy to succeed, there must be some common interest, if only in the avoidance of mutual damage. Traditionally in military strategy, mutual pain and suffering are among the results of warfare, however they have also been incidental and not the primary purpose. In the development of military strategy however, Schelling (1966) argues the capacity to hurt another state is now used as a motivating factor for other states to avoid it and influence another state's behaviour. In order to be coercive or deter another state, violence has to be anticipated and avoidable by accommodation. It can therefore be summarised that the use of the power to hurt as bargaining power is the foundation of deterrence theory, and is most successful when it is held in reserve.


The Concept of Deterrence

The use of military threats as a means to deter international crises and war has been a central topic of international security research for decades. Research has predominantly focused on the theory of rational deterrence to analyse the conditions under which conventional deterrence is likely to succeed or fail. Alternative theories however have challenged the rational deterrence theory and have focused on organisational theory and cognitive psychology.

The concept of deterrence can be defined as the use of threats by one party to convince another party to refrain from initiating some course of action.[2] A threat serves as a deterrent to the extent that it convinces its target not to carry out the intended action because of the costs and losses that target would incur. In international security, a policy of deterrence generally refers to threats of military retaliation directed by the leaders of one state to the leaders of another in an attempt to prevent the other state from resorting to the threat of use of military force in pursuit of its foreign policy goals.

As outlined by Huth[2], a policy of deterrence can fit into two broad categories being (i) preventing an armed attack against a state’s own territory (known as direct deterrence); or (ii) preventing an armed attack against another state (known as extended deterrence). Situations of direct deterrence often occur when there is a territorial dispute between neighboring states in which major powers (e.g. the United States) do not directly intervene. On the other hand, situations of extended deterrence often occur when a great power becomes involved. It is the latter than has generated the majority of interest in academic literature. Building on these two broad categories, Huth goes on to outline that deterrence policies may be implemented in response to a pressing short-term threat (known as immediate deterrence) or as strategy to prevent a military conflict or short term threat from arising (known as general deterrence).

A successful deterrence policy must be considered in not only military terms, but also in political terms. In military terms, deterrence success refers to preventing state leaders from issuing military threats and actions that escalate peacetime diplomatic and military cooperation into a crisis or militarized confrontation which threatens armed conflict and possibly war. The prevention of crises of wars however is not the only aim of deterrence. In addition, defending states must be able to resist the political and military demands of a potential attacking nation. If armed conflict is avoided at the price of diplomatic concessions to the maximum demands of the potential attacking nation under the threat of war, then it cannot be claimed that deterrence has succeeded.

Furthermore, as Jentleson et al.[3] argue, two key sets of factors for successful deterrence are important being (i) a defending state strategy that firstly balances credible coercion and deft diplomacy consistent with the three criteria of proportionality, reciprocity and coercive credibility, and secondly minimises international and domestic constraints; and (ii) the extent of an attacking state's vulnerability as shaped by its domestic political and economic conditions. In broad terms, a state wishing to implement a strategy of deterrence is most likely to succeed if the costs of non-compliance it can impose on, and the benefits of compliance it can offer to, another state are greater than the benefits of noncompliance and the costs of compliance.

Deterrence theory holds that nuclear weapons are intended to deter other states from attacking with their nuclear weapons, through the promise of retaliation and possibly mutually assured destruction (MAD). Nuclear deterrence can also be applied to an attack by conventional forces; for example, the doctrine of massive retaliation threatened to launch US nuclear weapons in response to Soviet attacks.

In order for a nuclear deterrent to be successful, a country must preserve its ability to retaliate either by responding before its own weapons are destroyed or by ensuring a second strike capability. A nuclear deterrent is sometimes composed of a nuclear triad, as in the case of the nuclear weapons owned by the United States, Russia and the People's Republic of China. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom and France, have only sea-based and air-based nuclear weapons.


Jentleson et al.[3] provide further detail in relation to these factors. Firstly, proportionality refers to the relationship between the defending state's scope and nature of the objectives being pursued, and the instruments available for use to pursue this. The more the defending state demands of another state, the higher that state's costs of compliance and the greater need for the defending state’s strategy to increase the costs of noncompliance and the benefits of compliance. This is a challenge, as deterrence is, by definition, a strategy of limited means. George (1991) [4] goes on to explain that deterrence may, but is not required to, go beyond threats to the actual use of military force; but if force is actually used, it must be limited and fall short of full scale use or war otherwise it fails. The main source of disproportionality is an objective that goes beyond policy change to regime change. This has been seen in the cases of Libya, Iraq and North Korea where defending states have sought to change the leadership of a state in addition to policy changes relating primarily to their nuclear weapons programs.


Secondly, Jentleson et al.[3] outline that reciprocity involves an explicit understanding of linkage between the defending state's carrots and the attacking state's concessions. The balance lies neither in offering too little too late or for too much in return, not offering too much too soon or for too little return.

Coercive Credibility

Finally, coercive credibility requires that, in addition to calculations about costs and benefits of cooperation, the defending state convincingly conveys to the attacking state that non-cooperation has consequences. Threats, uses of force, and other coercive instruments (such as economic sanctions) must be sufficiently credible in order to raise the attacking state's perceived costs of noncompliance. A defending state having a superior military capability or economic strength in itself is not enough to ensure credibility. Indeed, all three elements of a balanced deterrence strategy are more likely to be achieved if other major international actors (for example the United Nations or NATO) are supportive and if opposition within the defending state's domestic politics is limited.

The other important consideration outlined by Jentleson et al.[3] that must taken into consideration is the domestic political and economic conditions within the attacking state affecting its vulnerability to deterrence policies, and the attacking state's ability to compensate unfavourable power balances. The first factor is whether internal political support and regime security are better served by defiance, or if there are domestic political gains to be made from improving relations with the defending state. The second factor is an economic calculation of the costs that military force, sanctions, and other coercive instruments can be imposed, and the benefits that trade and other economic incentives may carry. This in part is a function of the strength and flexibility of the attacking state's domestic economy and its capacity to absorb or counter the costs being imposed. The third factor is the role of elites and other key domestic political figures within the attacking state. To the extent these actors' interests are threatened with the defending state's demands, they will act to prevent or block the defending state's demands.

Rational Deterrence Theory

The predominant approach to theorizing about deterrence has entailed the use of rational choice and game-theoretic models of decision making (see Game Theory). Deterrence theorists have consistently argued that deterrence success is more likely if a defending state's deterrent threat is credible to an attacking state. Huth[2] outlines that a threat is considered credible if the defending state possesses both the military capabilities to inflict substantial costs on an attacking state in an armed conflict, and if the attacking state believes that the defending state is resolved to use its available military forces. Huth[2] goes on to explain the four key factors for consideration under rational deterrence theory being (i) the military balance; (ii) signaling and bargaining power; (iii) reputations for resolve; and (iv) interests at stake.

The Military Balance

Deterrence is often directed against state leaders who have specific territorial goals that they seek to attain either by seizing disputed territory in a limited military attack or by occupying disputed territory after the decisive defeat of the adversary's armed forces. In either case, the strategic orientation of potential attacking states is generally short term and driven by concerns about military cost and effectiveness. For successful deterrence, defending states need the military capacity to respond quickly and in strength to a range of contingencies. Where deterrence often fails is when either a defending state or an attacking state under or overestimate the others' ability to undertake a particular course of action.

Signaling and Bargaining Power

The central problem for a state that seeks to communicate a credible deterrent threat through diplomatic or military actions is that all defending states have an incentive to act as if they are determined to resist an attack, in the hope that the attacking state will back away from military conflict with a seemingly resolved adversary. If all defending states have such incentives, then potential attacking states may discount statements made by defending states along with any movement of military forces as merely bluffs. In this regards, rational deterrence theorists have argued that costly signals are required to communicate the credibility of a defending state's resolve. Costly signals are those actions and statements that clearly increase the risk of a military conflict and also increase the costs of backing down from a deterrent threat. States that are bluffing will be unwilling to cross a certain threshold of threat and military action for fear of committing themselves to an armed conflict.

Reputations for Resolve

There are three different arguments that have been developed in relation to the role of reputations in influencing deterrence outcomes. The first argument focuses on a defending states's past behaviour in international disputes and crises, which creates strong beliefs in a potential attacking state about the defending state's expected behaviour in future conflicts. The credibilities of a defending state's policies are arguably linked over time, and reputations for resolve have a powerful causal impact on an attacking state's decision whether to challenge either general or immediate deterrence. The second approach argues that reputations have a limited impact on deterrence outcomes because the credibility of deterrence is heavily determined by the specific configuration of military capabilities, interests at stake, and political constraints faced by a defending state in a given situation of attempted deterrence. The argument of this school of thought is that potential attacking states are not likely to draw strong inferences about a defending states resolve from prior conflicts because potential attacking states do not believe that a defending state's past behaviour is a reliable predictor of future behaviour. The third approach is a middle ground between the first two approaches. It argues that potential attacking states are likely to draw reputational inferences about resolve from the past behaviour of defending states only under certain conditions. The insight is the expectation that decision makers will use only certain types of information when drawing inferences about reputations, and an attacking state updates and revises its beliefs when the unanticipated behaviour of a defending state cannot be explained by case-specific variables.

Interests at Stake

Although costly signaling and bargaining power are more well established arguments in rational deterrence theory, the interests of defending states are not as well known, and attacking states may look beyond the short term bargaining tactics of a defending state and seek to determine what interests are at stake for the defending state that would justify the risks of a military conflict. The argument here is that defending states that have greater interests at stake in a dispute will be more resolved to use force and be more willing to endure military losses in order to secure those interests. Even less well established arguments are the specific interests that are more salient to state leaders such as military interests versus economic interests.

Furthermore, Huth[2] argues that both supporters and critics of rational deterrence theory agree that an unfavourable assessment of the domestic and international status quo by state leaders can undermine or severely test the success of deterrence. In a rational choice approach, if the expected utility of not using force is reduced by a declining status quo position, then deterrence failure is more likely, since the alternative option of using force becomes relatively more attractive.

Nuclear Power and Deterrence

Schelling[1] is prescriptive in outlining the impact of the development of nuclear power in the analysis of military power and deterrence. For the first time in history, man has the power to eliminate his species from earth, and have developed weapons against which there is no conceivable defense.The key difference in the development of nuclear weapons however is not the level of damage they can cause, but the speed with which it can be done. This allows a state to inflict extreme damage to an opposing state without first achieving victory. This element is a key contributor to the increased prominence of deterrence theory in the post Cold War period. Extreme pain and damage through nuclear weapons are now the primary instruments of coercive warfare which can be applied to intimidate or deter another state. These instruments allow deterrence policies to become increasingly powerful to the extent that the threat of use of nuclear power by a state is credible.

United State's Policy of Deterrence

United States policy of deterrence during the Cold War underwent significant variations. The early stages of the Cold War were generally characterized by ideology of containment, an aggressive stance on behalf of the United States especially regarding developing nations under their sphere of influence. This period was characterized by numerous proxy wars throughout most of the globe, particularly Africa, Asia, Central America, and South America. A notable such conflict was the Korean War. In contrast to general opinion, George F. Kennan, who is taken to be the founder of this ideology in the famous Long Telegram, asserted that his ideas had been misinterpreted and that he never advocated military intervention, merely economic support.

With the US pullout in Vietnam, the normalization of US relations with China, and the Sino-Soviet Split, the policy of Containment was abandoned and a new policy of détente was established, whereby peaceful coexistence was sought between the United States and the Soviet Union. Although all factors listed above contributed to this shift, the most important factor was probably the rough parity achieved in stockpiling nuclear weapons with the clear capability of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Therefore, the period of détente was characterized by a general reduction in the tension between the Soviet Union and the United States and a thawing of the Cold War, lasting from the late 1960s until the start of the 1980s. The doctrine of mutual nuclear deterrence characterized relations between the United States and the Soviet Union during this period, and present relations with Russia.

A third shift occurred with President Ronald Reagan's arms build-up during the 1980s. Reagan attempted to justify this policy in part due to concerns of growing Soviet influence in Latin America and the new republic of Iran, established after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Similar to the old policy of containment, the United States funded several proxy wars, including support for Saddam Hussein of Iraq during the Iran–Iraq War, support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan, who were fighting for independence from the Soviet Union, and several anti-communist movements in Latin America such as the overthrow of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The funding of the Contras in Nicaragua led to the Iran-Contra Affair, while overt support led to a ruling from the International Court of Justice against the United States in Nicaragua v. United States.

While the army was dealing with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the spread of nuclear technology to other nations beyond the United States and Russia, the concept of deterrence took on a broader multinational dimension. The US policy on post–Cold War deterrence was outlined in 1995 in a document called "Essentials of Post–Cold War Deterrence".[5] This document explains that while relations with Russia continue to follow the traditional characteristics of Mutual Nuclear Deterrence, due to both nations continuing MAD, US policy of deterrence towards nations with minor nuclear capabilities should ensure through threats of immense retaliation (or even preemptive action) that they do not threaten the United States, its interests, or allies. The document explains that such threats must also be used to ensure that nations without nuclear technology refrain from developing nuclear weapons and that a universal ban precludes any nation from maintaining chemical or biological weapons. The current tensions with Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs are due in part to the continuation of this policy of deterrence.

Criticism of Deterrence Theory

Deterrence theory is criticized for its assumptions about opponent rationales: first, it is argued that suicidal or psychotic opponents may not be deterred by either forms of deterrence.[6] Second, if Country "X" were to launch nuclear weapons at Country "Y", managing to destroy many nuclear launch silos in a preemptive strike, Country "Y" would be rendered defenseless, thus finding a loophole in the theory. Third, diplomatic misunderstandings and/or opposing political ideologies may lead to escalating mutual perceptions of threat, and a subsequent arms race which elevates the risk of actual war (this scenario is illustrated in the movies WarGames and Dr. Strangelove). An arms race is inefficient in its optimal output; all countries involved expend resources on armaments which would not have been expended if the others had not expended resources. This is a form of positive feedback.

Finally, a military build-up could increase a country's risks of budget deficits, restrictions on civil liberties, the creation of a military-industrial complex, and other such potentially-undesirable measures. See Garrison State.

Psychology and Deterrence

A new form of criticism emerged in the late 1980s with detailed analyses of the actions of individual leaders and groups of leaders in crisis situations (historical and theoretical).

A number of new or nuanced criticisms of "traditional" deterrence theory emerged. One was that deterrence theory assumed that both sides had common rational peaceful goals. In some real-life situations, such as the Yom Kippur War, leaders felt that internal or external political considerations forced a conflict. One of the essays in,[7] regarding the internal military and political discussions within the Egyptian high command in 1973, indicates that senior civilian leaders (including Anwar Sadat) believed that they had to fight a war in order to have enough internal political support to negotiate for peace.

In another miscalculation, Israel rationalized that the Israeli military dominance would deter any attack, and believed that no rational Syrian or Egyptian leader would attempt such an attack. Sadat felt unable to avoid a war, and Syria's leadership misjudged the military situation and believed they could be victorious. Israel assumed rational and well-informed opponents with clear objectives, and its deterrence failed.

Another observation is that crisis situations can reach a point that formerly stabilizing actions (such as keeping military units at bases, and low alert levels) can be seen as a sign of weakness, and that perceived weakness can then induce an opponent to attack during the perceived time of advantage. Thus, an inversion point exists, after which some formerly stabilizing actions become destabilizing, and some formerly destabilizing actions become stabilizing.

Finally, studies of the specific group psychology of several leaders and leader groups, including the Israeli and Arab leaders in 1973 and the Kennedy Administration during the Bay of Pigs Invasion and Cuban Missile Crisis, indicated that in many cases executive groups use poor decision-making techniques and improperly assess available information. These errors can preclude truly rational end-behavior in deterrence situations.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Schelling, T. C. (1966), The Diplomacy of Violence, New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 1-34 
  2. ^ a b c d e Huth, P. K. (1999), "Deterrence and International Conflict: Empirical Findings and Theoretical Debate", Annual Review of Political Science 2: pp. 25-48 
  3. ^ a b c d Jentleson, B.A.; Whytock, C.A. (2005), "Who Won Libya", International Security 30, Number 3, Winter 2005/06: pp. 47-86 
  4. ^ George, A (1991), "The General Theory and Logic of Coercive Diplomacy", Forceful Persuasion: Coercive Diplomacy as an Alternative to War (Washington, D.C: United States Institute of Peace Press): pp. 3-14 
  5. ^ "The Nautilus Institute Nuclear Strategy Project: US FOIA Documents". [dead link]
  6. ^ Towle, Philip (2000). "Cold War". In Charles Townshend. The Oxford History of Modern War. New York, USA: Oxford University Press. p. 164. ISBN 0–19–285373–2. 
  7. ^ Robert Jervis, ed. (April 1, 1989), Psychology and Deterrence (Reprint ed.), The Johns Hopkins University Press, ISBN 0-8018-3842-8 

Further reading

  • Freedman, Lawrence. 2004. Deterrence. New York: Polity Press.
  • Jervis, Robert, Richard N. Lebow and Janice G. Stein. 1985. The Psychology of Deterrence. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 270 pp.
  • Morgan, Patrick. 2003. Deterrence Now. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Paul, T.V., Patrick Morgan, and James Wirtz, Eds.. 2009. Complex Deterrence: Strategy in the Global Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Waltz, Kenneth N. Nuclear Myths and Political Realities. The American Political Science Review. Vol. 84, No. 3 (Sep, 1990), pp. 731–745.

External links

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