Deterrence is a peculiar concept. Its effectiveness is measured by actions that don’t take place. Actions that are often called deterrence may have nothing to do with the actions that don’t take place.
It’s hackneyed to start with a definition, but this is a confused enough subject that let’s do it. Here’s what Google gives me, from Oxford Languages:
de·ter·rence /dəˈtərəns/ noun the action of discouraging an action or event through instilling doubt or fear of the consequences. “nuclear missiles remain the main deterrence against possible aggression”
To keep it simple, let’s assume two actors. Actor One may be contemplating an action that Actor Two finds undesirable. So Actor Two takes an action to instill doubt or fear of the consequences in Actor One’s mind.
Eena Ruffini of CBS News tried a gotcha on President Joe Biden in his press conference at NATO. “Deterrence didn’t work,” she declared. This is an alternative formulation for “Putin attacked Ukraine for no reason recognized in international law.” The advantage for a reporter is that it puts responsibility on Biden and the United States. Biden was not put on the back foot, however. He has been studying the political side of nuclear weapons since before Ruffini was born.
Ruffini’s question was the last, and Biden had noted he was running out of time. His answer was necessarily short and missed a lot. Richard Nephew expanded on the sanctions side of Biden’s answer. I’ll expand on deterrence.
“Deterrence” is a word that is almost always used badly, including by the military. It’s a difficult word. It means to convince another not to attack by preparations for that attack. It refers to the mental state of one party, influenced by the actions of another. Its meaning has slid from that interaction to the influencing actions by themselves When a reporter says “Deterrence didn’t work,” she is talking about something intended to deter. She probably could not say what specific measures those are.
I have always been suspicious of arguments about nuclear deterrence. After the Soviet Union broke up, it seemed to me that those arguments needed to be redrawn, since they had been based on the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Nobody’s done that.
Back in the 1960s, Robert McNamara recognized that nuclear deterrence could easily deteriorate into a comparison of weapons. That’s what’s happened in the justifications for the lower-yield nuclear weapons introduced to nuclear submarines. That’s all the justification that’s been made. That’s not deterrence.
So I wrote a piece about that, and Foreign Policy published it. There’s another little piece that didn’t quite fit, that Inkstick Media published. All the talk about “restoring deterrence” vis-à-vis Iran is nonsense.
I have a short piece up at Inkstick Media. It’s short enough that I won’t quote it here, except to say that I have found the claims that the Trump administration killed Qassem Soleimani to “re-establish deterrence” annoying in multiple dimensions.
Besides, Inkstick is a new enterprise, trying to make this stuff more understandable, and I support that goal. If you like what I write here, you’ll probably like Inkstick. Go ahead, give them some clicks!
With the US withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, we will be hearing more about deterrence. That word is used far too broadly, muddying discussions of military strategy and focusing discussions of war and peace too narrowly.
As the Cold War progressed from open competition for bigger bombs in the 1950s, through the terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the realization that Ronald Reagan expressed so nicely, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” slowly formed, although seldom expressed openly by the governments of the United States or the Soviet Union. Nuclear war became more unthinkable, and communication and arms control measures were instituted to make it less likely.
That uneasy standoff continued through the fall of the Soviet Union. It is often attributed solely to both countries’ possession of enough nuclear weapons to destroy the other, that rough equality called deterrence. But there are many other reasons to avoid nuclear war, like developing a country’s economy and attending to other areas of instability. When those reasons are left out, discussions of strategy are distorted. Read More
Moreover, I find the elaborate scenarios that nuclear strategists dream up to justify new weapons to be both militarily and politically unrealistic. They tend to assume that complex military operations will go off without a hitch the very first time they are attempted (and in the crucible of a nuclear crisis), and they further assume that political leaders in the real world would be willing to order the slaughter of millions for something less than existential stakes. My main concern has been that some gullible politician would actually believe that one of these elaborate scenarios would actually work and might therefore be tempted to try it. Just as bad: An adversary might think the United States thought it could win such a war and might decide it had no choice but to try to hit it first.
I also find the obsession with matching capabilities at every rung of some hypothetical “escalation ladder” to be slightly absurd. Is it realistic to think that U.S. leaders defending vital interests against a possible Russian threat would be stymied because they didn’t have a capability that exactly mirrored whatever Russia had or was threatening to do? Would a top advisor really say to the president: “Oh dear, sir, Russia just threatened to attack with a nuclear weapon with a yield of 7.2 kilotons. We have lots of 5-kiloton bombs and lots of 11-kiloton bombs all ready to go, but if we use the little one, they’ll think we’re wimps, and if we use the big one, then the onus of escalation will be on us. I guess they’ve got us over the whing-whang, sir, and we’ll just have to do whatever Putin says. If only we had built more 7.2 kiloton bombs than they did!”
The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) mentions some variant of “deter” 279 times. Deterrence is supposedly what today’s nuclear arsenals are about. The idea is that we have enough nuclear weapons so that if an enemy attacked us, we could still destroy them. That standoff, established after the nearly world-ending Cuban Missile Crisis, seems to have worked. Or it’s possible that the reason for no nuclear war in the past 56 years is that nations recognize that destroying the world is in nobody’s interests. Read More
Michael Morell and Mike Rogers argue that the United States has failed to deter Russia from its attacks on our electoral system because those attacks continue. They rely on a model of deterrence that assumes that what Russia is doing is in some way equivalent to physical war. They feel that the Barack Obama administration and Congress did not administer heavy enough penalties. They want “policies that prevent adversaries from achieving their objectives while imposing significant costs on their regimes.” but do not say what those policies would be. Read More