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Instead of fighting over whether deterrence works, let's ask when it might work, under what conditions, for how long, and when it might have the opposite effect of provoking an attack. Does deterrence work - compared to what? Are there better ways?

There is a heated debate over whether nuclear deterrence works. The stakes are too high to get this wrong. This should not be a matter of opinion, emotion, beliefs, or politics but impartial social science and research.


Deterrence has not only been the dominant theory for nuclear policy but the only theory that has captured the political imagination for decades. We even call them "nuclear deterrents" not weapons.

Deterrence is designed to use threats of overwhelming violence to control a state's behavior. We believe we must be tough, strong and show resolve, to make the Other afraid. We dread weakness or "appeasement," fearing our own vulnerability. Giving up our "nuclear deterrent" feels like letting down our guard. Fear of giving up nukes is greater than of building more.

Deterrence has great appeal as the best way to prevent nuclear war. Based on deductive logic, it is impossible to prove deterrence is the reason for preventing aggression in any case. There may be other factors. Deterrence seems to work under some conditions and break down in others. It may humiliate and coerce actors into short-term submission only to blow up later like a political Columbine. We cannot prove whether it worked during the Cold War or whether it was "dumb luck" as Robert MacNamara claimed. It almost broke down several times.

To work, one has to have perfect knowledge of how the Other thinks and feels, and precisely what will deter them rather than provoke defiance or an impulsive reaction out of fear. With psychological ignorance of the Other's motives, intentions and attitudes, policy makers may misinterpret adversaries according to their own beliefs, which may bear no relationship to reality.

Even if we could claim that deterrence "worked" in a particular case 1 Deterrence does not address or correct underlying conflicts or improve relationships. 2 - It misses the chance to resolve conflicts, and spoils opportunities for exploring mutual interests and creative solutions, 3 It may seem to work in the short-term, but produce humiliation, defiance, instability, increase the popularity of hardliners, harm moderates and motivate asymmetric responses, and 4 Another approach might have worked better and improved relations.

Furthermore deterrence works against disarmament. The mindless mantra, "As long as nuclear weapons exist, we will maintain a safe, reliable deterrent" uses circular logic. As long as we "maintain a safe, reliable "deterrent'" others will feel the need to have their own "deterrent" against us. There is no endgame.

If we believe deterrence is the only strategy to suppress an enemy's aggression, the thought of giving it up is frightening. We might cling to its illusory promise of security.


In "Deterrence Reconsidered: The Challenge of Research," Richard Ned Lebow notes that states don't always act according to theory. They may act either more cautiously or more risky than predicted. Critics of deterrence observe that ".. it can provoke the very behavior it seeks to prevent."

Instead of fighting over whether deterrence works, let's ask when it might work, under what conditions, for how long, and when it might have the opposite effect of provoking an attack. Does deterrence work - compared to what? Are there better ways?


Deterrence leads to policies that increase tension, fear and insecurity in the Other. In "Preventing Armageddon," Morton Deutsch describes how "If one party in a conflict attempts to increase its security without regard for the security of the other party, the attempt readily becomes self-defeating, a situation that is potentially catastrophic when the stakes involve nuclear war. If military inferiority is dangerous, so is superiority. It is dangerous for either side in a conflict to feel tempted or frightened into action, or to have grounds to believe that its antagonist might be so tempted or frightened. According to this analysis, our security and that of an adversary can only be obtained through our mutual security."

Pressure creates conditions where deterrence can break down and trigger dynamics that provoke what Deutsch calls a "malignant spiral of hostile interaction." In "Deterrence, the Spiral Model, and Intentions of the Adversary," Robert Jervis says, "Spiral and deterrence theories contradict each other at every point" Each claiming to be true, give opposite answers on strategy. "..deterrers worry that aggressors will underestimate .. their resolve, " "while the spiral theorists believe that each side will overestimate the hostility of the other." Advocates of each theory fail to describe the conditions under which their favored approach does not apply.


Jervis observes deterrence works best when the Other sees its costs for standing firm as too high and costs of retreating as low, if their central values, issues, and commitments are not involved, if goals are seen as limited, deriving from a desire for security, if means and goals are proper for equal actors, and if there is no humiliation, gratuitous punishment, illegitimate demands for something of greater value to the Other, and if there is no fear that a retreat will lead to further demands. Ralph K.White says deterrence works best when accompanied by drastic tension reduction.

At base are the assumptions about the adversary's "values, strength and resolve." When one side acts overly hostile, and demands are seen as illegitimate, giving in will feel intolerable. Psychiatrist Vamik Volkan, said that some would rather die physically than psychologically. Intolerable pressures may cause people choose defiance and death than back down as in "Give me liberty or give me death" and "Better Dead than Red"?

Deutsch describes characteristics of unintended escalation into a malignant spiral process. A win-or-lose orientation intensifies misperceptions, misjudgments, cognitive rigidity, stereotypes, misinformation, errors, suspiciousness, and sensitivity to difference and threats. Zero sum thinking promotes a belief in the need to use superior force or to outwit the Other. People are more dangerous when afraid and insecure. Acting out of fear, parties behave in ways act in ways that justify the Other's fears provoking a mutual process of "self-fulfilling paranoia."

Drawn into unwitting commitments, parties create vicious escalating spirals. A gamesmanship orientation shifts from real issues to "an abstract conflict over images of power." Each becomes locked into their positions, acting in ways that perpetuate the conflict. A blaming attitude makes it impossible to explore mediation, problem solving, winwin strategies, common interests, and mutually desirable policies and programs.

A country under threat and pressures feels backed into a corner and fears being attacked. With few options, they wish to discourage an expected attack say sending up a missile to signal "Please don't attack us because if you do we can retaliate." Others misinterpret and believe they are signaling an attack so they escalate their rhetoric and pressure.

SOUND POLICY Jervis advises that we shouldn't base policy on how we think the Other would respond if our assumptions are correct, but explore how they might respond if our assumptions and perceptions about their intentions and perceptions of us are not what we think.

If we assume crippling sanctions may cause another to back down they may have the opposite effect and provoke defiance, especially if demands are perceived as illegitimate, unfair, and unequal. In our pursuit of security, we may provoke humiliation, intimidation, insecurity, moral outrage all of which can provoke violence.

Jervis describes when states cooperate everybody wins, and when they conflict everybody loses. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, we did not avert catastrophe by deterrence but by quiet negotiations, creatively and intelligently reducing tension and offering a face-saving way out for both parties, and resisting pressures for military escalation. However, the underlying conflict was not addressed, so the Cold War and arms racearms race continued for decades. It seems best to lead with tension-reducing measures, positive inducements, security assurances, and face-saving ways out, quietly keeping knowledge of potential negative consequences in the background.

Jervis cautions us not to be concerned only about the "fog of battle" but also the "fog of foreign policy making."

We have explored deterrence and spiral theory here. There are two better and deeper strategies to be described in part 2 Osgood's GRIT Graduated Reciprocated Initiatives in Tension Reduction and mediation, conflict resolution and conflict transformation which creatively consider basic human needs and legitimate goals and design outside the box approaches capable of producing enduring security.

Originally posted May, 2010

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