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This article refers to deterrent theories of punishment. For the legal theory of justice, see Deterrence (legal).

Deterrence theory is a military strategy developed during the Cold War. It is especially relevant with regard to the use of nuclear weapons, and figures prominently in current United States foreign policy regarding the development of nuclear technology in North Korea and Iran.[1]

The term is also used more casually to suspect a party in any field of potential conflict of being prepared to inflict unacceptable damage on an aggressor, and making sure the potential aggressor is aware of the risk so that they may refrain from aggression. Establishing a credible and known deterrence is at the opposite end of the spectrum from a policy of appeasement.



Deterrence is a strategy by which governments threaten an immense retaliation if attacked, such that aggressors are deterred if they do not wish to suffer great damage as a result of an aggressive action. Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), conventional weapons strength, economic sanctions, or any combination of these can be used as deterrents. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is a form of this strategy, which came to prominence during the Cold War when it was used by the US to characterize relations between the United States and Soviet Union. Both nations were prepared to fight a full scale nuclear and conventional war, but were not willing to risk the carnage of a full scale nuclear war.[2]

Deterrence by denial is a strategy whereby a government builds up or maintains defense and intelligence systems with the purported aim of neutralizing or mitigating attacks. Aggressors are deterred if they choose not to act, perceiving the cost of their action to be too high in relation to its likelihood of success.


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 Mutually 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 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. The United States refused to obey this warning by vetoing two security council resolutions and refusing to pay the fine of 15 billion.

While the army was dealing with the break up 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".[3] This document explains that while relations with Russia continue to follow the traditional characteristics of Mutual Nuclear Deterrence, due to both nations continuing Mutually Assured Destruction, 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.


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. Second, 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 increases 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,[4] 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 and often do preclude truly rational end-behavior in deterrence situations.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Yost, D. 2007. "Analysing International Nuclear Order." International Affairs 83:3, 549=574
  3. ^ The Nautilus Institute Nuclear Strategy Project: US FOIA Documents
  4. ^ Psychology and Deterrence, Ed. Robert Jervis, ISBN 0-8018-3842-8, The Johns Hopkins University Press; Reprint edition (April 1, 1989)

Further reading

  • Morgan, Patrick. 2003. Deterrence Now. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Freedman, Lawrence. 2004. Deterrence. New York: Polity 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.
  • Jervis, Robert, Richard N. Lebow and Janice G. Stein. 1985. The Psychology of Deterrence. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. 270 pp.

External links


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