Deterrence by Denial: Chapter 2

A year ago, we published Deterrence by Denial, a highly acclaimed collection of essays that, according to Professor Jeffrey W. Knopf, “provides a long overdue exploration of deterrence by denial, which has always received less attention than deterrence by punishment.” The book, which assembles what Sir Lawrence Freedman calls a “stellar collection of contributors,” is and will continue to be a critical resource for students and scholars alike. To celebrate the anniversary of its publication, we’re publishing excerpts from each chapter. This is an excerpt from Chapter 2: “Dawn of a New Deterrenceby Professor Alex Wilner.

Deterrence skepticism runs deep: The fall of the Berlin Wall, and later, the felling of the Twin Towers in New York City, forced some scholars and decision-makers to question its continued utility. To some, deterrence theory’s core concepts were deemed obsolete and tired, altogether unable to address emerging contemporary security challenges. Other guiding principles, like preemption, were championed in its stead. But deterrence theory is not easily superseded or altogether jettisoned. Instead, its tenets can be re-assessed, in some cases broadened, and expanded to reflect global developments and evolving insecurities. If Cold War deterrence theories were a reflection of the particularities of the Cold War era, then contemporary deterrence theories should seek to take into account the shifting and evolving security landscape in which the theory evolves. And as Malcolm Chalmers further reminds us, deterrence “should be seen…as one of several tools for the prevention [and] … management of war,” sitting alongside other relevant concepts, like compellence, influence, coercion, and assurance, as Morgan, Wirtz, Sawyer, and others illustrate in this volume. The effectiveness of some specific deterrence concepts and strategies (like mutual assured destruction) may ebb and flow, but the paradigm itself, and deterrence theory’s core objective of managing conflict writ large, are not so easily discarded.

In some respects, the international security parameters within which deterrence theory first emerged have given way to something new, more fluid, and complex. It may be cliché to argue that the world keeps on changing, but it also happens to be true. Deterrence theory thus must adapt and respond in kind. Guided by Cold War parameters, traditional deterrence theory largely focused on state and government actors, interstate conflict and war, and high-octane threats of punishment, like nuclear escalation and retaliation. Today’s parameters, conversely, provide a wider array of concerns and challenges; whereas states are still in the picture, a variety of violent substate and non-state challengers have crowded the frame. Conflict within states (civil war, insurgency, rebellion) and between and among disparate actors (terrorism, cyberwar, piracy) have gained in prevalence vis-à-vis conflict between states. And whereas nuclear proliferation and the threat of nuclear warfare still loom large—especially among great nations and their rising competitors—conventional conflict demands ever more attention. Under these conditions, repeated and ongoing serial engagements and iterated confrontations between states and non-state adversaries (including militants) are possible and perhaps even likely. The conflict with the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and their supporters, for instance, has been dubbed the Long War, a conflict with no clear or certain end. Rather than assume that deterrence theory is ill-equipped to deal with the threat of continual, low-intensity conflict, one should explore how these campaigns of violence might be met with campaigns of deterrence.”

Alex Wiler

Deterrence by Denial: Theory and Practice edited by Alex Wilner and Andreas Wegner is available in hardcover. It is also available in different ebook formats, which start at $19.99 to purchase and $9.99 to rent. Professors who wish to use this book along with others in the Rapid Communications in Conflict and Security Series for their classes should use the Cambria Book Cloud, which allows for the bundling of ebooks at only $9.99 per title for each student.