Deterrence by Denial: Chapter 3

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 3: “The Social Psychology of Denialby Professors Janice Gross Stein and Ron Levi.

“Every time passengers check in at an international airport almost anywhere in the world today, they directly experience a strategy of deterrence by denial. The removal of electronics from personal luggage, the shoes and belts in the plastic bins, the scanners and the body searchers are all designed to convince would-be attackers that their chances of successfully hijacking an aircraft are low. Denial strategies are different from strategies that seek to deter by punishment, which threaten that if a would-be attacker strikes, the costs that will be inflicted in reaction will far outweigh the benefits.

Strategies of deterrence by punishment are common in the vocabulary of security: if you do what I do not want you to do, then I will punish you so that the costs exceed any benefits that you anticipate from your action. Deterrence by punishment is conditional: they are always “if … then … ” statements. Strategies of denial work differently; they are unconditional and always in place. Airport security does not diminish perceptibly even when there is no evidence of an imminent attack. On the contrary, deterrence by denial works because a would-be attacker always estimates the probability of failure as low. The benefits of hijacking or exploding a passenger jet are not less now than they were a decade ago; rather, the probability of failure is far higher because of ubiquitous and thorough inspections. The manipulation of estimates of probability is doing most of the theoretical work in deterrence by denial.

In an era of transnational terrorism and frequent cyberattacks against civilian as well as military infrastructure, deterrence by denial has become newly prominent. The underlying theoretical logic of deterrence by denial is the same if the target is a state or a non-state actor, but its application differs. We understand terrorism as a strategy of political theater, inflicting punishment on innocent civilians, on bystanders who are not directly involved in a conflict, to delegitimize leaders or governments by alienating and frightening their populations. It can best be understood as a process over time, as political strategy in asymmetrical conflict. We give special emphasis to delegitimation—and thereby destabilization—as a goal of transnational militants and shadowy hackers who engage in acts of terror against states. The struggle for legitimacy, we contend, becomes one of the critical theaters of contestation.

Janice Gross Stein and Ron Levi

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.