Deterrence by Denial: Chapter 5

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 5: “Deterrence as Strategyby Professor James J. Wirtz.

The US government embraces deterrence as the cornerstone of its national security strategy. The reason why deterrence is its preferred strategy is also clear. US politicians and citizens alike would rather deter the outbreak of war or the occurrence some unwanted fait accompli, rather than engage in conflict to deny an adversary its objectives. The fact that Washington possesses a superior military capability vis-à-vis likely opponents only bolsters this strategic preference. Possession of a global surveillance and precision-strike complex, a wide range of far-reaching conventional power projection capabilities, allied partners and bases, and a robust nuclear capability provides the United States with a wide array of options to make good on deterrent or compellent threats. Given this vast and highly effective military capability, the use of threats to deter or coerce likely opponents readily suggests itself as a cost-effective way to achieve US national security objectives. Americans are the world’s leading believers in, and practitioners of, deterrence. They are also more willing to adopt compellence as a strategy than they readily admit.

Since the end of the Cold War, however, US deterrent and coercive threats have yielded a limited record of success. Iraq invaded Kuwait, despite the obvious risk of US retaliation, and then failed to yield to coercive pressure to abandon its ill-gotten gains. Over a decade later, the Ba’athist regime was destroyed by a US invasion, but not before Saddam Hussein failed to succumb to US coercion by complying with a list of demands to come clean about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs. It also appears that coercive threats have done little to slow the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea. The United States was attacked by al Qaeda on September 11, 2001, which is an act that calls into question the basic tenants of deterrence itself. Observers might counter that the failure of deterrence or coercion surrounding these events was idiosyncratic or tied to a failure to make threats clear to the opponent. Yet, it hard to believe that those who drove an airplane into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the US military, actually expected no response on the part of the US government to such a direct affront. The possibility exists that something is amiss in US deterrent strategy.

To identify this flaw in the concepts and practice of US deterrence strategy, the chapter first provides a typology of defense strategies and characterizes the dominant conception of defense by deterrence incorporated into US National Security Strategy. It then describes what is meant by conceiving of deterrence as a “strategy” and why opponents believe they can defeat this strategy without suffering consequences outlined by extant deterrent threats. It then goes on to reconceptualize the strategy of deterrence by denial to overcome the flaws in existing deterrence strategies that create a situation that can be exploited by potential opponents. The argument rests not so much on a critique of deterrence theory but on the notion that a flawed strategy for the use of deterrence reduces the credibility of deterrent threats. In other words, opponents believe that they can defeat US strategy, which makes execution of deterrent threats irrelevant to ongoing events.

James J. Wirtz

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.

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