Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century

Deterrence in the twenty-first century - Air University Press


actually achieve their objective. This is where the notion of deterrence

in the twenty-first century begins to break down.

Theorists and practitioners agree that at its core, deterrence

is about convincing an adversary, or ally, that the costs of an

undesirable action are greater than the rewards, thus preventing

a challenge to the status quo. This requires an understanding

of the adversary’s motives, decision-making processes, and

objectives. While the Cold War structure may have evolved to

give strategists some degree of confidence that the principal

adversary was deterred by American capability, force structure,

and alliances, today’s diversity of challenges increases the complexity

of formulating deterrence strategies. In fact, not all adversaries

may be deterrable. This may be particularly true of

nonstate actors.

Some analysts postulate that globalization has fundamentally

transformed the security environment, making unilateral state

action impractical and ineffective. Those who adopt this perspective

argue that the threat-based nature of deterrence creates

a diplomatic and military environment that precludes constructive

conflict resolution. Others claim that the fiscal costs of

developing and maintaining the military platforms necessary to

sustain a credible deterrent are prohibitively expensive and ineffectively

consume limited resources that could be more efficiently

used to better humanity. Others see the primary utility

of deterrence as remaining focused on nuclear weapons and

their potential to prevent or cause major conflicts.

The lack of focus and clarity that prevails among theorists

and practitioners combined with the nuclear focus of the Cold

War has produced a situation in which there is no common

foundation for understanding what deterrence means and how

it applies to national security. The result is a lack of clarity and

rigor in policy making that could result in ineffective and inefficient

investments. Ultimately, this could lead to failed policies.

Force structures that rely on the Cold War legacy without the

existential threat posed by the Soviet Union have the potential

to be too expensive to maintain in the long term while also removing

capabilities that would be better employed against other

near-term threats. Attempting to apply deterrence as a template

without understanding the specific social, cultural, military,

and political characteristics of the adversary could be futile at

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