Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century

Deterrence in the twenty-first century - Air University Press


A “credibility gap” can develop between capability and will.

Although the United States possesses unrivaled economic and

military might, decision makers often do not respond to deterrence

failures with sufficient punitive action to restore the status

quo and American credibility. This opens a gap between

economic and military capability and will. Thus, future adversaries

are not deterred because of previous American responses

to challenges. For example, Osama bin Laden stated in a post–

9/11 interview that weak American responses to previous

al-Qaeda attacks created an expectation that President Bush

would respond in a limited fashion to the 9/11 attacks as had

previous administrations.

Too great a degree of ambiguity in policy can send the wrong

signal. While ambiguity is a necessary element of a deterrence

strategy, communicating too ambiguous a policy can mislead

an adversary and, as history demonstrates, incorrectly suggest

that the United States will accept a change in the status quo

when it will not. Ambiguity has worked best when uncertainty

surrounds the severity of a response, not the possibility of a

response. The most widely used example of too great a degree

of ambiguity are the 25 July 1990 comments of US ambassador

to Iraq April Glaspie, who stated to Saddam Hussein that

the United States had “no opinion” on the conflict between Iraq

and Kuwait. This opened the door for the Iraqi dictator’s invasion

of his neighbor.

The strong often fail to deter the weak. One scholarly study

suggests that approximately 30 percent of conflicts are initiated

by the weak with an attack on the strong. Despite the

probability of defeat or annihilation, strong states frequently

fail to deter weaker adversaries because weaker states are

highly motivated (asymmetry of interests), misperceive the

probable response, and seek to take advantage of an acute military

vulnerability. Although risks often outweigh rewards,

weaker states frequently feel risks more acutely. The Japanese

attack on Pearl Harbor is the most familiar example of a weaker

state attacking a much stronger adversary despite an admittedly

low probability of winning a prolonged conflict. For the

Japanese, the risks of not attacking far outweighed the risks of

an American response. This was the result of clear misperception

of American will by the Japanese High Command.

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