Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century

Deterrence in the twenty-first century - Air University Press


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 achieving a change in an adversary’s behavior while

preserving the status quo. This requires an understanding of

the adversary’s motives, decision-making processes, and intentions.

While the Cold War structure may have evolved to give

strategists some degree of confidence that the principal adversaries

were deterred by capabilities, force structures, and the

network of alliances, the diversity of challenges today increases

the complexity of formulating deterrence strategies. In fact,

there seems to be a consensus that not all situations lend

themselves to deterrent postures. This is especially true when

examining nonstate actors.

Some analysts postulate that globalization has transformed

the security environment to an extent that makes unilateral

policies and actions by states impractical and possibly ineffective.

Analysts who adopt this perspective argue that the punitive

nature of deterrence creates a foundation of conflict that

precludes constructive conflict resolution mechanisms. Others

claim that the costs of deterrent systems and structures are

unsustainable, removing resources from the global economy

that could be better invested in more constructive ways. Still

others see the primary utility of deterrence remaining in the

nuclear arena, relegating the conversation to one of nuclear

arms control and warhead reduction.

The lack of focus and clarity that prevails among theorists

and practitioners, combined with the nuclear-focused Cold

War legacy, 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—and, ultimately in failed policies. Force

structures that rely on the Cold War legacy without the existential

threat represented 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

threats in the short term. Attempting to apply deterrence as a

template without understanding the specific social, cultural,

governmental, and military characteristics of the adversary


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