Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century

Deterrence in the twenty-first century - Air University Press


Much of the writing of early deterrence theorists such as

Bernard Brodie, Thomas Schelling, Glenn Snyder, and others

accepted the tenets of Rational Choice Theory and applied it to

Soviet/American interaction during the Cold War. Assured destruction

was an approach that applied perfect rationality to both

the United States and the Soviet Union with the expectation that

each state was a unified actor making rational decisions.

In Arms and Influence, Thomas Schelling explains the psychological

nature of deterrence:

It is a tradition in military planning to attend to an enemy’s capabilities, not

his intentions. But deterrence is about intentions—not just estimating enemy

intentions but influencing them. The hardest part is communicating our

own intentions. War at best is ugly, costly, and dangerous, and at worst

disastrous. Nations have been known to bluff; they have also been known to

make threats sincerely and change their minds when the chips were down.

Many territories are just not worth a war, especially a war that can get out

of hand. A persuasive threat of war may deter an aggressor; the problem is

to make it persuasive, to keep it from sounding like a bluff (p. 35).

With the inherent uncertainty of international politics, states

are always liable to make suboptimal decisions. Thus, later

rational-choice thinkers developed the concept of bounded

rationality, which accounts for incomplete information, stress,

and other variables that can lead actors to take actions that do

not result in desired outcomes.

The crux of successful deterrence lies in understanding what

each actor values, what each is willing to risk, and in effectively

communicating one’s position. Not only is deterrence about

psychology, it is about altering an adversary’s psychology.


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