Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Art of Deterrence

Brian Auten


July 16, 2010
by Brian Auten

(Editor: This is the second in a dialogue series of four contributions on the nuclear posture recently adopted by the Obama administration.)

In the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the third post-Cold War study aimed at providing Executive-level guidance on nuclear weapons policy, I count nearly twenty references to the US nuclear arsenal as the “nuclear deterrent.” This usage could give the impression that deterrence inheres in weapons or arsenals. Technically speaking, there is no such thing as “the deterrent”—nuclear or otherwise. We should perhaps talk less of “the nuclear deterrent” and more generally about deterrence itself.

At its core, deterrence is the art of keeping an opponent from doing something that you do not wish them to do. It is the result of an opponent’s calculation—a calculation rarely, if ever, based solely on a weapon’s characteristics or the size of an enemy’s arsenal. There is no one-size-fits-all deterrence. It has to be tailored to an opponent’s political, social, psychological, technological, cultural and religious context. The credibility of a deterrence threat is, in the end, context-specific and not something you decide. An opponent decides to be deterred, and adjusts that decision over time.

One of the main points of the Nuclear Posture Review is that older deterrence models no longer operate in a world where non-state terrorist actors have become the main threat to stability. The argument:  without a state, a capital, or main population center that can be threatened with retaliatory destruction in the event of a nuclear detonation, there is very little that states can do deterrence-wise (particularly with nuclear weapons) against apocalyptically-minded terrorist opponents. Without a return address to hold at risk—or with an address co-located with noncombatants in a failed state with little control over its own territory—threats centered on punishment have little deterrent value and may be immoral. Therefore, the argument goes, one should focus efforts on limiting terrorist access to nuclear materials, and the best way of doing so in the long run is through abolition—ensuring no one has access to them.

A strong argument, but perhaps overly focused on the non-state enemy we face today rather than the possible nuclear-armed great power opponent or coalition we could (theoretically) face 20, 30 or 50 years from now. International orders shift dramatically and quickly—the transition from the 1925 “Spirit of Locarno” to the “Dark Valley” of the mid-1930s took a mere decade. Future deterrence may hinge on our ability to reconstitute a nuclear arsenal rapidly.

With non-state terrorist actors, it is also important to note that one deters not just by threatening (nuclear) punishment after the fact, but also by denying the opponent the chance to achieve his objectives in the first place. An opponent may be deterred if he believes there is little chance of success, or if the costs involved in obtaining his goals are too exorbitant. Indeed, a 2008 National Institute of Public Policy study examined ten cases involving conflicts between states and non-state actors, and concluded that, in most situations, deterrence of non-state actors did not arise from threatened punishment but was often the (unexpected) result of denial methods like adjustments in counterterrorism techniques and targeted military operations. Terrorists are by no means deterrence-proof, but because political goals, host states, and patrons differ from group to group, the tailoring of one’s threats and inducements for the purpose of deterrence is bound to be a challenging but not impossible endeavor.

Brian Auten is an intelligence analyst in the US Government. His most recent publication is Carter’s Conversion: The Hardening of American Defense Policy (University of Missouri Press, 2008). (All non-attributed views, opinions and conclusions in the review are those of the author and not the US government or any entity within the US intelligence community.)

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