Understanding Deterrence



Deterrence is a concept in political science, specifically in the domain of strategic studies that upholds and maintains the equilibrium amongst the power heads of the world. This is often dubbed as a strategy by the political scientists whereas others still count it as a means to achieve certain ends. Where the dictionary definition explains this concept as a tangible action rather than a mere strategic theory, which entails accumulation of mass military potential to make the enemy reluctant in pursuing any set of actions, the strategic dissection of this concept reveals far more avenues than mere accumulation of vast military potential. This concept or strategy or set of actions that is deterrence is defined in a multitude of ways where all the interpretations are based on substantive evidence to support the same throughout the historical narratives.

According to my analysis of all the plausible interpretations of deterrence, I find deterrence to be a strategy or a set of strategies linked and closely interconnected with a catalytic set of actions and capabilities to persuade the targeted state to refrain from pursuing any action or strategy against the deterring state. This means that the deterring state needs to efficiently project certain capabilities and abilities towards the political elite or the grass root masses of the target state in order to keep the target state from administering any action or set of actions against the state initiating such measures. This can be narrowed down further for a more specified explanation through the understanding of what nuclear deterrence would connote under the given explanation.

According to the given understanding of what deterrence is, nuclear deterrence will be the projection of massive repercussions against the said actions of the target state. This is done through a variety of methods but all the methods, be it nuclear or conventional deterrence, is based upon the following aspects:

Projection of deterrence through credible means and hardware, Proper and adequate communication of the ability to use the said means in case of negative response by the target state, communication of the will to reaffirm the use of retaliative ability against the actions of the target state and the efficient and thorough display of the hardware used to project the deterrence capability by the deterring state.

Defining Deterrence

Persuasion of one’s opponent that the costs and/or risks of a given course of action he might take outweigh its benefits

Discouraging the enemy from taking military action by posing for him a prospect of cost and risk outweighing his prospective gain

….the effective communication of a self-enforced prediction that activity engaged in by another party will bring forth a response such that no gain from the said activity will occur, and that a net loss is more probable

…the absence of war between two countries or alliances. If they are not at war, then it is reasonable to conclude that each is currently being deterred from attacking the other

The Concept of Deterrence: Rethinking the Cold War

 To best understand how the concept of deterrence became an essential element of state defense and how the development of nuclear weapons and the subsequent security assurances both domestic and international became a vital issue in the strategic culture of states, we need to look at the historical perspectives of this phenomenon. The Second World War ended with the deployment of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which shook the world entirely by its magnitude of power and destruction. This unprecedented action had such an immense strategic and military impact that the world declared any conflict to be absolutely out of question.

The United States of America came out as the sole authority possessing such arsenal and the only country bluntly clear enough to use it for projection of their military might. This caused the US to manipulate the world affairs as the only nuclear power and the remaining countries accepted the fact and most of them endorsed it. However, the Soviets developed their nuclear arsenal and with a fancy display of their nuclear potential and the world entered a new dimension of interstate conflict termed ‘the Cold War’. The division of Europe was then initiated on terms of the given power poles namely the Allies under the United States of America and the Soviets under present day Russia. Then the events took another turn where these power poles developed their joint military alliances termed NATO and the Warsaw Pact to assure mutual support in terms of tangible military unions to counter each other and ensure their regional safety from the expansionist mindset of their counterparts.

This is the phase where the development of deterrence actually comes into play. The Cold War phase of global strategy and politics is the time set where the political and strategist scientists initiated the debate that whether there would be another full-scale war between the two superpowers or would it remain as it is? This question became an observation of events and as each event passed, the theories started developing.

To best understand this concept in the Cold War time set, let us set a benchmark by defining the term ‘deterrence’ in accordance to the prevalent definitions, notable and rather crude among them being:

“The prevention of action by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction and/or belief that the cost of action outweighs the perceived benefits”[1]

This definition is broad enough to encompass an array of options, strategies and capabilities to initiate what deterrence implies. Where Patrick M. Morgan[2] divides the observation of this concept in the Cold War perspective on counts of a basic and general overview, he efficiently points out the shortcomings and contentions that existed then and even in present day strategic environment. He evaluates the circumstances of deterrence in the cold war not only in the perspectives of positivity but rather dissects the concept on the basis of shortcomings and contingencies he finds to be the determinant factors of what constituted deterrence in the days of the Cold War.

Where Morgan identifies this concept as a tactic, be it persuasive or provocative, the idea of this theory according to him is based on the vital task of ascertaining and determining the shortcomings and dangers that the deterrence and its failure projected in the Cold War. Through this, one can fairly assess that the same shortcomings in this concept can be extended to modern day application of the theory.

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is a Masters in Strategic and Nuclear Studies from the National Defense University. He can be reached on m.sharrehqazi@hotmail.com

Discussion1 Comment

  1. The equation of deterrence should include the level of national morale.Though we have a credible nuclear arsenal and well equipped armed forces but we are constantly being hit by bomb attacks in KPK and Balochistan thus lowering our national morale. So even with this much military strength but with lower morale and trodden social fibre can we maintain credible deterrence?

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