Forgetting the Lessons of Deterrence

“Tough-guy/gal-ism” is rampant again in Official Washington with many New Cold Warriors lusting for a military confrontation with Russia. But few of these hawks have a clear idea how deterrence worked during the real Cold War, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

An irony of how the events in Ukraine and the associated altercation with Russia have thrown many commentators and policy critics into a Cold War mode is that those same commentators and critics seem to have forgotten (or never learned) much relevant doctrine that was developed and honed during the real Cold War.

The doctrine in question embraces many principles involving any attempt to exert power and to exercise influence over other states. The most relevant aspects of doctrine involve deterrence, using threats to dissuade someone from doing something we do not want done, as well as some related concepts also involving coercive methods of trying to influence an adversary’s behavior.

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Sophisticated treatment of these topics can become somewhat complicated, getting into such matters as multiple levels of deterrence and stability-instability paradoxes. But what much of the commentary on current issues ignores is really rather simple. It is stuff that should be apparent upon careful but straightforward thinking about the objectives, costs, and benefits that apply to the people on the other side of a conflict.

Although applications of the principles have endless variations, the principles themselves are immutable. Probably what is still the clearest statement of them came during the height of the Cold War from Thomas Schelling, who received the Nobel memorial prize in economics largely for that work.

One major point of doctrine that has been routinely ignored in the recent commentary is that successful deterrence depends on much more than just the reputation of the deterring state and its demonstrated willingness to use coercion. It depends at least as much on characteristics of the particular conflict, including how much of a stake each side feels it has in it.

We should have learned this lesson with the Vietnam War. The United States went so far in demonstrating its willingness to use costly force that it built up an army of over a half million in Vietnam and fought so long that it suffered over 50,000 combat deaths. But it was unable to deter the regime in the north from waging continued war in the south because the nationalist objective of uniting a Vietnam free of foreign domination was much more important to that regime than the United States’ objectives in Vietnam were to it.

I have commented previously on the fallacious nature of the notion that for the United States not to take up a gauntlet in one conflict makes it more likely that some adversary in an unrelated conflict elsewhere on the globe would do aggressive things that it would not otherwise have done. Yet that notion persists, most recently in the assertion that Vladimir Putin would not have seized Crimea if the United States had only shown more toughness elsewhere.

For many, of course, such an assertion is just one more disingenuous way for Barack Obama’s political opponents to bash him. But the notion gets repeated so often that many who hear it, and at least some who say it, probably believe it.

This mistaken belief is related to another erroneous notion about deterrence, which is that taking coercive action against an adversary provides deterrence, rather than making such action conditional on the adversary doing certain carefully defined things we do not want him to do. Sen. John McCain exhibited this mistake when he bemoaned how the modest steps the Europeans have taken in response to the situation in Ukraine would not deter Putin. He’s right about that, but not because, as he further comments, commercial interests of the Europeans keep them from implementing harsher measures now.

From exactly what are we trying to deter Putin? He says he has no intention of seizing any more of Ukraine after Crimea. We may have good reason to worry about the possibility that he might do so anyway, but he has not done so yet. Unconditionally imposing costs when he has not yet done so may satisfy political and other urges on our side, but it lacks deterrence value.

In some situations there may be a grain of truth, which can be found in Schelling’s writings, in the idea that doing something forceful now can enhance deterrence against a future contingency, if the forceful action demonstrates a willingness to act in response to that particular contingency and there was reason to doubt that we would so act. But if there is not good reason for that doubt, again there is no deterrence value.

The clearest recent instance of this fallacy was the failed attempt in the U.S. Congress to enact more anti-Iran sanctions legislation under the rationale that this would deter the Iranians from stalling or abandoning the negotiations. In fact, one of the least needed things to demonstrate to Tehran, given the now long history of overwhelming support in the Congress for serial enactment of sanctions against Iran, is a willingness to impose quickly still more sanctions if the Iranians did not negotiate seriously.

There was disingenuousness here, too, in that much of the push for the legislation came from those who want negotiations with Iran to fail. But once again there were others who sincerely, but mistakenly, believed in the rationale.

A principle repeatedly ignored in American discourse is that in attempting to influence an adversary’s behavior, getting him to believe he will not be punished if he behaves as we wish is just as important as getting him to believe that he will be punished if he does not so behave. This is true not only in situations of true deterrence, in which we want to prevent something from happening, but also in situations, for which Schelling created the term compellence, in which we want the other side to take action it is not currently taking.

The principle is repeatedly ignored in discussions about the nuclear negotiations with Iran, in which a challenge much greater than convincing Iranians of American willingness to inflict more punishment is to convince them that punishment will end if they strike a deal satisfactory to us.

A similar deficiency in thinking has begun to infect the public discourse about Ukraine. Exactly what do we want from Putin at this point? Presumably it is more than just not invading eastern Ukraine, and includes positive, cooperative behavior in fashioning a settlement in which a Crimea-less but otherwise whole Ukraine can live in greater peace and prosperity and have positive relations with all its neighbors. What that behavior should be must be clear in our own minds and statements and thus clear in Putin’s mind as well for any coercive or punitive action at this time to have compellent value.

Also too frequently ignored is attention to the costs of carrying out a threat, costs not just to the target of the threat, but to the side that would execute it. This attention is important not only to calculate costs and benefits if the threat ever did get carried out, but also because of how this affects credibility of the threat itself.

If the other side does not believe the threat ever would be executed because doing so would be highly costly and damaging to the side making the threat, there again is no deterrent value. Such threats are worse than useless, because they risk exposing us as bluffers.

Any show of military force by the United States in the vicinity of Ukraine (not the minor redeployments that merely provide some reassurance to Poland and the Baltic states) would exhibit this problem, given the patent folly for the United States to engage in a war with Russia, especially in Russia’s backyard and especially given the much greater importance to Russia than to the United States of the distribution of power in this region.

Anyone guilty of exhibiting any of these mistaken ideas should take a refresher course in deterrence. If you yearn to be a Cold Warrior again, that should be one of the first things to do. Reading (or re-reading) Schelling would be a good way to fulfill that requirement.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

10 comments for “Forgetting the Lessons of Deterrence

  1. mf
    March 30, 2014 at 10:42

    The lesson of deterrence, is that you must be prepared to deter. Making speeches takes you only so far. The further lesson of history is that it is far cheaper to deter an aggressor early, rather than wait, hope for the best, look into his soul, pretend like nothing is happening, and let him grow in strength. If the British and the French squashed Hitler in the Ruhr, there would have been no Hitler and no holocaust.

    The US is coming out of a decade+ of colossal failure in foreign policy, which was war in Iraq and more broadly war on terrorism. This does not mean that the US can afford to sit back when real threats emerge. Putin has a potential for developing into Saddam with nukes. He is riding high not because he did anything to reform Russia, but because oil is expensive. He is converting proceeds from the sale of oil into military spending, and trying to consolidate his power by appealing to the craziest of the crazy in Russia. He is destroying whatever little freedom was left in Russia, turning it into a country ruled by a strongman, with industries controlled by crony oligarchs beholden personally to him. The other name for this system is fascism. This is what is emerging in Russia. The only positive here is that he is 60 years old. But, people live longer today.
    One can debate how to calibrate the response to a particular event. Debating whether a response is needed, is a little bit nuts. There is no splendid isolation in an era of a ballistic missile. A true mark of a statesman is being able to differentiate between a phantom threat and a real threat. The US burned it’s treasure for more than a decade pursuing phantom threats in the Middle East. This is not a reason to stand back when a real threat emerges.

    • Arindam
      March 31, 2014 at 13:19

      Frankly, for at least half of mankind (and probably more), the United States is the country that needs deterring, not Russia.

      The roots of this Russia-America conflict go back a long way, and may be much deeper than commonly realized. The Russian political philosopher Alexander Dugin had an extremely interesting paper on it:

      The Great War of Continents

  2. Joe Tedesky
    March 30, 2014 at 00:54

    “Preventative war is like committing suicide out of fear of death” Bismarck.

    I will die loving this country. My reason for this love is for the good in it, as opposed to the few bad who have been running it. History will shake it’s head not realizing why 21st century America didn’t use it’s good to conquer the world. No, instead history may prove once more how at just the wrong moment all the wrong people were in control of all the wrong issues.

    When I read what lead up to WWI I cannot get over how many exit ramps were there, and yet no one took any of those exits. Leaders wanted more military, industry wanted to sell to that next war. Bankers speak for themself almost always. Still there was those moments when it almost became disfused. There no longer was a Bismark. Leading up to WWI almost all the leading nations ran their countries into poverty while arming themselves up to the hilt. Why? Because they had to.

    I hate to say this, but Putin looks like the only adult in the room. President Obama, and Secretary Kerry, well…they look buffoonish! America’s media is screaming of Cold War rhetoric to a point of glee almost. I mean the Cold War makes these people limp from all their excitement. It’s obscene!

    At the same time if the US and Russia were ever to join hands …wow! No, let’s fight them. Oh I forgot we will sanction them. Someday, we may wake up to the shock that no one showed up at our party….we sanctioned them all! They will have their own party, and we’re not invited

  3. Eddi
    March 29, 2014 at 14:45

    It must appear to the world and especially Russia that the US is NOT seriously interested in any kind of coherent, equitable foreign policy over the last 30+ yrs (at least). Ours (ESPECIALLY under the Neo-con era) is strictly a policy of US hegemony, to capriciously do what we want to, when we want, to whomever we want, with transparent, hypocritical rhetoric used to supposedly justify this whenever necessary. The US can even go literally to the other side of the world and have a boutique war to enhance a president’s historical self-perception (i.e.; W in Iraq), killing ~1M people and displacing 3-4 M in the process, but the US media will solemnly intone that ‘it is/was worth it’. But when Russia ‘helps’ a bordering state’s sympathizers, Russia is branded aggressive, tyrannical, Hitleresque, etc., with nary a hint of the underlying double-standard mentioned.

    Prf Pillar is correct when he states above:
    “A principle repeatedly ignored in American discourse is that in attempting to influence an adversary’s behavior, getting him to believe he will not be punished if he behaves as we wish is just as important as getting him to believe that he will be punished if he does not so behave. ”

    However, when the US didn’t observe the agreement with Russia to not expand NATO after 1991, why would Russia extend any credibility to any stated benevolent intentions of the US? Would WE do the same if positions were reversed?

    It’s obviously hard to have a relatively peaceful world, but when too many of the NeoCons and their sympathizers indulge in chest-beating/sword brandishing swaggering foreign policy ONLY for DOMESTIC short-term political electoral reasons, we’re virtually guaranteed that other countries will feel insecure and emphasize militaristic solutions in THEIR foreign policies also.

    • mf
      March 30, 2014 at 13:19

      you are repeating something that probably has no basis in fact, an alleged promise not to expand NATO. Regardless, events of today show the wisdom of that expansion. The zone of peace and collective security in Europe has been expanded. New NATO countries ,or NATO itself for that matter, are not massing tanks and airplanes on Russia’s border, or each other’s borders. Russia is massing tanks and airplanes on Ukraine’s border, precisely because Ukraine is not a member of NATO. It is time to retire the canard that poor Russia is feeling encircled. As long as Russia remains a recurring menace to her neighbors, expanding NATO at every opportunity is not encirclement but common sense.

      • incontinent reader
        March 30, 2014 at 16:17

        mf: How wrong you are in your understanding of history, including in the first sentence of your comment. The agreement not to expand NATO into the former Warsaw Pact countries in exchange for the removal of Soviet divisions from East Germany and agreement for, and facilitation of the reunification of the two Germanies, and the agreement that the merged nation remain in NATO, was not in writing but has been confirmed by US, German and Russian officials who were there, or ‘in the know’. When you qualify it with “probably”, you make clear that your conclusion is the speculation of someone who doesn’t have a clue. As for the rest of your comment, it is neocon drivel that harks back to what I said at the top, namely your ignorance of the history.

        • mf
          March 30, 2014 at 18:01

          you have not been there, have you? Neither have I.

          But I was born in a place that is all too familiar with Russia. And I am really glad that my home country, Poland, is in NATO.
          Perhaps it may be you who is either ignorant of actual history, or lives in a historic fantasyland?

  4. F. G. Sanford
    March 29, 2014 at 14:13

    I appreciate Professor Pillar’s points regarding deterring, compelling and complying. They are rational and well made. What he leaves out is policy and rationality. But the point of the entire article hinges on US getting THEM to do what WE want.

    Neocon foreign policy debacles and military disasters have left a trail of chaos which extends half way around the globe. Contradictory policies claim to support democracy, yet result in corrupt dictatorships, civil wars, displaced populations, feudal tribalism and terrorist safe-havens.

    In fairness, when one considers Russia’s steadily improving economy, lucrative trade, booming industry and successful foreign relations, it becomes necessary to ask exactly what the USA is trying to “contain”. Are we trying to stop the spread of…Capitalism? Freedom? Human rights?

    Of course they are silent in the European Union, and they will remain so because it is economically in their best interests. They are confronted with a trembling economy and the gravest threat to their own internal security in seventy years: the looming pall of resurgent fascism. American foreign policy, despite monolithic media disregard for this reality, has just enthroned an overtly neo-Nazi regime on their doorstep. Ethtnic nationalists all over Europe are ecstatic.

    Europeans are not silent because they have no opinion. They are silent because they are flabbergasted. Nations with half a millennium of diplomatic savvy are bewildered by the colossal buffoonery, the clownish ineptitude, the monumental blundering and blindness to reality expressed by official Washington.

    The first rule of diplomatic etiquette is that ambassadors do not negotiate with the enemies of a sovereign nation. What Nuland did was not a mistake. It was an international crime. Not only does America lack a foreign policy it can define or articulate, it no longer has a Department of State which can be trusted or believed.

    International law may be invoked until hell freezes over, but in the end, it is international recognition that confers legitimacy. In the quiet corridors of European diplomacy, the unspoken conclusion is that Putin holds the moral high ground. Their clearly ambivalent response to any significant sanctions will reflect that.

    • lumpentroll
      March 29, 2014 at 17:10

      Contemporary European politicians are no less guilty of colossal buffoonery, clownish ineptitude and monumental blundering as are those in Washington. If anything the class of Europe has fallen further and faster in spite of presumably superior historical knowledge and understanding.

      Compare France under DeGaulle to that of Hollande or Sarkozy. Never have European politicians been of such depressingly low quality.

      In politics and diplomacy — as in journalism, jurisprudence, academia and most other fields of human endeavor, the globalist system weeds out any and all principled persons with ruthless efficiency.

      We must ask ourselves how this came to be.

      I do not know if it is a cause or a symptom but membership in the intelligensia requires that you be an ideological zionist.

      In my experience this is also the dividing line between thinking for yourself and obediance to authority. When was the last time you had a free, open, honest and/or rational discussion about Palestine with a zionist?

      Would you dare utter the words?

      • F. G. Sanford
        March 29, 2014 at 18:39

        Failure to rationally and honestly confront that injustice is at the heart of all other present day international disputes. The conversation cannot be held. Therefore, sooner or later, we shall have a war.

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