The Use of Deterrence in Realpolitik

Several kinds of military capability can be used for deterrence in realpolitik, persuading other countries to desist from using force.

Realpolitik, as described earlier (, negotiates political settlements that allow for relative military and economic power.  That power does not have to consist of nuclear weapons, which are arguably too dangerous to use – and both sides know that.  A powerful conventional force is perhaps a greater deterrent because potential opponents know that it can be used in practice.  Several different kinds of military force were used in the following examples of deterrence:

●  President Trump’s cruise missile strike on Syria in April 2017, as described on this website, was clearly a signal, rather than an intention to do damage: he issued a warning before making the strike.  It might have been partly intended to warn the Chinese against assuming that America would never use its military might: hoping that the strike would deter China from trying to enlarge its sphere of influence in the South China Sea.

●  When Russia invaded Georgia in 1998 with conventional weapons, and effectively annexed the province of South Ossetia, America was asked to come to the assistance of the Georgian government but decided not to do so – as described in the BBC’s South Ossetia profile .  Georgia wasn’t allowed to join NATO and it wasn’t given American weapons either, for reasons such as those given in Joshua Kucera’s article on Georgia’s Dangerous Quest for American Weapons: the risk of confrontation with Russia was too great.  It was an example of deterrence in realpolitik.  Russia had correctly judged that it could seize the territory without fear of effective retaliation and the Georgian army had no option but to retreat.

●  Russia made the same calculation when annexing Crimea in 2014, in a hybrid war described earlier (7.3.5): the West drew back from intervening militarily.

●  The Western response seemed to be different, though, when Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022.  NATO sent weapons to assist the Ukrainian defence forces in what has become a kind of proxy war.  Russia and NATO were careful to avoid direct confrontation with each other, as described in a Foreign Affairs article: “At the outset of the war, both sides hashed out a set of invisible rules—unspoken but nonetheless real.”  Escalation has been avoided, for now, but the “shared desire of Putin and Biden to avoid a wider war is …no guarantee that the war will contain itself. A conflict can spin out of control even if neither side makes a deliberate decision to escalate or use nuclear weapons.”

●  A policy of nuclear deterrence can still be a response to specific security threats.  North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme can be directly traced to its response to George W Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2002.  He characterised Iraq, Iran and North Korea as constituting an “axis of evil” and pledged that “America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation’s security”.  North Korea’s Foreign Ministry reacted, as reported in a BBC article entitled Bush’s ‘evil axis’ comment stirs critics, by saying “This is, in fact, little short of declaring war against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”.  Bush invaded Iraq the following year so, as a response to the seriousness of American threats, North Korea’s acquisition of a nuclear deterrent can be seen as prudent.  Iran’s nuclear programme can be seen in the same light.

These examples illustrate how the possession of military strength, even if it is not fully used, has a deterrent effect in some circumstances.  If both sides possess massive force, they need to consider the risks of escalation.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/7423.htm.