7.4.2 Military Deterrence and Threats

Military deterrence and threats are insufficient to maintain peace: they don’t prevent proxy wars, terrorism, or the risk of escalation.

Deterrence is a policy based on fear: the idea that a country would be safe from attack if potential enemies were frightened of a violent retaliation.  American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Ledeen, for example, believed in the value of possessing overwhelming military power:

“We can lead by the force of high moral example,” he writes, but “fear is much more reliable, and lasts longer.  Once we show that we are capable of dealing out terrible punishment to our enemies, our power will be far greater”.[1]

Deterrence hasn’t guaranteed peace in practice.  For example, Israel’s consistent policy of violent retaliations against the terrorist group Hamas, has not deterred further attacks.  A Reuters report in May 2021, Hamas and Israel: a history of confrontation, itemises numerous provocations and retaliations since 1987, when the group was formed.  The violent Hamas attack on 7 October 2023, killing 1200 Israelis and abducting 253 hostages, demonstrated the futility of Israel’s strategy.  Hamas made a political calculation that took no account of harm to civilians.  It was an act of terrorism, as described earlier (7.2.8), to intimidate Israelis and garner the international criticism directed against Israel that it knew would result from weeks of news coverage of suffering in Gaza.

The following sub-sections examine the effectiveness of military deterrence and threats in different scenarios:

●  Cold-War nuclear deterrence is based on a fear of ‘mutually-assured destruction’ ( America and Russia haven’t directly attacked each other, but they have engaged in proxy wars.  And as nuclear weapons proliferate there is an increasing risk that they will eventually be used if a conflict escalates out of control.

●  Deterrence is ineffective in asymmetric situations, where the opponent isn’t another country ( Neither nuclear weapons nor massive conventional forces are useful against guerrilla warfare or terrorism.

●  Several kinds of military capability can be used for deterrence in realpolitik: reaching political settlements that allow for relative military and economic power ( Conventional forces are perhaps a more credible immediate threat than nuclear weapons as a bargaining counter in negotiations.



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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/edition04/742a.htm.

[1] Michael Signer’s article A City on a Hill was critical of Ledeen, and he quoted this excerpt from Ledeen’s book The War Against the Terror Masters.