7.4.2 Military Deterrence and Threats

Military deterrence and threats are insufficient to maintain peace, as they do not prevent proxy wars, terrorism, or gradual escalation.

Military deterrence has been credited with preventing large-scale conflict, particularly since the Second World War.  The great powers have not attacked each other directly since the policy was instituted.

At first sight, the ability to threaten would appear to be an argument for having overwhelming defence forces at one’s disposal.  Michael Ledeen, for example, is quoted in Michael Signer’s article, A City on a Hill, as a writer who believes in the utility of military force:

““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.””

This policy hasn’t guaranteed peace in practice.  The overall situation has continued to evolve, and strategic thinking needs to adapt to the changes.  Deterrence hasn’t prevented wars during the 70 years since nuclear weapons were first deployed – though arguably it has helped to prevent another world war thus far.

The following sub-sections examine how the policy of using military deterrence and threats has evolved:

●  Cold-War nuclear deterrence was based on a fear of nuclear war: ‘mutually-assured destruction’ (  America and Russia haven’t directly attacked each other, but they have engaged in proxy wars   Nuclear proliferation has increased the risk of accidents, however.

●  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 more effective than nuclear weapons in persuading another country to desist from using force.



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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/edition04/742.htm.