Deterrence as a Component of ‘Realpolitik’

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/7423.htm)

The previous two sub-sections have noted the dangers of nuclear proliferation ( and the inadequacy of a nuclear deterrent against an asymmetric threat (  This does not mean that nuclear weapons are redundant yet, though, however desirable an objective that might be.  The great powers haven’t attacked each other directly since the Second World War – despite being on opposing sides in other situations.  China and America supported opposite sides during the Korean War, for example, as described in a BBC article entitled The Korean War: An Overview.

A policy of deterrence can be a response to specific 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, in which 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.

When Russia invaded Georgia in 1998, 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.[1]  The risk of confrontation with Russia was too great.  The Russian action was an example of ‘realpolitik’ ( it correctly judged that it could seize the territory without fear of effective retaliation.  The Georgian army had no option but to retreat.  This illustrates how the possession of military strength, even if it is not used, has a deterrent effect in some circumstances.  If both sides possess massive force they have to consider the risks of escalation.

Massive force does not have to consist of nuclear weapons.  They are arguably too dangerous to use anyway, and both sides know that.  A powerful conventional force is perhaps a greater deterrent, because potential opponents know that it is can be used in practice.  When President Trump ordered an airstrike on a Syrian airfield in April 2017, he was sending a signal that he would be prepared to use force if necessary; the signal was overtly to deter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons, but it might also have been intended to warn the Chinese against assuming that America would never use its military might.[2]


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[1] Georgia asked for American help to evict the Russians from South Ossetia, but did not get it – and it isn’t going to be allowed to join NATO or be given American weapons either.  The BBC published a South Ossetia profile on 21 April 2016, which was available in April 2018 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-18269210.  Joshua Kucera’s article on Georgia’s Dangerous Quest for American Weapons was published on 10 May 2011 and was available in April 2018 at https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/05/georgias-dangerous-quest-for-american-weapons/238620/.

[2] President Trump’s cruise missile strike in April 2017 was clearly a signal rather than an intention to do damage – he issued a warning before making the strike, as reported at https://www.patternsofpower.org/symbolic-air-strike-syria/.  A useful article on the nature of signalling one’s military strength was published by zerohedge.com on 10 April 2017, and was available in April 2018 at http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2017-04-10/medias-missing-point-syria-empire-power-signaling; it contained links to further reading material.