Deterrence as a Component of ‘Realpolitik’

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 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.

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 can be used in practice.  Military force of any kind can be used as a component of ‘realpolitik’, in pursuit of political objectives – as described earlier (  Several different kinds of military force were used in the following examples:

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 was an example, and it might have been partly intended to warn the Chinese against assuming that America would never use its military might: hoping that it 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.  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 looked as though it was about to repeat its tactics in Eastern Ukraine at the end of 2021: NATO sent weapons, as described in a RAND article U.S. Military Aid to Ukraine: A Silver Bullet?  As the article remarked, though, “[m]ilitary assistance now will at best be marginal in affecting the outcome of the crisis  … the most effective way Washington can help is to work on finding a diplomatic solution”.  The military deployments by both Russia and NATO were probably intended to influence peace negotiations, but those negotiations did not give Russia what it wanted so it invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022.

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 have to consider the risks of escalation.


Next Section

This is a current page, updated since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/7423c.htm