The Forgotten Benefits of Deterrence

by Paul R. Pillar

During the Cold War, no concept was more central to U.S. national security strategy and to the relationship between the superpowers than deterrence. The concept long predates the Cold War, of course, but during that four-decade competition between the United States and USSR, strategists and scholars developed a detailed and still valid doctrine of deterrence. Nuclear weapons and a strategic arms race made that doctrine especially necessary and significant, but the complexities of deterrence extended to other levels of international conflict and competition, such as the confrontation in Europe between the armies of NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

Deterrence is a very useful component of national security policy in at least two respects. It is a way to avoid highly damaging outcomes without having to disarm or disable an adversary—which often would be exceedingly painful and costly to do. It is a way to protect interests that may be difficult or even impossible to defend, if an undeterred adversary ever were to attack those interests.

Deterrence can be useful to the United States even when it is not one of the parties to a deterrent relationship, and even when those being deterred include purported friends and allies of the United States as well as its adversaries. If mutual deterrence between local or regional rivals keeps a war from breaking out, so much the better for everyone, including the United States, that has an interest in wars not breaking out. This may even save the United States from getting dragged directly into such a war. Mutual deterrence between regional rivals also can be an ingredient in preventing anyone from dominating an entire region.

Deterrence has a wide range of applicability, but that applicability, even on national security matters, too often goes unrecognized. Much discussion of international terrorism, for example, assumes that terrorists cannot be deterred. But more careful analysis of the motivations of terrorists reveals that deterrence can be an important element in counterterrorism.

Reasons for Forgetfulness

Since the end of the Cold War, the perceived applicability of deterrence—but not its real applicability—has contracted even more. Its benefits and usefulness are too often forgotten. One probable reason for this is a legacy of the supposedly unipolar moment that immediately followed the Cold War. Feeling freed from a balance of terror and the need to share superpower space with another state, triumphalist American thinking paid more attention to notions of hegemony than to the fine points of deterrence. To a large degree, American discourse has not broken out of that pattern. Thinking still is predominantly in terms of preserving or establishing hegemony on behalf of the United States or preventing someone else from establishing it instead. Such a frame of mind misses possibilities for competition and cooperation to take place simultaneously at different levels, while relying on deterrence to prevent any really bad outcomes growing out of the competition.

Another reason for blindness to the role of deterrence is the notion that regimes considered U.S. adversaries somehow don’t think like everyone else. This is an example of coming to believe one’s own rhetoric—rhetoric, in this case, designed to sustain hostility to an adversary by portraying it as more extreme or fanatical than one’s self and as such not amenable to deterrence.

The forgetting or downplaying of deterrence has been an ingredient in several continuing problems in U.S. national security policy. The unfortunate story of how the United States seems to have entered into a new Cold War with Russia not long after ending the old one with the USSR—a story that has included such miscues as the eastward expansion of NATO and Western political manipulation in Ukraine—reflects the thought pattern described above. It is thinking couched in terms of one side or the other dominating an area. This thinking overlooked the alternative possibility of letting a mixture of competition and cooperation with Moscow play out more freely while deterring—more easily than NATO could during most of the original Cold War—the worst things that Russia might try to inflict on Western interests.

Much discussion of competition with China in the East Asia Pacific region is couched in similar terms of dueling hegemonies. Along with the failure to explore the full possibilities of how deterrence can prevent the worst outcomes where U.S. and Chinese interests are clearly divergent, U.S. policy has given insufficient attention to possibilities of mutually beneficial cooperation on other levels—such as with the Chinese-created Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or China’s Belt and Road initiative.

North Korea’s regime comes closest to fitting the description of a gang that thinks differently from the rest of the world, at least in the sense that there are plausible scenarios in which the regime is placed in extremis and all bets regarding previously observed limitations are off. But this regime is no more suicidal than other regimes. And the centrality of nuclear weapons in the current standoff with North Korea makes the old Cold War doctrine all the more applicable. Deterrence is why North Korea believes it needs to hang on to its nuclear weapons, deterrence is why it is dissuaded from using those weapons for other purposes, and deterrence must be at the core of any resolution of the Korean imbroglio.

Rhetoric Trumping Reality

The case of Iran, which presents a much different set of issues, provides probably the best example of coming to believe U.S. rhetoric about the other guy supposedly being fanatical and not thinking like the rest of the world. Amid much rhetoric designed to stir up worries about Iran, clear logic about deterrence has been lacking. Some of that rhetoric has been self-contradictory, such as the argument a few years ago for a military attack as a way to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. The argument contended, on one hand, that Iranian leaders were too fanatical and irrational to be trusted with nuclear weapons, and that their irrationality meant that deterrence could not be trusted to work.

But on the other hand it contended that after getting attacked by a foreign power, the same Iranian leaders would be models of rationality and cool decision-making who would be deterred from striking back by the prospect of further attacks.

Since the nuclear agreement of a couple of years ago took the possibility of an Iranian nuke off the table, the lack of clear thinking about deterrence persists with regard to other activity involving Iran. Iran’s military inferiority and vulnerability vis-à-vis Israel and in some respects its Gulf Arab rivals would deter it from doing all sorts of undesirable things even if it wanted to do them. The value of deterrence in the other direction also is too infrequently recognized. Instead of seeking to disable or disarm every Iranian capability in places such as Syria, Lebanon, or Iraq, the United States should recognize the role of some such capabilities in deterring rivals of Iran from starting new wars and destabilizing the region further. In any region, a deterrence-based competition that prevents not only the starting of new wars but also the domination of the region by any of the regional competitors is in the best interests of the United States.

Photo: A standoff (Wikimedia Commons).

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. Well argued and seemingly reasonable … except for one glaring omission: deterrence (especially nuclear deterrence) works just fine until it doesn’t! And it only has to fail once for the game to be over. Many senior politicians, including McNamara and Acheson, have argued that we have avoided Armageddon simply by luck. One thing we all know about luck is that it eventually runs out. So I must ask Dr Pilar whether risking the fate of the earth in this way really is in our – or anyone else’s interest.

  2. Everytime you read something about Iran, you have to ask whether the author is writing about the real Iran, or the imaginary one manufactured via the Washington hype machinery. Iran’s entire military budget is a fraction of that of most of its neighbors. There was never any evidence Iran even wanted nukes. That was just more “WMDs in Iraq” pretext for imposing regime-change.
    N Korea withdrew from the NPT. built nukes and missiles to launch them
    Iran accepted additional restrictions on its nuclear program that no other country would agree to, has never had a nuclear weapons program (as far as the IAEA ever found) and has placed a limit on its missile program too.
    What happens? The US talks to N Korea, but not Iran.
    Go figure.

Comments are closed.