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By Lawrence Freedman
Cambridge, UK: Policy Press, 2004. 145 pp. $26.95
Working in the field of national security during the Cold War--whether in the government or outside of it--meant the majority of one's time was spent implementing, contemplating or arguing about deterrence. It was like the unbreakable black telephone found in virtually every home and office in America during the 1950s. You could imagine another style of phone or perhaps even a different mechanism for communicating, but day in and day out, it was that heavy clunk of plastic and metal you grabbed when you had to deliver a message outside the range of the human voice.
Deterrence, like those black telephones, now seems like an ancient memory. But just as anyone who's had to deal with the problems presented by the myriad number of long-distance providers can wax nostalgic about the reliability and simplicity of old Ma Bell, so too, a growing number of strategists are asking today whether it might be possible to revitalize deterrence and once again make it central to U.S. defense policy.
Taking the lead in this case is Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King's College London and one of the most prolific contemporary writers on matters of strategy and war. In a wide-ranging historical and theoretical discussion of deterrence, Freedman investigates whether the concept "might still have a role to play" in a contemporary context. To the book's credit, his answer--a tentative "yes, but"--doesn't let nostalgia for "the good old days" get in the way of understanding the difficulties of resurrecting deterrence strategies for today's world. At best, "as a strategy," deterrence "provides one option among many, possibly appropriate in particular circumstances."
The first three chapters of "Deterrence" are devoted to defining the concept's core elements, looking at it in practice, and tracing its rise and decline as a doctrine. With respect to the last point, Freedman reminds us that questions about the underlying viability of the concept did not begin with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or the publication of the Bush administration's National Security Strategy a year later. Despite the general success of nuclear deterrence from 1945 to 1991 in preventing World War III, by the Cold War's end, any number of scholars had begun to raise objections to the concept's apparent dependence on rational decision-making by the states and leaders involved. History and human psychology suggested that "rational actors" were less the norm than the concept presumed; hence, in practice, deterrence as a policy option was less dependable than immediately apparent.
These doubts of course were only fueled further by the post-Cold War threats posed by rogue states and terrorists with no return address. Was it possible to deter someone like Saddam Hussein, who little more than a year after having been thrashed in the Persian Gulf War, was willing to risk his rule by trying to assassinate former President Bush during a trip to Kuwait? Can Osama bin Laden and his army of suicide bombers be deterred if the normal cost-risk calculations have little or no meaning for them?
Yet, as evidenced by the war in Iraq, the decision to promote pre-emption and preventive war in response to these facts has its obvious costs and uncertainties as well. And hence, according to Freedman, while deterrence is perhaps not the strategic be-all it once was, it should, when properly updated, still be part of a package of stratagems from which a policymaker can draw.
Freedman's theorizing about what an update of deterrence requires is the book's most innovative aspect. Drawing on studies in criminology, Freedman argues that an "interest-based" concept of deterrence--one in which Country A threatens those things of critical value to Country B--should be replaced, or at least substantially enhanced, by a "norms-based" concept of deterrence. By this, Freedman means that a new system of deterrence should focus on "reinforcing certain values to the point where it is well understood that they must not be violated." Reducing the rate of crime requires not only a fear of punishment but also citizens who have internalized a sense of shared limits. "Not surprisingly," Freedman concludes, "deterrence works best when the targets are able to work rationally, and when the deterrer and the deterred are working within a sufficiently shared normative framework."
But is a "shared normative framework" really possible--or, more accurately stated, reliably effective--outside of shared political systems? How many nondemocratic states, are going to behave according to a set of standards congruent with the world's liberal democracies? And, more specifically, even when disparate regimes have a shared understanding about the international rules of the road, will they hold to those rules under the pressure of a real crisis or when the legitimacy of their rule is at stake?
The answer is not so obvious, as the debate over Iran today makes clear. Any number of analysts in the U.S., Europe and even Israel are betting that the Iranian regime can be coaxed into adopting a more responsible approach regionally and globally, without having to change the regime itself. Others think this is a losing bet.
A similar question is afoot when it comes to China. When the administration speaks about trying to get Beijing to become a "stakeholder" in the international system and, hence, a defender of the current international order, it is asking China's leaders to accept norms of state behavior that have been largely established by other great powers, almost all of which are liberal democracies.
Finally, it's not clear that deterrence needs this shared normative framework when the state doing the deterring is not a liberal democracy and the state being deterred is one. Does anyone think that North Korea's conventional and nuclear threat to South Korea and Japan doesn't act as a significant deterrent to the policies that the U.S. and its allies adopt? Or that China's threat to strike Los Angeles, in the event Washington comes to the defense of Taiwan, is not a deterrent to U.S. policies with respect to cross-strait relations?
From this perspective, the old Cold War calculus is alive and well. The irony is, despite American military pre-eminence--or, perhaps, precisely because of it--deterrence may have even more relevance in the years ahead.
Gary J. Schmitt is a resident scholar at AEI.