Le’ Notes #7: Deterrence and Coercion

This post discusses the evolution of deterrence thought from the Cold War to the fourth wave (21st century).

Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent – Isaac Asimov, Foundation

I find the above quote, written by the genius Isaac Asimov in Foundation, to quite fit the topic that I’m going to write about today, which is deterrence and coercion.

Let me just emphasize the violence in Asimov’s quote. Of course, Hardin (the character that utters the quote) is a cunning fox. When faced with the imminent danger from a nearby “barbarian” empire, violence was never his first option. Rather, he concocted a series of elaborate plans to deter the enemy without even having an army. His plan succeeded and ushered in years of peace. Well, at least for the Foundation.

I’ll write about the different types of deterrence, which is still a part of coercion. And then, we’ll see whether or not deterrence still remains a viable strategy today. If we still need deterrence, then deterrence for whom?

But first off, let’s talk about deterrence. What is deterrence? To understand that, we need to understand what coercion is. And to illustrate both of these concepts, here’s Admiral General Aladeen of Wadiya and his supposedly virgin bodyguards.

“You are HIV-Aladeen”

Generally defined, coercion is the use of force to make your adversary do something that they would not do otherwise. Coercion involves the actual use of force, inflicted upon an adversary or the shmuck you want to try to coerce. In this case, if Aladeen commands one of his virgin (supposedly) bodyguards to attack me just because I contradicted him, it can be said that he is coercing me into agreeing with him. Until I agreed with him, he would not call off his bodyguard. Finally, I decided to want the pain to stop and then conceded to his demands. The bodyguard stands down. Aladeen had successfully coerced me.

During the course of war history, we see many examples of coercion in place. Take, for example, the end of World War 2 when the U.S. nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which then compelled Japan to end the war.

Deterrence, however, is a different thing. Deterrence is the use of threat of force to make your adversary not do something that goes against your interest. Emphasis on the “threat of force”. In plain English, deterrence is drawing the proverbial line and then threatening the other guy that if they cross the line, they would be in for a world of hurt. It does not necessary require violence or commanding a bodyguard to assault me. It’s the threat that matters, not the force in and of itself. In a strategic sense, deterrence can also be understood as: to make conditions for going to war so costly, you discourage the other person from attacking you.

Our example for today is the nuclear weapon, which is a staple weapon of deterrence. Bernard Brodie [book] claimed that the nuclear weapon was an ‘absolute weapon’. He also considered that nuclear weapons would be so devastating that armies in the future would not be geared for war, but rather, the prevention of war altogether. As such, he framed the U.S. nuclear arsenal to be a problematic form of deterrence. In Anatomy of deterrence [paywall], Brodie says the nuclear arsenal to have way too much power, but with very little use. When will the bombs be used? Supposedly, whenever a Russian nuclear launch is detected. But then if the bombs are launched as a retaliatory strike, how much damage can we sustain before launching bombs? Would we be even capable in the first place after the first nukes fall? Based on this, Brodie argues that it would make more sense to have better first-strike capabilities that augment the effects of the bomb.

However, I jumped the gun. I wanted to walk you through the evolution of deterrence first. Richard Betts [paywall] provides a great account on the types and evolution of deterrence. There are three levels of deterrence, according to Betts,

  1. Simple deterrence: you simply deter the enemy from harming you without thinking too much about the means and ends.
  2. Essential deterrence: you deter the enemy by promising a lot more pain if they cross the proverbial line.
  3. Subtle deterrence: the most complex level of deterrence, involves meticulous calculation of ends and means, interdependence of ends and means, and consideration of a variety of scenarios.

In the Cold War, we saw two types of deterrence, mostly symbolized by the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The first was Type I deterrence, which was the prevention of an attack on oneself. In this case, the U.S. nuclear bombs were there for the sake of the U.S. itself. The second was Type II deterrence or extended deterrence, which was the prevention of an attack on one’s allies. In this case, the U.S. nuclear umbrella and police actions across the world served to deter Russian attacks.

Deterrence in a conventional sense began to wane after the Cold War. Newer concepts of deterrence began to arise, such as graduated deterrence, which is the proportional use of force against attacks which escalated over time. This was different from conventional deterrence, which was focused on building the defensive capabilities of a state to prevent an attack from another. Graduated deterrence was seen in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The Israelis, having constantly being poked at by the Syrians, decided to launch a massive trilateral air strike to put those Arabs in their places. Though this can be seen as an act of coercion, the result was a state of negative peace in which Israel did not experience any more disturbances from their neighbors.

The most recent form of deterrence, often dubbed “fourth wave deterrence” (see Knopf [paywall]), is something known as tailored deterrence. Previous deterrence was centered on the state alone. But, as we know it, non-state actors are the ones we’re facing now. Older concepts of deterrence are somehow inadequate to address the issues of today. Nuclear weapons don’t deter terrorists. So, how can we deter terrorists, preferably from doing this?


Knopf notes that in the age of violent non-state actors, deterrence needs to be reassessed. Since terrorist groups defy the conventional notion of the nation-state, the yardstick to which we measure the success and value of deterrence. For example, when 9/11 happened, how can we say America’s deterrence failed? There was no “first strike”, no escalation of conflict… there was nothing to show whether or not deterrence failed. Thus, maybe it is time for us to consider that there cannot be a “one-size-fits-all” type of deterrence. Maybe it’s time for tailored deterrence.

Tailored deterrence combines several approaches from strategic culture and other aspects (see Lantis [paywall]). The point is to construct a type of deterrence suited for a specific group of terrorists/threats. Instead of assuming nukes and big armies can deter other people from attacking, maybe we can consider understanding a part of the jihadi’s cultural and political situations so that we can tailor a specific type of deterrence for that group of jihadis alone. Knopf outlines three types of fourth-gen deterrence:

Indirect deterrence works on the assumption that terrorist networks live on support, either from states or non-state actors. Indirect deterrence would mean targeting these terrorist supporters because the assumption is when support is cut off, terrorist groups will die out, which translates to fewer attacks. This can be achieved through changing regimes in supporter countries, threatening them, whatever.

Deterrence by denial assumes that terrorist groups also calculate operational risk in their strategic calculus. It also assumes that terrorists want to achieve their political objectives badly. Smith and Talbot [e-book] have a great framework for this type of deterrence, by the way. So, deterrence is carried out by increasing security measures, such as the presence of air marshals on planes and random profiling… basically anything that may increase the risks to the point where terrorists just say “Fuck it, even if I’m doing this in the name of Allah, it’s not worth my time and effort,” Furthermore, deterrence by denial can also be achieved by increasing national resilience and morale to show that an attack would not make the people falter. In this case, the terrorists are discouraged because they see no point in risking their lives if their political objectives are not met.

Deterrence by punishment is perhaps the harshest of the three. Basically, this translates to “punishing” (whatever that means remains to the policymaker) high-value targets of terrorist groups, or even their closest family members. By putting their families or close relatives at risk, it is hoped that the terrorists would not launch an attack.

So those are the methods by which we can deter terrorism. I do acknowledge that there’s still a lot of debate going on about the means and ends. And if you don’t want to take my word for it, Knopf specifically acknowledges that fourth-wave deterrence still has disagreements about methods. However, there is a general agreement on the goals of deterrence, which is to deter violent non-state actors.

The bells ring…

Here’s a quick summary on deterrence and coercion:

  • Deterrence is different from coercion in a sense that deterrence emphasizes more on the threat of force rather than force itself.
  • The nuclear weapon is deemed to be the best deterrence weapon ever, but there are also drawbacks to the nuclear deterrent.
  • Fourth-wave deterrence tries to integrate many disciplines and thoughts to the study of deterrence to make deterrence relevant for facing violent non-state actors. There are still disagreements on methods, though.

Le’ Notes is a collection of my lecture and reading notes, summarized, revised, and ready-to-go. Think of it as a bag of chips; it’s easy to eat, but don’t expect a lot of nutrition. Or, you can think of it as a starting point to learning more about other things that might interest you.

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