Deterrence is no mystery; it is a feature of many human activities, behaviours and relationships, ranging from the private matter of bringing up children, to society’s attempts to control crime. At any level, and in any sector, deterrence is a promise to impose a cost on a given action in order that the potential perpetrator is convinced that any perceived benefits of the action will be outweighed by the costs incurred, and will thus choose not to act as planned or threatened.
Several ingredients must be in place for deterrence to function, often described as the ‘three Cs’. First, the deterrer must have the capability to impose the costs he has promised or threatened. Second, the deterrer’s promise must seem credible to the potential miscreant. As well as the appropriate capability, credible deterrence also requires that the deterrer has the will – personal, political or moral – to carry out her promise, and that this can be communicated to, and understood by, the wrong-doer. Deterrence is therefore a relational activity, in which both sides must employ a broadly compatible rationality.
Deterrence is particularly well known as a feature of politico-military strategy. The basic ingredients remain: a potential aggressor’s cost-benefit calculation might be influenced by the threat of a punitive response, or by the realisation that the defender’s preparations are so advanced and effective that the costs of carrying out the aggression would be too great, whether politically, financially, militarily or even reputationally. Throughout human history, when an aggressor has taken stock and decided not to proceed, it is possible – but not certain – that deterrence will have played a part in that decision. This uncertainty is discussed briefly below.
Yet politico-military strategic deterrence is far from what it was. The practical and intellectual underpinnings of this crucial idea have been fading fast from the popular and political memory – just when the need for deterrence could scarcely be greater. Alarmingly, this damning judgement might even be said of NATO, a politico-military alliance whose raison d’être was – and must continue to be – deterrence. If deterrence is failing, then the same must be said of politico-military strategy – including that offered by the Alliance.
The intention of this paper is, first, to ask how it is that we have arrived at this point; how it is that the logic of deterrence has declined so markedly in strategic and popular culture. The aim then is to describe a way out of this dilemma. The paper begins with an account of the development of deterrence during the Cold War, before describing the ‘crisis of scepticism’ that has beset deterrence thinking and practice in the 21st century. This wave of scepticism might not be significant, were it not for the fact that Russia, having detected the loss of faith among NATO’s nations, has grasped the opportunity to challenge NATO’s strategic deterrence in the manner that no deterrence posture should be expected to tolerate. Russia is calling NATO’s bluff.
This paper makes three main arguments. First, NATO should work urgently to revive its deterrence posture; a posture which should be integrated vertically, horizontally and functionally. Second, a ‘future-proofed’ deterrence posture should be a central component of the programme of adaptation set in motion at NATO’s 2016 Warsaw Summit. Third, the paper argues that a revived and integrated deterrence posture should have no other purpose than deterrence itself. The revival of NATO deterrence is not an opportunity to compensate for some defence deficiency or another, under the guise of an ‘Offset Strategy’ of some sort. Instead, this is the moment for a ‘First Reset Strategy’ – a co-ordinated effort to rediscover and then achieve the fundamental goal of deterrence: the establishment of order, even in an adversarial environment. The paper concludes by recommending five concrete actions to be taken as soon as possible by NATO in order to launch the First Reset Strategy.