Page 76

strategic deterrence as our will and ability to wield military power to prevent or inhibit the use of force by another state in a manner of which we disapprove.

Successful deterrence lies with careful and precise application of such a policy. In practice, deterrence is an element of a specific security strategy, and such strategy does not evolve in isolation. There is a logic, or a series of steps based on a broad policy objective, that we follow to arrive at a strategy. To reason out and implement deterrence in foreign policy, we identify whom we want to deter from doing something, how we want to deter them, under what circumstances, and by what means we plan to deter them. Thereafter we must decide how we obtain those means. More simply, we have to know which states we want to deter from doing what—and we have to decide what we need to do so and how to get it.

To deter specific cases of aggression, the best deterrent is possession of superior military fighting capabilities coupled with well-thought-through "use" and "declaratory" doctrines. However, it is also essential, although often overlooked, that the target government and leadership we wish to deter respond to the logic of deterrence—that they recognize, understand, and react to our efforts to inhibit their actions as we would have them do. Such behavior requires a similar logical thought process to our own, an assumption not always justified.

Much of the Cold War discussion about deterrence has muddled our understanding of the concept. We should guard against a general notion of deterrence as an end in itself rather than as a tool, a means to an end. Many writers, and even policy makers, attempted to treat deterrence as an abstract. In the Cold War years, these efforts aimed at creating a general theory and policy of deterrence, with an associated clutch of models one might apply to help understand and address unfolding challenges to the United States. The unique security challenges to the United States during the Cold War helped engender this search for a general theory. It was a bipolar world, and to deter war meant inhibiting the Soviet Union from using force to further its foreign policy goals. Furthermore, since we could assume that any use of force between the superpowers would lead to escalation into eventual nuclear war, debate centered on coupling nuclear and conventional arms deterrence as the key to prevent general war. Ultimately, these Cold War efforts toward "general" deterrence against all types of aggression failed, although the idea has resurfaced more recently.


During the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy and security strategy flowed from the threat of the Soviet Union and the ultimate threat of nuclear war. We designed and implemented a national security strategy centered on containing further Soviet expansion and deterring Soviet use of force toward achieving their foreign policy ends. Although we sought to reduce the risk of nuclear war,

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement