Morgan – The State of Deterrence in International Politics Today

This week we are considering ‘The State of Deterrence in International Politics Today’ by Patrick M. Morgan (2012, Contemporary Security Policy, 33:1, 85-107). It considers how deterrence and deterrence theory has changed since the cold war, and how it could be revived in some ways to deter future conflicts.

Here’s what we thought:

In this long and detailed article published in 2012, the author asks ‘What does deterrence, in theory and practice, look like now?’ As there is just so much content in this article, I thought I’d highlight one particular passage that interests me. In it, the author suggests:

‘there is an alliance among democracies, whether explicit or not, involving a semi-automatic extended deterrence. Numerous adjustments in thinking about security are required to encompass the complications this entails.’ (94)

Naturally, there are several issues with ‘Collective Actor Deterrence’, and the author does explore them. But I wonder, what does everyone think about this notion? Does the concept hold water in 2018? Especially given there seems to be a political reluctance to sufficiently enforce sanctions and threats, leading to a credibility gap between what international State actors say, and what they do.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

The article reviews the state of deterrence anno 2012, in both the academic and policy world, and discusses to what extent it has changed since the Cold War. The fact it was written in 2012 must be kept in mind, as the article is a little bit dated. The security environment has changed substantially to a more “traditional” and state-oriented environment since 2012. I would be curious to see an updated version of the article, and what these developments meant for the author’s conceptualisation of deterrence. I appreciate how the author views the subject of deterrence not merely through realist glasses, as most of the literature does. This allowed for a broad conceptualisation of deterrence and its influences. For instance, his inclusion of non-realist determinants of the ‘national interest’ was a welcome contribution to the literature on deterrence.

I would have appreciated it if the article was a bit more systematic though. Perhaps the article was too short (as it seems like it was an attempt to condense the author’s 2009 book on deterrence in an article), but I missed a sharp definition of what deterrence was; a systematic method to analyse historical changes; and structurally distinguishing between academic research, foreign policy; and the meta-level analysis beyond both policy and academic work on deterrence. Instead the article a non-structured narrative, that makes the analysis seem ad hoc, mentioning different characteristics of the contemporary security environment but staying at such a surface level that nothing really new or meaningful is said.

Because of the non-systematic analysis, the concept of deterrence gets stretched significantly. While I understand that the point of the author is to explain how the nature of deterrence has changed, I feel that if you want to call military intervention to halt human rights violations deterrence, you really need to justify your choices about what deterrence is, why you choose that definition, and why certain behaviour falls under deterrence. Otherwise you risk that the concept of deterrence becomes meaningless. Furthermore, if the point is to describe how

deterrence has developed over time and how the concept has now expanded, the article needs a more in-depth consideration of the historical nature of non-nuclear forms of deterrence, non-superpower deterrence and pre-Cold War deterrence policies. Are the contemporary forms of deterrence truly unique now, or have they always been here, and was the Anglo-Saxon IR literature perhaps preoccupied with nuclear weapons and superpowers with little eye for other forms of deterrence?

The literature on deterrence is so interesting to me, both due to the subject of deterrence, but also on a meta-level, as the academic literature has played such a pivotal role on foreign policy (e.g. Thomas Schelling), and the political views of the authors (from various camps) shine through in their analysis. The author did not really touch the academic and policy interplay significantly, nor debated where the changing attitudes about deterrence come from. This is a shame, especially as deterrence is all about perception, belief, and conventional narratives. It is about convincing an adversary that you are willing them to strike in such a way that it would be foolish for the adversary to attack. But it follows a certain logic, and if an adversary does not believe in that logic, it makes your policy less powerful. So what makes actors believe in that logic or not? What made this paradigm fall out of fashion? And what has changed that that logic is no longer as prevalent, neither in academia nor in policy (anno 2012)? I would have loved to see such meta-level reflections from the author in this paper. Now only how has deterrence changed, but a bit more critical reflection on why it has changed, besides changes in the security environment. However, it is possible that the author expands more on this in their book.

Maaike Verbruggen,Vrije Universiteit Brussel

What does deterrence look like today in both theory and practice? This is the fundamental question Morgan sets out to address throughout the course of this paper. The author draws some useful parallels between pre- and post-Cold War deterrence thinking whilst also highlighting key divergences. Morgan underlines contextual shifts that are shaping contemporary deterrence such as expanding normative constraints on the use of force, the shifting nature of threats and continuous technological change. But contrary to common assertions that such contextual shifts render deterrence inadequate for addressing contemporary security challenges, Morgan sees this as a flawed outlook and moves to highlight that deterrence, rather than becoming inadequate, has become more complex but remains relevant. An important point made here is that deterrence in international politics must be adjusted to accommodate major shifts in the regional and global international systems – but doing so is fraught with challenges. As Morgan puts it: “We are reshaping an important recourse for maintaining international order even as that order is itself being refashioned; we are altering our tools while we build on the run” (p. 86). For me, this echoes the type of dilemmas we are seeing across the board in relation to defence and security issues; where this element of not being able to keep up with the pace of change somewhat cripples our abilities to make meaningful progress in tackling certain challenges.

An interesting point Morgan touches on in this regard is the ability for opponents to design around traditional modes of deterrence (p. 86). The idea of designing around deterrence in order to eschew it seems particularly relevant to today’s security environment as we see

rapidly evolving threats, blurred thresholds of tolerance and hostile grey zone activity by increasingly assertive state actors. Whilst these issues do indeed make deterrence more complex, they also highlight again the vulnerabilities and potential inadequacies of current approaches to deterrence. The rapidity of technological innovation in unison with the types of challenges necessitates fresh thinking on deterrence to bridge vulnerability gaps and mitigate the ability for actors to ‘design around’ deterrence strategies. Deciding what, when and how to deter is constantly becoming more complex as new challenges – often underpinned by technological innovation – emerge. In this sense, it seems as though deterrence thinking/strategies themselves must also become more multifaceted, adaptive and innovative – even hybrid (not dissimilar traits to the threats it seeks to deter) in order to be credible in today’s security environment. I think this is an enormous challenge, not only in terms of understanding, recognising and deciding which of the multidimensional threats we face today would be responsive to deterrence, but also in terms of confronting the remaining inertia surrounding Cold War deterrence thinking in order to move firmly away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Anna Dyson, Lancaster University

I liked Morgan’s paper, and thought it really interesting. I have been thinking about deterrence from an international law perspective for a little while. We usually think of the international law rules on the use of force as being a deterrent as no state really wants to be seen breaking them and be labelled an aggressor. But, we’ve seen a lot of breaches of those rules since 1945, without much damage to any state aggressors. So, perhaps public international law doesn’t have a strong deterrent facet.

However, as a large number of recent conflicts have involved non-state actors, and their wrongful acts are usually dealt with under international criminal law (ICL), I have been wondering whether ICL could have a deterrent effect not in the same terms we see domestic criminal law hopefully deterring criminality, but more in terms of deterring large-scale violence and insurgency. If ICL can deter this, it can essentially deter violent conflicts with non-state actors. Although the threat of prison can deter criminals, violent non-state actors are willing to die for their cause, and so the threat of prison may not impact them quite so much. Hopefully, I’ll get round to carrying out this research.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University.


Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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