Deterrence: A Political and Psychological Critique

  • Richard Ned LebowEmail author
Part of the Pioneers in Arts, Humanities, Science, Engineering, Practice book series (PAHSEP, volume 4)


Postwar American security policy was built on a foundation of deterrence. In the early Cold War period, American leaders relied on nuclear deterrence to discourage Soviet or Chinese attacks against American allies in Western Europe and the Far East. When these countries developed the means to launch intercontinental nuclear attacks of their own, the United States counted on deterrence to prevent an attack against itself. Over the years, successive American administrations have also attempted to use deterrence to moderate the policies of Third World states with which the United States or its allies have come into conflict. Partisans of deterrence assert that it has kept the peace between the superpowers and has been useful in managing lesser conflicts. This chapter disputes both claims.

When discussing deterrence it is important to distinguish between the theory of deterrence and the strategy of deterrence. The former pertains to the logical postulates of deterrence and the assumptions on which they are based. Put succinctly, deterrence is an attempt to influence another actor’s assessment of its interests. It seeks to prevent an undesired behavior by convincing the party who may be contemplating it that the cost will exceed any possible gain. Deterrence presupposes that decisions are made in response to some kind of rational cost-benefit calculus, that this calculus can be successfully manipulated from the outside, and that the best way to do this is to increase the cost side of the ledger. Different scholars have developed their own variants of deterrence theory. All of them, however, are based on these assumptions.

Deterrence strategy is concerned with applying the theory of deterrence to real world conflicts. It has given rise to its own body of theory about how this is best accomplished. The first wave of this theory, almost entirely deductive in nature, was developed in the 1950s and 1960s by such scholars as Brodie (1959), Kaufman (1954), and Schelling (1966). Most of these works stressed the importance of imparting credibility to commitments and explored various mechanisms leaders could exploit toward this end. The literature of this period is often referred to as classical deterrence theory (Jervis 1979).


Wishful Thinking Soviet Leader Deterrence Theory Deterrence Strategy Nuclear Deterrence 
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© The Author(s) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of War StudiesKing’s College LondonLondonUK

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