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Deterrence, Mutual

Deterrence, Mutual


The concept of deterrence implies that, through threats of raising potential costs through means such as attack or retaliation, a party to a dispute can dissuade an opponent from undertaking an undesired action, such as starting a war. It is difficult to know when an opponent is deterred, since one must determine whether the party in question ever actually intended to act and also whether the adversarys threat dissuaded them. Under mutual deterrence, two or more parties simultaneously deter each other, a process even more complicated to verify.

Mutuality implies that both parties threats raise such negative consequences that neither party takes action. Each party must possess both sufficient resolve and capabilities to make threats credible; costs must outweigh any advantages gained by aggressive action.

Deterrence theory stems from the longstanding international relations theory of the balance of power, a much-debated notion that nations try to negate each others power advantages by strengthening their own forces and joining offsetting alliances. War supposedly can be averted through a balance of forces, though World War I (1914 1918) and other wars have broken out between powers supposedly engaged in such balances.

The post-1945 advent of mass destructive weapons and the cold war raised the possibility of a balance of terror between nuclear-armed alliances. Implicit was the threat that if one side struck with nuclear weapons, the other side would retaliate. Thus both sides would refrain from attack out of mutual fear of destruction. It is debatable whether nuclear standoff or more conventional power and interest calculations preserved the tense thirty-five-year peace between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Mutual deterrence thus took the form of a cold war doctrine of mutually assured destruction. In this remarkable and costly initiative, both Washington, D.C., and Moscow agreed to harden their retaliatory nuclear missile forces in impregnable underground silos and submarines at sea to assure that if one side launched a nuclear first strike, the other side would surely be able and willing to respond, inflicting unacceptable damage on the initiator. Stable deterrence implied that neither side should do anythingfor example, defend its citiesto upset the psychological assurance of effective retaliation.

Game theory became an integral part of the strategic thought accompanying these policies. Scenarios such as the prisoners dilemma and chicken games denoted costs and benefits of either collaborating or defecting from peaceful strategies. Temptations to build up arms and attack would inspire similar behavior in the opponent; in seeking security through armament, both sides might become less rather than more secure (the so-called security dilemma).

Deterrence in todays post-cold war world is still premised on assumptions that nuclear-armed adversaries, such as India and Pakistan, are restrained from attack by the possibility of unacceptable damage in return. No such restraint supposedly applies where only one side is heavily armed. The logic or illogic of unilateral or mutual deterrence remains puzzling, for example, as big powers attempt to dissuade smaller powers and nonstate or terrorist organizations from initiating violence. As actors adopt unorthodox forms of violence (e.g., personnel bombings and sabotage), it is not clear when political and social costs inflicted by military reprisals or other means are sufficient to deter further violence.

SEE ALSO Cold War; Deterrence; Weaponry, Nuclear; World War II


Cimbala, Stephen. 1998. The Past and Future of Nuclear Deterrence. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Jervis, Robert. 1978. Deterrence Theory Revisited. Los Angeles: University of California, Center for Arms Control and International Security.

Morgan, Patrick. 2003. Deterrence Now. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Zagare, Frank C. 1987. The Dynamics of Deterrence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Frederic Pearson

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