Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 8, 2011

Deterrence: Retrieving the full spectrum

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on December 8, 2011

Wednesday’s joint House-Senate hearing on homegrown terrorism was interesting, enlightening, painful, embarrassing, and infuriating… sometimes in the course of a single minute or two.  If you were not in the hearing room or missed the C-SPAN broadcast (available in archived entirety), individual videos and prepared testimonies are available at the House Homeland Security Committee website.

One of those testifying was LT. COL. Reid Sawyer, Director, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.  In his prepared testimony LT. COL. Sawyer noted,

The emergence of homegrown terrorism and the targeting of U.S. military forces requires a renewed examination of the nature of radicalization and the changing nature of autonomous radicalization—a process that today occurs largely in isolation from direct connection with external networks, creating new challenges for law enforcement and intelligence communities to detect, prevent and deter homegrown terrorism.

Most of Wednesday’s testimony, questions, answers, and occasional pontificating focused on detecting and preventing.  The lack of attention to deterring is unfortunate.  Especially in regard to homegrown terrorism there is a significant opportunity for deterrence… especially if deterrence is well-understood.

The Latin origin of deter, deterrent, and deterrence is deterrere.   During the classical era deterrere was much closer to our understanding of discourage or hinder than the Mutual Assured Destruction of Cold War deterrence.  There is even a positive aspect to the concept.

In Cicero’s Impeachment of Verres we read, “… testis praesertim , timidos homines et adflictos, non solum auctoritate deterrere, sed etiam consulari metu, et duorum praetorum potestate.”  A reasonable translation: “… witness in particular, timid and oppressed men, hindered not only by your own private influence, but fear of the consul, and the power of two praetors.”  The explicit distinction between deterrere (hindered) and metu (fear) is meaningful.  Moreover they are hindered by influence, while they fear power.

Deter entered English in the 1570s.  An early use is found in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667):

Rather your dauntless virtue, whom the pain
Of death denounced, whatever thing Death be,
Deterred not from achieving what might lead
To happier life, knowledge of Good and Evil?
Of good, how just! Of evil-if what is evil
Be real, why not known, since easier shunned?

John Milton, Paradise Lost (l. Bk. IX, l)

Early English usage reflected the classical meaning.  In the passage above, dauntless virtue being not discouraged or not hindered seems more coherent with the tone than “not terrorized.”

In 1764  Cesare Beccaria published Dei delitti e delle pene (On Crime and Punishments) in which he argued for a systematic approach to what we would now call deterrence.

It is better to prevent crimes than to punish them. This is the fundamental principle of good legislation, which is the art of conducting men to the maximum of happiness, and to the minimum of misery, if we may apply this mathematical expression to the good and evil of life. But the means hitherto employed for that purpose are generally inadequate, or contrary to the end proposed. It is impossible to reduce the tumultuous activity of mankind to absolute regularity; for, amidst the various and opposite attractions of pleasure and pain, human laws are not sufficient entirely to prevent disorders in society.

To effectively prevent crime Beccaria recommended swift, consistent, and just punishment of proven wrongs combined with education, rewards, and application of science to encourage desired behavior.

The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham built on Beccaria’s foundation, gave considerable attention to the efficacy of punishment to prevent unwanted behavior, and called it a “deterrent” (introducing the word in 1829). But Bentham notes a distinction between a longer-term and nearer-term deterrent:

All punishment has a certain tendency to deter from the commission of offences; but if the delinquent, after he has been punished, is only deterred by fear from the repetition of his offence, he is not reformed. Reformation implies a change of character and moral dispositions.

The ultimate deterrent is change of disposition or what moderns might call motivation. Bentham certainly perceived we could be influenced by fear of detection, detention, and punishment.   But a more permanent form of prevention would, he argued at length, emerge from engaging the prospect of pleasure.  By understanding the fear of pain and the prospect of pleasure, Bentham perceived society can be constructively shaped:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it.

From 1861, when “deterrence” first appeared in the English language, until the mid-Twentieth century the most common usage of the word related to issues of criminology.  Following World War II, however, deterrence was increasingly associated with military strategy and, particularly, the nuclear doctrine of Mutual Assurance Destruction.

In a January 1954 speech Secretary of State John Foster Dulles declared,

We need allies and collective security. Our purpose is to make these relations more effective, less costly. This can be done by placing more reliance on deterrent power and less dependence on local defensive power.

This is accepted practice so far as local communities are concerned. We keep locks on our doors, but we do not have an armed guard in every home. We rely principally on a community security system so well equipped to punish any who break in and steal that, in fact, would-be aggressors are generally deterred. That is the modern way of getting maximum protection at a bearable cost. What the Eisenhower administration seeks is a similar international security system. We want, for ourselves and the other free nations, a maximum deterrent at a bearable cost.

Local defense will always be important. But there is no local defense which alone will contain the mighty landpower of the Communist world. Local defenses must be reinforced by the further deterrent of massive retaliatory power.

Rather than carrot and stick, after Dulles deterrence was understood as the prospect of a very big stick pounding as hard as possible.

This Cold War definition was so deeply ingrained in our political culture that in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks President Bush asserted, “Deterrence—the promise of massive retaliation against nations—means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend.”

Deterrence is being retrieved.  In defense policy there is considerable talk of a “new deterrence.”  In homeland security and counter-terrorism important work has been done by Matthew Kroenig, Brian Jenkins and Paul Davis. But we still tend to operate under the shadow of Dulles and his terrible swift sword.  For optimal deterrence we also need some beauty of the lilies, wisdom to the mighty, and succor to the brave.

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Pingback by Deterrence: Retrieving the full spectrum | #UASI

December 8, 2011 @ 4:14 am

[…] Deterrence: Retrieving the full spectrum […]

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 8, 2011 @ 7:56 am

A great great post! Thanks Phil!

Comment by Alan Wolfe

December 8, 2011 @ 8:07 am

Yes, good post. I think the challenge is partly that the USG has thought of deterrence only in terms of strategic nuclear weapons. Although there is a large amount of literature on this regarding offensive military power, not so much when it comes to deterring terrorism. My personal theory, it’s too much soft power-guided, social and economic influences, and the USG has never been good at wielding those tools for overseas terrorism deterrence, let alone domestic. But the theory is similar.

But I’ll just put it out there, the “challenge” of “homegrown terrorism” is not as dire as the Army LTC makes it out to be. The number of cases of “homegrown terrorism” against US military installations over the last decade can be counted on two hands, with fingers left over. Let’s not hype up this issue of what essentially is disgruntled individuals into a fifth column conspiracy issue.

Comment by mcb

December 8, 2011 @ 10:30 am

Very nice post.

Seems the concept of deterrence reached its apex with Beccaria and Bentham.

“It is better to prevent crimes than to punish them.”

Good luck convincing your investigators of that.

“if the delinquent, after he has been punished, is only deterred by fear from the repetition of his offence, he is not reformed.”

But I’ll take it, especially if warns his friends.

Thank you for taking the time to tease apart this concept, which is all too often assumed to be understood by all.

Comment by Noah Bain

December 8, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

Suppose one were to say something new and substantive about deterrence, instead of rambling on at encyclopedic length with dimly illuminating quotes compensating for lack of originality?

The reason deterrence receives modest attention is because it can’t be measured. And in a technocratic, hand-wringing society, what can’t be counted must hardly count. Mr. Wolfe’s observation about hype was the most thought-provoking, here, and he didn’t have to prattle on condescendingly to get his point across. Well done, Mr. Wolfe.

Comment by Malachi Throne

December 8, 2011 @ 3:31 pm

Mr. Palin:

Thanks. I had always understood deterrence to involve a negative threat. To “retrieve” the positive is an interesting possibility. I also enjoyed the word study.

Mr. Bain:

Philip Palin is consistently old-fashioned. I only know him via his writings, but I would guess he completed college before 1960. The difference between old fashioned and condesending is probably a matter of an author’s intent and a listener’s self-confidence.

I will admit this is the first time I have read a Homeland Security piece quoting Cicero in the original Latin. Is that ipso facto (sorry, I couldn’t resist) condescending? For me the quotes were enlightening and the outcome surprising.

One of the reasons I keep coming back to HLSWatch is treatment of issues with a set of lenses I don’t find elsewhere. A humanistic, literary lens has a place even, perhaps especially, in our technocractic society.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 8, 2011 @ 6:10 pm

Alan, while we have not met, I feel like I am past the time for Mr. Wolfe. I agree with your judgment that the USG is uncomfortable (and often inept) deploying soft-power.

I perceive the CIA and State Department were better at this in the 1950s and early 1960s. This is, however, more a vague impression than an informed judgment. Any thoughts?

Mr. Bain, I very much regret any condescending tone. I was, as much as anything, trying to teach myself and sharing what I had learned.

Mr. Throne is correct, I am rather old-fashioned (even though I am not nearly as old as you guessed). A good friend once suggested I would be better suited to the 1930s than today. My daughter suggested a date centuries earlier.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

December 8, 2011 @ 7:13 pm

I think there might be a misunderstanding of “soft power.” While the term was coined by Nye to be analogous to hard power, it is not equivalent. The USG has a monopoly on US hard power projection, but the disparity of funding provided to diplomatic resources aside (the famous military marching band vs. foreign service corp comparison) the USG doesn’t directly control economic, scientific, or cultural soft power instruments. So it is not a question of comfort, though the question of types of instruments in deterring terrorism is an interesting one.

In terms of conflict and the concept of deterrence, I would hesitate to attempt to expand existing definitions to avoid the fate of “resilience.” (Yes, I’m still not convinced it has become a useful term but rather a way to attribute positive homeland security development–e.g. the NYPD is a resilient organization as opposed to simply focused and well resourced).

During the Cold War, this complicated concept was simply distilled down to the idea of trading Moscow for Washington (or Berlin for New York). Immediately following 9/11, that conceptual frame was applied to the hijackers and it could not be imagined what could be held to retaliation to prevent a similar attack. But upon further thought it was realized that the financiers, support, and other systems required to support such activities could be deterred or compelled in addition to terrorists themselves.

It took time and sophistication, but the USG has been working this for over four or five years (if your New Deterrence link is used to frame it). Listening to presentations from relevant officials, it is easy in retrospect to see the maturation from the initial 9/11 reaction to the development of a more nuanced policy that takes deterrence as important plank.

See the NYPD–some of their heralded terrorism prevention policies are actually deterrence efforts. Heck, even my suggestion for investment in decontamination technologies is a means of deterring dirty bomb attacks through denial of effect.

For some basic deterrent strategic thinking, see Schelling “The Strategy of Conflict”:

An article from International Security on deterring terrorism from 2005/2006:

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 9, 2011 @ 2:54 am

The basis of “soft” power is knowledge of languages and cultures of both the USA and other nation-states and peoples. Try checking out the book “Weaponizing Anthropology”!

We (the USA) don’t know ourselves and don’t know others. Is music soft power? Try looking at youtube type videos in the “STANS”!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 9, 2011 @ 6:30 am

Arnold and Bill, Alan was more nuanced in his reference to “soft power-guided”. I should have been at least as careful in my question to him. Arnold is right to highlight the essentially non-governmental origins and expressions of soft power.

Still… I perceive the government was once more effective at facilitating or channeling or free-riding on US soft power than has been the case for awhile, maybe since Vietnam. To shift to a narrower, but related, issue: our practice of public diplomacy has seemed to atrophy. I wonder why.

Arnold, if we decide to leave deterrence to what Dulles made of it, what word or concept would you use to retrieve the positive characteristics of deterrence? Whatever the word, I think attention to those positive characteristics is important to defense, homeland security, and more.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 9, 2011 @ 8:29 am

Phil! One of the problems is the militarization of American society in continuing support for use of force rather than reason has drained out of the
American pocketbook what the banksters did not.

Exactly when did most colleges and universities drop the requirement for some foreign language for undergrad B.A.s? Do the almost 8,000 profit making colleges and universities have a foreign language requirement? Do the Service Academies for all their grads? Using the Foreign Service language exam rankings of 1-5 how many in the US government qualify at 3 or above in any language other than English? Some clearly in Congress might not even qualify in English. Even American English.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

December 10, 2011 @ 1:15 am

I think where we disagree is whether or not the term in question did in fact include a positive component, as opposed to your choice of definitions that in my opinion included a separate part that had to do with positive incentives in terms of prevention.

The DoD defines deterrence: “The prevention of action by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction and/or belief that the cost of action outweighs the perceived benefits.”

Now that could conceivably include soft power components as the counteraction or the driver of cost of action. So The Wolfe could have been subtle enough to not only be talking about what most consider in terms of diplomacy, economics, etc. in preventing terrorism (whether stopping individuals and groups from turning to terrorist action or making sure existing groups do not target the U.S.), but specific soft power levers pushing down on deterrent pistons.

Dulles is not defining the term, but only applying it in the context of a national security strategy during the 1950s, when Eisenhower (shocking as it may seem to those who think Republicans only want to spend more on defense) did not want to bankrupt the nation attempting to increase our conventional forces in Europe (“local communities) to match that particular Soviet strength. Instead, nuclear deterrence was to be utilized to lessen the threat of war at a cost below that of building up conventional forces.

So it is not a question of taking Dulles’ definition, but taking a more general definition that may also be devoid of positive connotations. Why include them? They are important in their own right and need not be included in the definition of a term that can still be applied to non-state actors across both hard and soft power tools.

In terms of your question about the perceived shift in USG ability to apply soft power, I would guess that it has to do with our relative standing in the world. Since the fall of the USSR, we have been the unquestioned colossus in terms of hard power and find it easier to turn to that particular tool kit. While our soft power has remained strong, it has been diffused by the, uh, diffusion of power to non-state actors due to technology (see Nye’s latest work), and the emergence of competing power centers. While these nations may be in no way militarily threatening to the U.S., their rise does diffuse the unique economic, political, and cultural influence the U.S. achieved since the end of WWII to the near present.

For more on that particular idea, I would suggest reading Steve Walt’s article, “The End of the American Era:” http://nationalinterest.org/article/the-end-the-american-era-6037.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 11, 2011 @ 6:57 am

Arnold, I disagree semantically, but seem to agree substantively. So will leave it there for now. Thanks for the link to the Walt piece.

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Deterrence: Prospect of pain and pleasure

August 7, 2014 @ 12:00 am

[…] have characterized deterrence mostly in terms of the prospect of American military power applied. (Earlier understandings of deterrence were more expansive.) More recently — currently — we have experimented with the application of economic […]

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