We seek to deter:
- Russian adventurism (or worse) in Ukraine
- Chinese nationalism in the Western Pacific
- Drug cartels
- Children at our doorstep
- Domestic terrorism
- Violent extremism
- Building and rebuilding in flood plains
- Driving Under the Influence
- Boating Under the Influence
- Texting while Driving
- Much more
Effective deterrence involves the suggestion or projection or conjuring or crafting — even the verb is situational — of a context where others will not do what you do not want them to do without requiring that you fully invest in stopping them. Deterrence is targeted at motivation and intention as much as behavior.
In May The Economist scanned a very troubled global context and asked, “Under what circumstances will America act to deter troublemakers? What, ultimately, would America fight for?” As the questions imply, deterrence is usually most effective when another party perceives you are ready and willing to fully invest in stopping them.
Since early in the Cold War we 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 power as a deterrent. In each case deterrence is coercive.
The downing of MH17 pushed the European Union to impose much tougher economic sanctions on Russia than were otherwise likely to have emerged. The actual deterrent effect of these actions — combined with coordinated action by the US and others — is uncertain, especially in the near-term. But there is increasing evidence that over the long-term economic sanctions can have an influence — if they are consistently and comprehensively enforced. Big if and long-term can sometimes take too long.
On July 25 President Obama, hosting the Presidents of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, said, “I emphasized that the American people and my administration have great compassion for these children…but I also emphasized to my friends that we have to deter a continuing influx of children putting themselves at risk.”
In this context that “we” focused on that target suggests something more than the application of US military force or economic sanctions.
Deterrence is usually characterized in terms of increased risk. Do X and we will do Y. You won’t like Y. This is an important part of the story. It is not — should not be — the whole story.
In the case of children-at-the-border deterrence is most often discussed in terms of quick-capture-and-return. By doing so many suppose the motivation of risking illegal entry would be widely discouraged.
Risk is perceived through cognitive frames. This has been demonstrated empirically. Most of us know this as a matter of personal experience. We are especially motivated to avoid losing what we have. Some hypothesize the more we have the more disinclined we are to lose it: the more susceptible we are to deterrence.
Does this predisposition work in reverse: The less one has, the greater readiness to risk it on a big win? At least one study by Cornell University scholars found that “desperation motivates lottery consumption by the poor”. The odds of successful illegal entry to the United States are much better than most lottery likelihoods.
Is desperation — financial, political, spiritual, existential — resistant to deterrence? Yes, in my experience.
Several recent analyses have suggested Vladimir Putin is “cornered” in regard to Ukraine and more. Writing in the New Republic, Julia Iolffe, comments, “This is Putin today: a brash and unpredictable man backed into a corner with little, if any, way out. And it’s not a good Putin to be faced with.” When, where, and how will he seek to break-out?
Putin is desperate to survive politically. Survival is less abstract for hundreds of millions. Desperation may be the most common characteristic of a global tribe of young males. (Related academic study) Several demographic trends are discouraging for a significant proportion of this volatile group. Mass migration is only one symptom.
Despair — the absence of hope — is as susceptible to irrational risk-taking as it is resistant to rational deterrence. Humans will risk a great deal to reclaim hope.
To effectively deter almost always involves dampening desperation.
American military or police power can deploy a credible prospect of pain. What are our tools for generating the prospect of pleasure? To fight is not our only investment option. If deterrence is the investment goal, both pain and pleasure — carrot and stick — are needed to make real progress… along the Dnieper and the Tigrus and the Rio Grande.
I posted what’s above early on August 3. I am told that this week I am unlikely to be able to access the Internet. Depending on what transpires, this post may seem especially irrelevant or entirely inappropriate. If so, I apologize.