Traditional Deterrence, Contemporary Insecurity

EDITED BY: Alex S. Wilner and Andreas Wegner
PUBLISHED BY: Cambria Press
REVIEWED BY: Patrick Swan, per Concordiam contributor


Deterrence against an adversary comes in three varieties: punishment, retaliation and denial. A state may deter an adversary of relatively equal strength with threats of punishment and retaliation. Deterrence by denial convinces an adversary that there is a high probability of failure. It’s as simple to understand as securing one’s car. Security measures, such as cameras, theft-prevention devices or simply not leaving valuables in the car, reduce the perceived benefits and make it more likely that bad actors will turn to easier targets. To paraphrase Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, it is the acme of skill to deny an adversary access or acquisition to one’s means without raising one’s hand in anger.

All of this is spelled out in the book “Deterrence by Denial: Theory and Practice,” described by the publisher as the first study to focus exclusively on contemporary denial. It was conceived and drafted to bridge the theoretical gap between classical deterrence theory and contemporary insecurity. Edited by Alex S. Wilner, an associate professor of international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, and Andreas Wegner, a professor of international and Swiss security policy at ETH Zurich, the book employs empirically driven and policy-relevant contributions from international scholars.

The editors present a history of deterrence by denial from the Cold War to today and then explain why they believe the international community has entered a “dawn of a new deterrence” by denial. A chapter examines the social psychology of denial and how one can dissuade by denial in counterterrorism operations. The book then presents how one would employ deterrence by denial as a strategy, including case studies that look at denial deterrence in cyberspace.

The power of deterrence by denial is dissuading one party from doing something, rather than compelling a party to do something it might not otherwise have done. Sanctions over Ukraine may punish Russia by denying some economic benefits, but on their own they have not compelled Russia to withdraw or to stand down. Deterrence by denial succeeds when bad actors are convinced that they will be denied the fruits of their aggression.

A potential policy shortfall is thinking deterrence alone can prevent the outbreak of war and failing to plan for the possibility an opponent finds a way around. “Deterrence failure,” writes contributor James Wirtz, a professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, transforms “the conflict into a test of who is willing to engage in an attritional struggle to reverse the status quo. The party challenging the deterrent threat is in fact banking on the fact the party relying on deterrence will fail that test.” Thus, deterrence-by-denial strategies must remain dynamic, something that is neither easy nor inexpensive. Contributor Martin Libicki, a U.S. Naval Academy professor, acknowledges that it is key to keep the enemy from starting a fight — even a fight they may lose. One way to do that is by demonstrating that even success at operational cyberwar, for instance, will yield little of military consequence.

Contributor Patrick Morgan, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, reviews how denial fits into broader facets of deterrence and notes how the concept of denial has evolved to reflect “the changing nature of interstate security and conflict.” Wilner reconceptualizes and repurposes denial into three unique concepts: intra-conflict denial, cumulative denial and communicative denial. He illustrates how these might work in different security contexts. University of Toronto professors Janice Gross Stein and Ron Levi provide a theoretical and empirical assessment of denial in contemporary counterterrorism to tackle substate threats and challenges.

The second part of this volume empirically assesses contemporary denial, presenting lessons derived from interstate and regional conflict. Wirtz illustrates how and why contemporary adversaries of the United States have come to believe that they can defeat American deterrence and what U.S. policymakers can do about it. Policy consultant Jonathan Trexel offers an in-depth exploration of Japan’s evolving deterrent relationship with North Korea. He explains the nature of Japanese denial and its effect on North Korean behavior, providing lessons for other countries and rivalries. And policy consultant Dmitry Adamsky examines Israeli practices of deterrence with traditional or classical interpretation, and how Israel’s practices evolved into a denial strategy to fit its security requirements. Libicki considers the application and practice of cyberspace coercion. Gauging success, Libicki contends, may depend in part on whether a defender is trying to defeat a cyberattack altogether, or simply to affect, limit or dampen what a cyberattack is meant to accomplish in such areas as infrastructure and deployed forces. He dubs it “indirect denial through resilience.”

Morgan states that deterrence by denial involves active and passive threats designed to make a potential attack appear unlikely to succeed and to convince the attacker to abandon the endeavor. The use of force may also be used to make a real attack unsuccessful, thereby causing the attacker to abandon it. Or the defender can make the achievement of a successful attack so difficult and costly that no further attacks are mounted.

Deterrence by denial is useful for facing real — not just possible — threats that are numerous but limited in scale, Morgan says. It covers preparations meant to inhibit future attacks, military or otherwise. The denier must threaten to resist harshly any attacker and be prepared to carry out that threat when necessary. “A denial threat also aims to shape the opponent’s decisions, not just psychologically but, if necessary, by physically limiting what the attack would accomplish. The two types of threats are distinct but overlap. Their objective is the same, as is how the deterrence involved should work — frustrating the opponent’s plans by threatening unacceptable harm.”

The editors remind readers that defenses do not need to be perfect, just good enough to convince a challenger that an attack will fail or be very costly. “If the challenger is highly motivated, even a high likelihood of failure might not deter them from going through with an attack … This is why strategists often add a cost element by linking denial to punishment.” Active defenses provide visible protection to populations and increase the uncertainty for adversaries without risking the escalation a kinetic counterstrike might bring.

Through the specialized chapters, this book illustrates how and why the processes of defense, punishment and denial are inherently linked. Areas to explore further include the risks decision-makers take when blending these concepts, conceptually and practically; and whether they would be naturalizing terrorism and cyberattacks by treating them as but one shifting point on a spectrum. In theory, the editors contend, denial woven with punishment permits the national authority to use diplomacy, statecraft, intelligence, economics and other methods to shape and manipulate an adversary’s behavior. But what conflicts may emerge between disparate civilian and military leaders? This book is a good place to begin that important discussion.

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