The Uncertainty, Unreality and Inadequacy of Deterrence ?
By Konstantinos Travlos
(Done for P.S. 580, Prof. John Vasquez, UIUC)
Deterrence theory has been one of the most venerable bodies of thought in International Relations. Names of scholars like Robert Jervis, Thomas Schelling, Herman Kahn, Raymond Aron and Bernard Brodie have all tackled questions concerning the operation of deterrence in a nuclear world. Others, like John Mearsheimer have done so in the conventional military realm. Policy makers from Dwight Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy have used it language to justify decisions and actions.
And yet it seems that the concept of deterrence and the theories that it has sparked may suffer from the same problems that the older concept of the balance of power suffered. These are problems similar to those that led Hans Morgenthau to declare the balance of power as uncertain, unreal and inadequate. The main argument of this paper is that the concept of deterrence, at least as far as nuclear deterrence is concerned, suffers from all three of these problems. I shall shows this be focusing on three works on deterrence, Herman Kahn’s The Nature and Feasibility of War and Deterrence, Alexander George’s and Richard Smoke’s Deterrence in American Foreign Policy, and John Mueller’s The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons. 
The Uncertainty of Deterrence
Deterrence, according to Thomas Schelling is essentially the threat of the use of force to hurt a subject, in order to stop that subject from taking an action. In its core it is a psychological act rather than a physical act. By promising pain, one can alter the preferences of another. In Morgenthau’s words it could be seen as a form of power. Herman Kahn sees three kinds of deterrence, Type I against nuclear actions directly targeted at a state, Type II against nuclear actions not directly targeted at a state, but still considered negative by that state, and Type III against non-nuclear actions not directly targeted at a state, but which could be considered a provocation. Common to all of these types of deterrence is a calculation of costs and benefits both for the deterring state and the state being deterred. And here lies the first problem.
As was the case with the balance of power there is a problem of measuring those costs and benefits, especially for the opponent. More importantly there is a problem of measuring what military forces or what level of threat is adequate for deterrence to work. Furthermore the inability to accurately consider the goals and cost/benefit calculus of an opponent creates a grey area concerning the limits of deterrence. As George and Smoke note, U.S foreign policy during the cold war was completely unable to define either geographic or force limits to the deterrence towards the
Why? Because by trying to explain deterrence failure, types of failure and deterrence success, they incorporated new intervening variables that ultimately end up nullifying the independent variable: threat of force. Essentially every case of deterrence failure can provide a new variable. One is influence and that is a useful category, but influence ends up meaning all the possible ways one state can influence another, barring the threat of force. Which in turn, brings deterrence back to Morgenthau’s vague and problematic definition of power. Indeed one ends with the impression that Smoke and George end up just reiterating Morgenthau’s calls for diplomacy. But the construction of an inductive theory of deterrence faces the second problem of the concept, its unreality.
The Unreality of Deterrence
Morgenthau had attacked the balance of power as being unreal. States seldom followed its prescriptions and it was hard to discern if a state action was the result of the balance of power or of other less altruistic motives. This is a problem that the concept of deterrence also faces. First there is the problem of what is deterrence success. George and Smoke aptly illustrate this by noting that since deterrence is a psychological interaction, just the absence of overt action is not a sufficient to indicate a deterrence success. One must have reliable information about the cost-benefit calculus and the goals of the “deterred” state. And with current political science methods that is impossible. Thus they propose looking at failures.
Herman Kahn inadvertently points to the second cause of unreality. In all types of deterrence he describes a crucial element is the estimation of the opponent’s tactics and capabilities and the ability of the defender to survive an attack. But he provides us with no indicator of how strong those capabilities must be for deterrence to work. To put it in more damning words, we have no way to measure the balance of power between the deterrent power and the power that is the target of deterrence. Which leads to the problem that states will then have no choice but to maximize power, leading one to the same exact situation Morgenthau argued against, and George and Smoke note us a problem. It is no coincidence that deterrence theorists like Schelling and Jervis always call for prudence, and Muller, George and Smoke call for the primacy of diplomacy in international relations.
The unreality is also made more pronounced by the never ending debates over offensive and defensive characteristics of nuclear weapons and their impact on deterrence. Like the debates over the defensive or offensive characteristics of the balance of power, it is not clear whether MRVs (multiple reentry vehicle nuclear warheads) or MIRVs (multiple independently guided reentry vehicle nuclear warheads) are more or less dangerous or conducive for deterrence. To this one can add the debate over the numbers of warheads, the type of platforms and so on.
The final element of the unreality is made prominent by George and Smoke when they call for the induction of inducement in the theory of deterrence. Or more correctly, to make deterrence a part of diplomacy. But the question can be raised as to whether deterrence was ever something different. Threats, promises all of these were always part of diplomacy. Deterrence seems to had been differentiated from diplomacy by scholars wrestling with the implications of the advent of the nuclear age. Indeed nuclear weapons, and the anxieties they gave birth too were the main impetus for the deterrence literature. And here lies the final problem of the concept of deterrence: its inadequacy.
The Inadequacy of Deterrence
The existence of nuclear weapons, and the questions created about the nature of diplomacy, great power politics and war in the nuclear age, were the impetuous for the theorizing on deterrence. All major deterrence scholars, like Schelling and Jervis, noted the importance of nuclear weapons for politics and peace and the revolutionizing of concepts such as war and victory. But what if they exaggerated that importance. What if nuclear weapons had a more limited, auxiliary role in international relations? What if they are inadequate as an explanation of world politics, as Morgenthau argued about the balance of power? This is the argument of John Muller. Muller believes that that great power behavior during the clod war and world politics are less influenced by nuclear weapons than generally believed. For Muller the nuclear peace is not really nuclear but primarily driven by other factors.
These factors are war weariness among those states that could launch a world war, a general acceptance of the status-quo by all these states, the preference of the Soviets for subversion and revolution rather than war as method for expanding their sphere of influence.  Furthermore a pacifying factor was the fear of escalation to costly conventional levels, rather than necessarily of nuclear war. Additionally many of the policies followed by the cold war rivals, like crisis policy and alliance construction, cannot be explained by arguments based on questions of nuclear deterrence. This leads Muller to argue that the long peace is essentially the results of a long term process of “Hollandization” as one after the other, major developed states drop out of the war trap. Great Power is absent in the world because Great Powers do not see a point to it. 
The above arguments probably do not suffice by themselves to totally invalidate the concept of deterrence. But they should cast some doubt as to its theoretical robustness. At the very least it seems to suffer from uncertainty, unreality and inadequacy. In turn this weakens the theoretical and empirical vigor of theories build on it. Indeed scholars like Vasquez, have attacked the empirical validity of some theories incorporating the concept of deterrence, and have found it wanting. The question then rises of whether the concept can be productively restated, or whether it is probable to lead to a degenerative research program? Only more analysis will give an answer.
 Robert Jervis, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution, Cornell University Press 1989, Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence, Yale University Press, 1966, Herman Kahn, “The Nature and Feasibility of War and Deterrence”, in American Strategy in the Nuclear Age, edited by Walter Hahn and John Neff, Anchor 1960, Raymond Aron, On War, Anchor 1959
 John Mearsheimer, Conventional Deterrence,
 Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations, McGraw Hill 2006 pp 214-231
 Alexander L.George and Richard Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy, Columbia University Press 1974, John Muller, The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons, International Security, Fall 1988 (Vol. 13, No.2)
 Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence,
 Herman Kahn , “The Three Types of Deterrence”, in Classics of International Relations, edited by John A. Vasquez, Prentice-Hall, 1990 pp 299-303
 Alexander L.George and Richard Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy, Columbia University Press 1974 pp 505-508,591
 Alexander L.George and Richard Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy pp 512-515
 Alexander L.George and Richard Smoke, 1974 pp 509-515
 Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations, McGraw Hill 2006 pp 218-224
 Alexander L.George and Richard Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy, Columbia University Press 1974 pp 516-517
 Herman Kahn , “The Three Types of Deterrence”, in Classics of International Relations, edited by John A. Vasquez, Prentice-Hall, 1990 pp 299,301-302
 Robert Jervis, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution, Cornell University Press 1989 pp 226-257 , Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence, Yale University Press, 1966 pp 190 - 286, Alexander L.George and Richard Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy, Columbia University Press 1974, pp 604-613, John Muller, The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons, International Security, Fall 1988 (Vol. 13, No.2) pp 68-70,72-73,78
 Alexander L.George and Richard Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy, pp 604-610
 Robert Jervis, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution, Cornell University Press 1989 pp 1-74, Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence, Yale University Press, 1966 pp 18-26
 John Muller, The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons, International Security, Fall 1988 (Vol. 13, No.2) page 56
 John Muller, The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons, pp 57-59
 John Muller, 1988 page 59-64,65-70
 Ibid pp 72-78
 John A. Vasquez, The War Puzzle,