The US should sideline deterrence and let prevention lead the way

In the days of radio, when a batter crushed a basebal  that was headed for a home run, the famous sports announcer Mel Allen described the ball’s trajectory as “going, going, gone.” The same descriptor applies to the post-World War II concept of deterrence.

Why? With the use of fission weapons in 1945, deterrence acquired a first name: nuclear. Nuclear deterrence and the double-edged acronym of MAD for “mutual assured destruction” were based on what an old friend of mine cynically noted: “Nuclear war is bad for business.”

As the USSR and then China developed their own nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, deterrence meant retaining sufficient nuclear firepower to destroy the aggressor after absorbing an enemy’s first strike. And a thermonuclear weapon had 1,000 times more destructive power than a nuclear one.

As the Cold War evolved and both tactical nuclear and conventional weapons grew in lethality, nuclear deterrence conceptually and strategically was “extended” to cover lesser forms of war, even to counterinsurgency. The notion was that a preponderance of force could deter all or most levels of conflict. That worked with the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It did not deter China from intervening in Korea in November 1950.

With the Cold War long over, deterrence lingered as a legacy concept. Certainly, in the 21st century, the use of deterrence has become profligate and even promiscuous. The basis of the strategy is to deter. But deter what? And the only effective instrument to deter is the military one.

Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the former waged by both the Soviets and a Western coalition, were not deterred. Russia and China have not been deterred: Russia in invading Georgia and Ukraine; China in threatening Taiwan and claiming huge chunks of the various China Seas. And Houthi and Islamic radical groups have not been deterred from attacking ships in the Red Sea and American forces in the region.

One conclusion should be self-evident. The use of deterrence must be carefully controlled because in too many ways it is no longer relevant and is too dependent on military force. At the strategic level, of course, nuclear deterrence works. 

Leaders of America, China and Russia all agree that a nuclear war must never be fought and never can be won, especially if thermonuclear weapons are used. Societies would surely be existentially threatened. Hence, a more appropriate concept is needed at the sub-strategic levels of war and violence. And that concept must go beyond dependence alone on the use or threat of military force.

Deterrence has become too overworked and overused to serve as a basis for strategy as it lacks meaning and substance. Indeed, there’s no longer a clear definition as to where it applies, and it may not be applicable other than at the strategic nuclear level. 

Prevention and the need to contain, limit and end conflicts as soon as feasible fills this role.

Prevention is more than a semantic difference from deterrence. It represents a new conceptualization for strategic thinking and planning that, if properly understood, extends to the use of all tools of power and influence beyond the military one. MAP, or mutual acts of prevention, is the replacement for MAD. And that implies we can prevent where we can and it is not a universal cure.

This does not mean military force does not play a vital role. Deterrence was to be achieved through one of two actions: denial, which is denying an enemy the ability to attack first, and threat of punishment, which is destruction. Prevention can still deny and punish. The biggest distinctions are that it is far more proactive than deterrence and does not guarantee that it can work in every case, just as deterrence cannot.

The Biden administration may have sensed the declining relevance of deterrence when it introduced, and so far has failed to define, “integrated deterrence.” The term assumes a “whole of government approach” without indicating which parts and capabilities of government should be involved. Prevention can resolve that dilemma.

For example, why are the Houthis and other militant groups attacking U.S. and other Western targets?  One answer is to support Hamas against Israel. Hence, the better focus of prevention is ending the Gaza War. In the meantime, these attacks must also be prevented kinetically. 

It is time to update the strategic lexicon. The aim must be to prevent, not to deter.

Harlan Ullman Ph.D. is senior advisor at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His 12th book, The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large,” is available on Amazon. X/Twitter: @harlankullman.

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