Lessons of a Bygone Era: Deterrence, Power Projection, and “Peace Through Strength”

The United States’ phenomenal victory over the Soviet Union during the Cold War ushered in a period of tremendous optimism, driven by the unbelievable naivete of the intelligentsia, which seemed to collectively subscribe to the belief that the victory of the liberal ideology over the communist system would catalyze the emergence of a utopian, peaceful world. Somehow, this belief proved quite fashionable, despite mountainous historical evidence which should have foreshadowed the exact opposite. 

Accompanying this belief in the new utopian reality of the world order was the idea that it was now safe for the United States to retreat from its obligations on the world stage, which in effect established a policy of treating the United States’ indispensable position of world leader as if it were a part-time job or a hobby. This new, myopic, increased focus on domestic policy is exemplified by James Carville’s one-line summation of Bill Clinton’s political platform, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Carville’s statement was indicative of a widespread and insidious new thought process which was sweeping the nation. Some scholars have called this line of thinking the “peace dividend,” which refers to the notion that the United States had earned a moment of rest, after decades of restlessly waging a costly defense of the ideal of global liberalism. Effectively, the United States abandoned all of the strategies which accelerated its rise as global hegemon, and which secured the post-World War 2 order — of which the United States was chief architect. 

If the United States is to have any hope of maintaining its role as the global authority, and if it hopes to preserve the liberal, human rights-centric world order with which the name “America” has become synonymous, then the United States must begin an extensive overhaul of its strategic policy with the singular goal of returning to an aggressive, war-fighting posture.

In the game of nations, one particular strategy relates so directly to the projection of power, that its study becomes immediately necessary as the optimism of the twentieth century meets its end: that is, realism.

Following the Cold War, members of the intelligentsia developed an apparent consensus that the philosophy of realism had somehow failed them, by not predicting the dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union. With few exceptions, these international relations scholars saw it fit – in a bout of fervency brought on by limitless optimism and abundant emotion – to cast aside 100 years of established theory, in toto. This too was a decision motivated by the post-Cold War intelligentsia’s temporary disconnection with reality, as the academy’s optimism and naivete became the lens through which they interpreted foreign policy; however, this was a fundamental misunderstanding of the Soviet Union’s collapse which, rather than being a paradigm-altering event, is actually far better viewed as a single historical moment — albeit, significant in contemporary history, but incredibly insignificant in the timeline of the millennia of history which came before. As it has begun to emerge that a momentary and fleeting reconciliation, perhaps, is not significant enough evidence of a transcendent change in the aforementioned nature of mankind to justify celebration, it becomes necessary to pick up realist works – provided to us by a century of ingenuity – from the wayside, dust them off, and see what kernels of truth remain applicable in the new (and old) world order. 

If there is anything for which realist theorists are universally known, it is their impassive, matter-of-fact theories of war. To a realist, war is a fundamental expression of an innate, immutable, human nature; humankind is motivated solely by self-interest, thus, people are forever locked in a constant struggle for power, enrichment, or the betterment of their lot — and so too are nations. War, then, is simply another method of securing previously unmet interests. This is the crux of von Clausewitz’s grand strategy, as he expressed in one of the most infamous and revered – at least, amongst realists – statements on war within modern history, “war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means.” To realists, war is neither evil or unethical in and of itself, and there is no reason that it should be avoided or feared, outside of the fact that it is an incredibly expensive diplomatic tool for the achievement of national interests. Put simply, realists believe that war is an inevitable development in the course of diplomacy, when crucial interests – the interests at stake generally must be of the highest order or the most vital, to justify the uniquely high cost of engaging in warfare – are unable to be secured by more cost-effective means. Additionally, many realists postulate that, when a nation’s geopolitical situation is untenable – as in, the present global order is unable to provide it with reasonable assurances that its essential interests are secured – war is inevitable, and just. Realists have no patience for the notion of delaying an inevitable war, especially when his nation’s strategic position will continue to deteriorate – and the enemy’s will continue to increase relative to his nation’s deteriorating position – in order to attain a sense of false righteousness. This is the root of the idea of preemptive war, or prematurely embarking upon the path of warfare, to deny one’s enemy the ability to gain an advantage through delay. Realists do not preoccupy themselves with the notions of “just war” which so often emerge from the realm of morality, they believe that the task of realism is to provide an explanatory model for the way in which the world works – not to constrain the behavior of war-fighters by arbitrary notions of “right” and “wrong;” they leave questions of morality to individuals. To a realist, if a nation looks out across the field of battle through the fog of war, and if that nation sees that it has vanquished its enemies, and if that nation sees that its position in the order of things is more tenable and advantageous than before, then that war is made “just” through their victory. 

Accepting realism’s view of war as veritable truth, that war is, by its nature, another form of political communication, I consider it to be a useful thought-experiment to ponder the concept of war as if it were itself a form of language. This view postulates the idea that war, rather than rendered beyond comprehension by its chaotic and brutish nature – a view that has been advanced by the present humanism and Pollyanna-ism which motivates pretentious scholars’ scorn for (and fear of) war – is able to be refined through masterful and dedicated study – like an art form. Just as linguists and orators dedicate themselves to learning to communicate more effectively, and aesthetically, constantly in search of eloquence, so too can one specialize in the language of strategic aggression. It is based upon this premise that I engage in theoretical analyses such as this one.

Recent years have brought about an especial upending of the world order, as we have known it, and a palpable consternation has begun to emerge within the global community at large.  However, despite the recent emergence of new evidence testifying to the fact the United States’ post-Cold War utopian pronouncements were little more than a fever dream, this vacuous belief in the inherent “goodness” of mankind and the world order has proven to be particularly intractable. It is as though earnestly hoping that something is true is now believed sufficient to make it so.

One of the policies that emerged from this utopian fallacy is the policy of strategic ambiguity, which is often discussed in the context of the isolated case of the United States’ policy towards the Sino-Taiwan conflict, but over the years following the Cold War it has become the dominant and overarching characteristic of the United States foreign policy towards other states. Strategic ambiguity is a form of deterrence; deterrence is a form of power projection – the ability of a state to influence the politics, and impose its will upon, an area outside of that state’s traditional sphere of influence – that relies, not upon the actual deployment of forces abroad, but the widespread knowledge amongst the state’s enemies that it can deploy forces abroad — to a devastating effect. In other words, deterrence is a policy of one state, incentivizing or dissuading another state’s behavior – e.g., that state’s decision to behave with hostile intent – by demonstrating the consequences that can and will be opposed for certain actions. 

Deterrence is generally divided into two categories: general deterrence and specific deterrence. 

Simply put, general deterrence relies only upon a pre-existing assumption of strength – and thus the perception of the consequences that aggressive or prolonged conflict could bear – to prevent bad actors from seriously considering violence. Strategic Ambiguity is the most common form of general deterrence, it relies upon vagueness in foreign policy to cultivate uncertainty amongst a state’s global competitors (uncertainty as to the actions that the deterring state might take in response to aggression, and thus, uncertainty as to the costs or consequences of that action), and it assumes that this uncertainty will deter any substantial act of aggression by a hostile competitor. This strategy of deterrence is often likened to a metaphor of the United States standing at the center of the world stage, with a gun in hand and a finger upon the trigger — every member of the world community is afraid to pass in front of the United States because no one is quite sure what action will provoke a gunshot. However, there are major flaws with this strategy, mainly that our competitors must truly have the confidence that the United States possesses sufficient fortitude and the courage of our convictions to “pull the trigger” — so to speak. Additionally, strategic ambiguity assumes that there are no specific threats – as in, states directly opposed to the United States, and intent upon damaging its interests – to the United States’ national security, and thus, that aggressive deterrence is not necessary. This reality means that when rogue nations or hostile states flout the United States’ general deterrence due to a lack of belief in American strength or willingness to use force, and then begin to present a threat to our security, the United States lacks a secondary stratagem of aggressive deterrence (and strategic ambiguity lacks the adaptability to become aggressive) to counter competitors’ hostility. 

Specific deterrence, however, or “aggressive deterrence,” as I so often like to call it, itself depends upon strategic clarity — and thus precludes the existence of any kind of strategic ambiguity. 

Put simply, aggressive deterrence – as opposed to general deterrence and strategic ambiguity which relies upon the assumption and perception of the United States’ strength – deliberately and intentionally emphasizes or dramatizes the military prowess of the U.S., to ensure that our competitors understand (and in this case, are reminded of) the consequences of confrontation. The strategic clarity that this form of deterrence depends upon, as its name implies, dictates a strategy of specifically communicating the circumstances which will lead to an aggressive response by the United States, and describing the devastating form that a particular response would take — in a manner that leaves nothing to question. For imagery, I would like to use the aforementioned metaphor. Imagine that the United States is standing at the center of the world stage, arm extended, gun in hand. Now imagine that the United States appropriately responded to recent existential threats by adopting a strategy of aggressive deterrence and strategic clarity. What would that look like? It would involve the United States (or its personification for the purposes of this metaphor) standing front-and-center on the world stage, dropping whatever firearm that it had been holding and drawing a dramatically larger weapon, and then aiming it directly and ostentatiously at a particular enemy. Strategic Clarity would then involve the United States telling its hostile competitor under exactly what circumstances the trigger would be pulled, thereby drawing a line in the sand. This strategy would assist the United States in maintaining a credible image of power, in projecting that power as well as in garnering broad worldwide influence, and in ensuring that the world order remains tenable for the United States in perpetuity. It may also be the only strategy that is capable of providing security for the American people, and ensuring that the United States survives the instability that the 21st century has brought, and is certain to continue to bring.

Had such a policy of specific deterrence been adopted following Putin’s aggression towards Georgia and his annexation of the Crimea in 2008 and 2014, respectively, the present brutal, beastly war against the existence of the Ukrainian people may have been prevented. Had this policy been implemented in earnest when over 300,000 Russian troops began to amass outside the Ukrainian border (with tens of thousands of pieces of heavy artillery and other equipment) instead of senseless attempts to appease the Russian dictator by engaging in his potemkin negotiations, perhaps then too, could this war have been prevented. 

It is notable that President Biden, whose unique decades-long experience in foreign policy and government has enabled him to deftly manage the crises of the 21st-century, is himself moving – albeit, slowly – the United States towards a policy of aggressive deterrence. In the face of Palestinian terrorists’ attack upon innocent Israeli citizens and Iranian threats against U.S. troops in the region, Biden explicitly warned Iran of the certainty of an American response should they take aggressive action, and President Biden did not hesitate to respond to Iran’s violation of his warning by bombing two Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-linked sites in Syria to drive his point home. He has also made the most unreserved statement in defense of Taiwanese sovereignty that the United States has issued in recent years, in response to China’s drastic increase in provocative overflights over Taiwan, much to Xi Jinping’s fury. He has done the same in defense of the Phillipines. The future of the liberal, human rights-centric world order, and the United States of America – upon whom that world order solely depends – hinges upon the United States’ continued willingness to utilize strategic aggression to put pressure upon the illiberal states that are desirous of that world order’s end, and upon future United States’ presidents possessing the same courage and leadership as President Biden, himself.

[Photo by  U.S. Navy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Logan M. Williams is a student at the University of Connecticut, studying History and Global Studies, and he presently a researcher at the Center for a Free Cuba. The Center is an organization dedicated to monitoring human rights abuses within Cuba and to advocating for Cuba’s eventual liberalization. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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