Opinion / Strategy

Bad Idea: Integrated Deterrence as Strategy

Bad Ideas in National Security Series

Integrated Deterrence – the “centerpiece” of the 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS) – is not a bad idea. In fact, it is a good one. But it’s not a strategy.

The primary aim of the 2022 NDS is to “strengthen U.S. deterrence” to defend the status quo against America’s adversaries. But this strategy neglects the limits of deterrence and misses the fact that U.S. adversaries are already changing the status quo through their actions.

Instead, U.S. defense strategy should embrace an expanded concept of integrated influence which includes two pieces missing from the NDS: coercion and persuasion. Coercion is required because the United States will need to go beyond deterrence to compel an increasingly reckless Russia and assertive China to change course. Persuasion is required because history shows that successful strategy requires carrots as well as sticks, while emphasizing soft power tempers escalation and plays to U.S. strengths. This change will require readjusting force structure and integration.

Deterrence remains the right “centerpiece” for U.S. defense strategy in a dangerous world. However, a broader focus on coercion and persuasion would provide a strategy more worthy of America’s vision for a free, open, secure, and prosperous world.

The National Deterrence Strategy – and Its Limits

The casual reader of America’s new defense strategy would be forgiven for thinking the ‘D’ in NDS stands for deterrence. Deterrence is not merely a component of the strategy–it is the strategy. The NDS directs the Department of Defense (DoD) to “act urgently to sustain and strengthen U.S. deterrence” against China and “reinforce robust deterrence in the face of Russian aggression”. All four “defense priorities” serve the same goal: “to strengthen deterrence”. The “centerpiece” of the NDS is the concept of “integrated deterrence”. All told, the 80-page document (which also includes the Nuclear Posture Review and Missile Defense Review), contains 167 mentions of ‘deterrence,’ while words beginning with ‘deter’ appear 274 times.

The laser-like focus of the NDS on deterrence deserves praise – too often, such strategies offer “conflicting or muddled guidance” and “airy language.” But the NDS goes too far by focusing on deterrence at the expense of strategy and reality: deterrence is not a strategy and it has very real limits.

Deterrence is not a strategy even though it meets DoD’s own definition as “a prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power.” Integrated deterrence certainly is a prudent idea: deterring armed aggression is the raison d’etre of the military element of national power. Yet while the NDS is admirably clear about how it would put this strategy into practice, it says nothing about the ends sought – beyond the absence of war – or how to get there (all good strategy requires a viable theory of victory or success).

Deterrence also has three inherent limits which constrain its utility as strategy. First, deterrence is self-limiting: if successful, it can only prevent unwanted behavior, nothing more. Second, deterrence is unreliable. Historical studies of deterrence often find success is elusive in practice. One study found it worked less than half the time. Another found it “more often failed” than succeeded. This is due to the numerous practical limits of deterrence. Deterrence can fail if threats are low-level or ambiguous, if the perpetrator is more committed than expected, or if deterrence logic is too complex or unpredictable. Finally, deterrence treats symptoms, not causes. The first study above found that when deterrence worked it was mostly in the short term to buy time for diplomacy. Deterrence is the strategic equivalent of sweeping problems under the rug. It does not provide solutions to underlying grievances, it provides time to find them. If that time is not used wisely, antagonists can return emboldened.

Rather than integrated deterrence, the prudent idea driving U.S. national defense strategy should be integrated influence. This broader approach addresses some of the limits of deterrence. It also plays to America’s comparative advantages over its rivals in two areas: coercive military power and persuasive soft power.

Beyond Deterrence

First, coercion. Or more accurately: compellence. Thomas Schelling introduced this term of art in his 1966 book Arms and Influence to distinguish deterrence from another type of coercion. The difference between deterrence and compellence is best illustrated by two phrases familiar to parents of young children: “don’t do it” and “stop it”. Deterrence is about preventing behavior while compellence is about changing it. This difference goes beyond semantics: the psychology of compellence requires committed antagonists to lose face – even though they are more likely to take risks to avoid losses.

As Schelling also observed, deterrence is a strategy to defend the status quo. But if the status quo is being altered then deterrence has already failed. Yet this is the situation the United States finds itself in. America’s adversaries are committed revisionists who are already changing the status quo through their actions. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the latest in an extended campaign of determined revisionism which has gradually escalated from cyber-attacks to missile attacks. Meanwhile, China is changing the facts on the ground through economic coercion, island-building and military intimidation. Changing their behavior requires compellence, not deterrence.

Adjusting U.S. defense strategy to focus more on compellence would have implications for force structure and statecraft. In terms of force structure, a military designed to deter a war (or two) looks different from one designed to compel adversaries and contain crises. Deterring major war requires large scale conventional and nuclear forces ready for high-end conflict with global enablers, but mostly based at home. For example, NATO’s new defense and deterrence posture relies on compact forward formations (up to brigade size, or around 3,000 personnel) that can be augmented by a larger follow-on-force of at least 300,000 personnel. However, compelling adversaries in a fast-moving crisis requires a flexible posture that can rapidly move combat credible forces into areas of concern when deterrence fails. Force composition and type also matters: for example, a seminal study of the use of force short of war suggests moving land-based combat aircraft or ground forces into theatre makes for more credible compellence than naval forces, which can leave just as quickly as they arrived.

The ‘integration’ in integrated deterrence requires good statecraft – without which the idea will remain confined to the corridors of the Pentagon. History suggests successful compellence relies on integrating interagency levers effectively. According to one analysis of U.S. foreign policy: “coercion requires the careful coordination of multiple tools of influence; military power alone was in no case adequate to achieve US policy objectives short of war.” The economic sanctions, military assistance, and intelligence coordinated across the U.S. government – and with allies – to deter Russia’s invasion shows promise, even if these efforts still failed. One problem is that much of U.S. policymakers’ recent experience of coercion has been against much weaker states or non-state actors where the margin for error is far greater than peer adversaries. Moreover, compellence is even more demanding than deterrence. To meet this challenge U.S. leaders need to sharpen their statecraft.

The Value of Power – and the Power of Values

A broader conception of coercion in U.S. defense strategy – through compellence as well as deterrence – should be complemented by a renewed focus on persuasion. This is required due to the escalatory risks and limits of relying on coercion – but also because of the comparative advantage in U.S. soft power that can help temper and win the competition against its authoritarian rivals.

U.S. defense strategy requires persuasion because coercion alone cannot do the job. Coercion comes with limits and risks as a difficult and unreliable strategy that can embed and exacerbate escalation dynamics. The political scientist Alexander L. George argued ‘coercive diplomacy’ provides a more comprehensive approach through “persuasion and accommodation as well as coercive threats”. Combining persuasive ‘carrots’ with coercive ‘sticks’ would correct the tendency for U.S. strategy to depend too heavily on military force or become “all coercion and no diplomacy”. Too often, “the only carrot the United States offers is the absence of a stick.”

When you have the world’s biggest hammer, every problem can look like a nail. But in addition to having the most powerful military on Earth, the United States has vast reserves of soft power it can use to co-opt rather than coerce. Joseph Nye’s observation three decades ago that “the United States has more co-optive power than other countries” remains the case today. The U.S. could combine its formidable soft power with other strengths in values, innovation and norms to out-compete its authoritarian rivals while keeping the competition focused on hearts and minds rather than bombs and bullets. Yet while the NDS acknowledges “the importance of a strategy that leverages the power of our values”, it fails to follow through, seeing the use of force predominantly through the lens of deterrence and coercion rather than influence and persuasion. One prominent example is the use of “campaigning” to “oppose,” “disrupt,” and “degrade” competitors.

A strategy of persuasion would also have force structure implications. However, these may not be obvious: for example, one analysis finds high-resolve, low-capability forces (e.g. tripwire forces) to be equally reassuring as high-capability, low-resolve signals (e.g. forces stationed offshore). A force designed to persuade would prioritize influence operations, invest in “brains, not metal,” and contain more formations like the U.S. Army’s Security Force Assistance Brigades. Rather than bury security cooperation (and other influence activity) deep within ‘stability’ doctrine, a strategy of persuasion would take an influence-first approach, like the UK’s new “audience-centric” defense doctrine, which “is founded on a forward deployed posture to assure influence, to deter and to reassure.”

Using defense assets in soft-power mode to persuade and influence also puts a premium on integration. Early efforts under the new U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) have produced promising initiatives to attract new partners in the competition with China, such as the U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit and the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. However, integration requires U.S. defense strategy to play its part. For example, this may require giving DoD more control over government-wide tools of persuasion, such as the security assistance provisions for arms, training, and support to foreign partners, which currently belongs to the State Department. This will become more important if the success of the U.S.-led effort to arm Ukraine ends up giving security assistance a more prominent part in future U.S. strategy.

A Strategy Worthy of the Vision

In their seminal 1974 study, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy, Alexander L. George and Richard Smoke raised the same need to broaden U.S. strategic thinking beyond deterrence towards influence. They also went further to make the more important point that such influence must be directed towards a compelling end: “The challenge to U.S. foreign policy remains, therefore, one of finding a longer-term image of a desirable world order.”

The vision set out in the NSS of “a free, open, secure, and prosperous world” is the right one – but it must be matched by an equally compelling defense strategy. To deliver the vision in the NSS, U.S. defense strategy should move beyond a blinkered focus on deterrence. While deterrence is the right “centerpiece” in a dangerous world, a strategy of integrated influence – based on coercion and persuasion – would provide the NDS with firmer foundations. The United States will need to martial all the hard and soft power it can muster to beat its authoritarian rivals in a rapidly intensifying competition. Despite starting from a position of strength in both arenas, the U.S. cannot afford to be complacent. This should start with its defense strategy.

(Photo credit: DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley)