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Will deterrence work, when our foes wage war disguised as peace?


Anytime a Secretary of Defense returns from Hawaii, one braces for tough talk and the “coming war with China.” Thankfully, Lloyd Austin took a different approach. Last week he gave a speech introducing his concept of “integrated deterrence.” It’s not new, but it is welcome. For the past 30 years, administrations have sought to “stabilize” the world through expeditionary military force: the Balkans, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria. It’s nice to hear a SecDef not discuss invading foreign countries but, rather, adopt an inherently defensive strategy: deterrence. 

Deterrence is as old as the first arms race, and “integrated deterrence” is not much younger. It simply means using all instruments of national power (e.g., diplomacy, economic instruments) and not just the ones that shoot bullets. It also includes building defensive alliances to intimidate our enemies. It’s torn from the pages of President Eisenhower’s “New Look Policy” in 1953.

What’s new remains unclear. Austin wants to invest in quantum computing and artificial intelligence so we can understand faster, decide faster and act faster, but others have said this before. More refreshing, he says the military must learn to use old weapons in new ways. Although this sounds like common sense to the average person (hey, warfare is changing and so should we!), it is revolutionary for the Pentagon. Instead of learning how to adapt to modern war, our strategic culture would rather invest in whiz-bang technology to fix the problem. For example, the Department of Defense would sooner blow $42 million on an experimental robotic ass, when a real mule would be cheaper and better. This is not an allegory, it’s true

But here’s the cold truth: Deterrence does not work anymore. The U.S. has the best military in the world; even our adversaries acknowledge this. Yet, it does not deter China from expanding in the South China Sea, Iran from mucking around the Middle East, or Russia from taking Crimea. In fact, over the past few years, Russia has launched expeditionary operations into the Middle East and Africa for the first time since the Cold War. We issue harsh diplomatic communiques, impose sanctions, and conduct threatening military maneuvers in their backyards — to no avail. It seems our adversaries are not cooperating by being “deterred.”

Many in deterrence camp retort: You never know how much deterrence you need, but you learn fast how much is not enough. But this is a counterfactual argument. It’s like saying, we should continue to give tens of millions of dollars to the United Nations because a world without it would degenerate into the “Road Warrior.” As the late Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D-N.Y.) was fond of saying, everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts. 

Traditional deterrence no longer works because our adversaries wage war but disguise it as peace. This deliberately confounds deterrence theory, which requires a clear and present danger to trigger the “if/then” logic of deterrence. For example, in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. told the Soviets that if they deployed nuclear missiles to Cuba, the U.S. was prepared to launch World War III. The USSR backed down — a clear win for strategic deterrence.

Not so today. By disguising war as peace, adversaries bypass deterrence strategy by operating in ways we do not associate with “acts of war.” Hence, they can get away with murder, literally. For example, consider whether the following actions rise to the level of war: Cyberattacks and disinformation; China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and debt-trap diplomacy; “gray zone” conflicts and wars “beneath the threshold of war”; China’s “lawfare” in the South China Sea; whatever is going on in Libya right now. “Is it war? Is it peace?” asked a military colleague of mine, head cradled in his hands. “If it’s war, I know what to do. If peace, that’s something else. But it’s neither. Or both. What are we supposed to do?” 

These “non-war” wars do not bend to the strategic logic of Clausewitz or Thomas Schelling, who prized brute force as the ultimate form of diplomacy (read: “deterrence and war”). Our national security establishment is steeped in these two thinkers. Yet warfare has changed, becoming more Sun Tzu, who valued deception above firepower. You win modern wars not through blitzkrieg, but by manufacturing the fog of war and exploiting it for victory, as our adversaries do. This is strategic deception. Trying to deter it is like trying to win at three-card monte.  

War is becoming a strategic scam, and not a contest of brute strength alone. David beats Goliath through trickery, something the U.S. suffered in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet we have not learned. Deterrence is the reasoning of Goliath, but we are surrounded by Davids. To beat them, we must improve our strategic IQ and think beyond a big “shooting war” that may never occur. Rather, we should ask what is “war” today? It’s not our great-grandfather’s war. If war is getting sneakier, we must get sneaky with it. We must learn to scam the scammers — after all, Americans are clever people.

Sean McFate is the author of five books, including “The New Rules of War: How America Can Win — Against Russia, China, and Other Threats” (2019). He is a professor at Georgetown University and an adviser to Oxford University’s Centre for Technology and Global Affairs. He served in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.

Tags Deterrence theory Lloyd Austin Military strategy modern warfare

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