September 23, 2010

Useful, but costly: are we willing to pay the price for deterrence?

During this year’s ABCD conference I had to do a rather tiresome job- prepare the transcript of the entire event (which will be made available on ABCD’s website soon). However, it gave me a very good opportunity to contemplate what has been said in there once I was going through my notes.
The title of the conference was “Deterrence in the age of complexity” and its main aim was to evaluate the applicability of this concept in today’s environment. But, even though it was not intended, this conference has served to show how strange and bizarre this concept actually is.

During this year’s ABCD conference I had to do a rather tiresome job- prepare the transcript of the entire event (which will be made available on ABCD’s website soon). However, it gave me a very good opportunity to contemplate what has been said in there once I was going through my notes.
The title of the conference was “Deterrence in the age of complexity” and its main aim was to evaluate the applicability of this concept in today’s environment. But, even though it was not intended, this conference has served to show how strange and bizarre this concept actually is.

Deterrence, as we know it, became relevant during the Cold War and it had one clear basic purpose- to prevent the conventionally unbeatable Evil Empire from destroying the Free World (this exact wording is applicable to both Soviets and Americans as they both pictured themselves as being free and other as being evil and imperialistic). Due to its nature and history the concept of deterrence is very closely linked in our minds to labeling other as being bad or just downright evil. Therefore, this concept is in rather complicated position nowadays- it is agreed to be one of the best (if not the best) tools to provide security to single state or a group of states, however, it also requires exact identification of your adversary which in turn brings all the connotations of it being an existential threat and the source of evil. In our times, when there is no clear ongoing conflict between any of the world’s powers identifying your adversary is complicated at best.

In order for deterrence to work, it must be nurtured everyday. That means that one has to send clear messages of one’s readiness and willingness to wage conventional or nuclear war, if it comes to it. That means that one has to constantly threaten the other with his might. Today, all the major powers are trying to maintain or improve relations among themselves; they want to establish stable and strong economic and political ties with each other. In this environment clear identification of threats, adversaries and constant display of one’s might usually brings the similar reaction from another party which is generally unwanted.

This topic was intensely discussed during ABCD and the main question asked was “How can we make NATO deterrence work, if we are even afraid to openly admit, what we want to deter?”. Needless to say, no definitive answer was found.

Instead of providing the answer, ABCD has shown how diverse is the manner of thinking among the allies. One party was clearly in favor of maintaining the Cold War stance and substantially increasing efforts to deter Russia which, in their view, still is a direct existential threat to the Alliance, while others saw Russia not as a threat but as a partner in combating terrorism and rogue states.

For now it is clear- that the concept of deterrence is valid and relevant today, because it still is a very effective way to ensure country’s security; however, practicing deterrence has its price and not everybody is willing to pay it.

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