Dissuasion as a Strategic Concept

By Kugler, Richard L. | Strategic Forum, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Dissuasion as a Strategic Concept


Kugler, Richard L., Strategic Forum


Key Points

The phrase "dissuasion of potential adversaries from pursuing threatening military competition and ambitions" initially appeared in the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review Report as one of four key strategic goals abroad; the other three are assuring allies and friends, deterring threats and coercion against U.S. interests, and decisively defeating adversaries who commit aggression. The term also was endorsed in the U.S. National Security Strategy, published in late 2002. Despite this clear articulation, the Bush administration has yet to clarify how the concept will be applied to defense plans and strategy.

Dissuasion can be an effective complement to deterrence. It offers a potent concept for handling geopolitical situations in which U.S. relationships with key countries fall short of overt rivalry but can deteriorate if strategic and military competition takes hold. Dissuasion also will have to be integrated into American diplomacy in sensitive regions where the goal is to constrain potential rivals without provoking them into becoming adversaries or forming hostile coalitions.

For the Department of Defense, dissuasion requires adaptation of military missions and transformation of capabilities. For example, it underscores the need to keep large U.S. forces in Asia for strategic reasons that go beyond deterring war on the Korean Peninsula. There and elsewhere, it may necessitate adjustments in the U.S. overseas military presence, power-projection capabilities, defense transformation, and alliance military relationships.

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Some analysts want to downplay dissuasion or set it aside entirely because of its ambiguity. But ignoring this emerging idea would be short sighted. Despite its haziness, the term goes to the heart of new-era geopolitics in several key regions, including Asia. If the United States can learn how to dissuade skillfully, its strategic effectiveness in troubled regions will improve significantly. When the idea of deterrence first appeared 50 years ago, it too was ambiguous. During the Cold War, however, it acquired a role of central importance once it was equipped with a full-fledged strategic theory. The same may hold true for dissuasion in the early 21st century--but only if it too is equipped with the full set of analyses and calculations needed to bring it to life.

During the Cold War, the French often used the term dissuasion as synonymous with deterrence. The new U.S. defense strategy, however, employs the term differently in broader ways that reflect its usage in the English language. One dictionary defines dissuasion as the "act of advising or urging somebody not to do something: e.g., she dissuaded him from leaving home." (In this sense, it is an antonym of persuasion, which promotes a course of action.) In strategic terms, dissuasion can be defined as an effort by the United States to convince a country or coalition to refrain from courses of action that would menace our interests and goals or otherwise endanger world peace. How, then, does it differ from deterrence?

Complement to Deterrence

Deterrence is the logic of direct military coercion applied against a hostile, well-armed enemy. Deterrence is pursued when the scent of war is in the air and when an adversary already possesses both the political intention and military capability to commit aggression. The main aim is to deter the adversary from committing aggression by threatening to respond in ways that will not only rebuff him but also inflict unacceptable losses on him. Presumably, the only thing capable of stopping the adversary is realization that the United States will immediately employ its military forces to defeat him. During the Cold War, deterrence was pursued vigorously in Central Europe and Northeast Asia by deploying large U.S. forces and building alliance defense postures for warfighting against surprise attacks.

By contrast, dissuasion arises in a different, less confrontational place along the spectrum from peace to war. …

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