Deterring Rational Fanatics

Deterring Rational Fanatics

Deterring Rational Fanatics

Deterring Rational Fanatics

Synopsis

Cold War-era strategic thinking was driven by the belief that individuals, organizations, and foreign states could be deterred from offensive action by the threat of reprisal. That assurance was shaken with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; suddenly, it seemed that no threat was powerful enough to deter individuals or organizations that valued political objectives over their own lives and the lives of their members. More than a decade later, new research and theory are bringing deterrence back into currency as a viable counterterrorism strategy. Alex S. Wilner updates deterrence theory for conflict in the twenty-first century, arguing for its value against challengers such as rogue states, cyber warriors, and transnational terrorist organizations.

Deterring Rational Fanatics provides a full-scale discussion of deterrence theory concepts and controversies, assessing the utility of relying on the logic of deterrence and coercion to counter contemporary terrorism. In particular, targeted killings directed against the Taliban of Afghanistan provide a vivid illustration of the impact deterrence can have on militant behavior: precision strikes that eliminate militant leaders represent a significant cost to planning and participating in political violence, a cost that can coerce, manipulate, and alter behavior. Though deterrence theory is not a panacea for terrorism, insurgency, or militancy, it can serve as a strategic guide for state responses; as Wilner shows, terrorist violence can indeed be deterred.

Excerpt

For decades, deterrence theory was the veritable bedrock on which American, British, Soviet, Chinese, Indian, and Israeli foreign and military policies were based. During much of the Cold War, these and other states tailored their relations and interactions with foes and friends alike on the basis of coercion, compellence, and deterrence. Classical deterrence theory is a product of that period: the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons in particular necessitated that wars between great powers be avoided or contained. Academics did their part by exploring the intricacies behind the logic and theory of deterrence and by outlining the promises and pitfalls of applying the theory to the practice of warfare. Few other theories of international relations have received such an extended period of attention and assessment.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Communist bloc, however, deterrence theory was shunted off center stage. Major war between the great powers seemed exceptionally unlikely and rampant nuclear proliferation never occurred. Moreover, the conflicts that did emerge during the 1990s were often brushfire affairs or involved fighting within (rather than between) states, conflicts that deterrence theory was generally ill-prepared to properly address. Deterrence theory lost even more ground with the eventual refinement and ascension of competing doctrines, like counter-proliferation, preemption, and prevention, which offered states alternative ways to secure their national interests. But it was al Qaeda that sealed the theory’s decline. Its 2001 terrorist attack on the United States seemed to defy the very premise on which deterrence theory was based. Terrorists were deemed irrational, stateless, and often fanatically (and religiously) dedicated to an immutable ideological cause. That al Qaeda had resurrected the kamikaze in its suicidal operatives . . .

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