Academic journal article Policy Review

Expanded Deterrence: Broadening the Threat of Retaliation

Academic journal article Policy Review

Expanded Deterrence: Broadening the Threat of Retaliation

Article excerpt

WE ARE FACING a threat that is catastrophic in its scale. (1) The damage that even a single attack with weapons of mass destruction would wreak could run into the millions of lives, and do egregious damage to American economic, political, and social structures. There is no graver threat to the United States.

This threat is only going to get more serious. The progress of technology and the increasing interconnectedness of global systems are driving both productive and destructive power down, to lower and lower levels of agency, and outwards, to the fringes of society. Accelerating advances in computing, biotechnology, nanotechnology have democratized destructive power--up to the point at which a single individual may have the power to do enormous damage. (2) Today we see this peril most plainly in the justified fears about the use of the first and greatest absolute weapon--the nuclear bomb. But the threat of biological and biotechnological weaponry, powered by the highly diffused and swiftly advancing progress of the life sciences, may be even graver. Similar dangers are growing in the fields of nanotechnology, computing, and the like.

The proliferation of massively destructive technologies can and should be retarded, but it cannot be prevented. We must accept both that the threat is very real and that it cannot be "solved," only managed.

The United States has begun to respond to this grave threat through a "layered defense" that includes military, intelligence, diplomatic, political, public diplomacy, homeland defense, and humanitarian components. This policy commendably seeks to integrate all elements, hard and soft, of American and allied power to stave off disaster. And all elements of this layered defense are important in preventing attacks, including efforts to stem proliferation and "soft power" strategies designed to address real root causes of terror.

Unfortunately, the current policy is insufficient. Prevention and defense, while clearly central, cannot alone address our problem. An attempt to prevent the proliferation of all potentially catastrophic technologies or to build effective defenses against them would be far too costly, both in terms of resources and political capital. More important, the advent of the nuclear weapon and now, in its wake, of comparably destructive technologies has finally decided the age-old struggle between offense and defense in favor of the former. It is not that defense cannot be effective; it is that, given the destructive power of the weapons in question, defense must be perfect. And no policy of prevention and defense can promise that.

Toleration is another critical element in our response. We balance the needs of a free society that can produce and distribute goods and ferry people efficiently against the costs of car accidents, plane and train crashes, and pollution. But, obviously, any significant incidence of catastrophic attacks cannot be tolerated, certainly not if we wish to maintain our society as we currently enjoy it.

Another pillar is the positive incentive structure associated with sociable behavior. The forces of habit, social conformity, ritual, and morality suffice to draw most people into the system. Unfortunately, terrorists are precisely those who are not susceptible to these positive incentive structures. While any effective counterterrorist or counterinsurgency strategy must include carrots, there is invariably a group of those resistant to any reasonable offers. Furthermore, some contests are zero-sum and therefore there may be an irresolvable tension between what some of our opponents want and what we can give.

Likewise, direct deterrence against terrorists is an important tool, and is the cornerstone of law and order both in the domestic and international contexts. But, as many have pointed out, terrorists are hard--and sometimes impossible--to deter directly. Clearly, people willing to kill themselves in order to conduct terrorist attacks are unlikely to be deterred by direct threats. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.