The Problem and Theory
of Pivotal Deterrence
Perhaps the real mark of statesmanship is to avoid the horns of a dilemma, to find a third path at the traditional “fork in the road” where our anxious guides bid us make a choice between two obvious forks.
Reinhold Niebuhr, World Politics, April 1950
Pivotal deterrence involves the manipulation of threats and promises in order to prevent war. Like other forms of deterrence, it tries to prevent war by making potential belligerents fear the costs, by confronting them with risks they do not want to run. There are two other important dimensions of the concept. First, the deterrer must hold a “pivotal” position between the adversaries, which means that it can more easily align with either side than they can align with each other and that it can significantly influence who will win in a war between them. Second, a pivotal deterrer will try to maintain flexibility and avoid consistent alignment in relation to the adversaries, and therefore avoid firm commitments to either side. 1 The point here is not merely that the pivot remains flexible in a fluid political situation. More than that, the pivot strives to maintain and use flexibility that others—because of the conflict between them—do not have. Thus, by playing both sides against the middle, leaving them uncertain and afraid of what it may do if they go to war, a pivot may use its flexibility to deter them from fighting and to encourage them to compromise.
All pivotal deterrence policies aim to address one of three basic “triangular” dilemmas. In each the pivot's best response is to avoid making firm