Power, Interests, and Alignment Options:
FRAMING THE INQUIRY
Any theory or model or paradigm propounding that there are only two possibilities—disaster or one particular road to salvation—should be prima facie suspect. After all, there is, at least temporarily, such a place as purgatory!
Albert O. Hirschman, World Politics, April 1970
Pivotal deterrence policies go against the grain of “strong and widespread” pressures toward consistency in alignment in the international system. 1 For this reason, systemic realism, which focuses on the structural pressures that impel conformity in state behavior, has little to say directly about the origins of pivotal deterrence. Still, useful clues about when, and why, a state will adopt a policy of pivotal deterrence can be inferred from the sort of systemic realism that is sensitive to differences in actor preferences. What follows, therefore, is a tightly focused application of insights from systemic realist theories that explain how states' relative capabilities, their perceptions of threat, and their preferences for the status quo or revision combine to determine their alignment choices. 2 These theories help us to grasp when pivotal deterrence will be attempted by clarifying the conditions in international politics that normally call forth different strategies.
As Stephen Walt reminded us, states do more than balance against other powerful states, they balance against threatening states. 3 Threat assessments involve perceptions of both an actor's intentions and its ability to carry them out. By this logic then, a pivotal deterrence policy can only