As these words are written, we await a single man’s decision whether to plunge Europe’s eastern marches into war. By the time you read this, blood—perhaps a great deal of it—may have been splashed across Ukraine’s steppes. Euro-American powers have sought to discourage Vladimir Putin’s latest aggression through the threat of economic sanctions coupled with the belated and stingy provision of military hardware to Ukraine. NATO, the primary instrument of collective Western influence, and the United States, Euro-America’s self-doubting superpower, have publicly ruled out direct military action to oppose Russian aggression, pursuing “deterrence without risk.”
Politically congenial, if strategically dubious, this approach cannot intimidate Putin, who continues to defy, with eminent success, our “accepted” rules for the comportment of governments on the international stage. If Putin chooses not to thrust his armored columns into Ukraine, it will not be due to our asthmatic huffing and puffing but because he has already achieved his interim goals—opaque to us—on his long march to rebuilding what he sincerely regards as Russia’s rightful empire.
As the most-popular diplomatic dodge of our time, economic sanctions have an impeccable record of failure to deter war, genocide, or terrorism; or to bring rogue governments to heel. Economic sanctions do not deter, they merely annoy: Commoners suffer, but hostile elites party on. The primary function of economic sanctions is to allow us the comforting delusion that we have shown resolve while still behaving responsibly. Meanwhile, the oppression, aggression, nuclear-weapons research, and anti-democracy coups continue. Our tepid ploys fail to deter while enabling bad actors to portray themselves as victims and play the nationalist, religious or ethnic-supremacist card with their beleaguered populations.
Throughout known history—and doubtless before the first stylus met wet clay—the only deterrence that has worked, albeit unevenly, has been deterrence through the credible threat of retributive violence. The word “deterrence” (from the Latin for “to frighten from”) does not appear until 1788, but, for millennia, it was an active tool in search of a name. Throughout humanity’s dastardly reign, collectives have sought to protect themselves from aggression through competitive strength of their own, or through alliances, or both. But, in the clinch, successful deterrence always relied on the credible threat of unbearable retaliation.
Of course, armed deterrence has not always worked—far from it. The whims of rulers, the delirium of populations, the calculations of upstarts and, always, befuddled miscalculations have kept history entertaining, if grim. Yet, deterrence-through-strength long remained the best hope for a state and society to live unmolested. Indeed, the greatest triumph of deterrence was quite recent: The mocked and maligned concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) did not prevent brushfire conflicts or even conventional wars, but the clearly understood existential and reciprocal threat from nuclear warfare allowed humanity to endure and prosper.
MAD remains a guarantor between great powers, but innovative military technologies threaten to erode the previously clear division between the effects of conventional weapons and nuclear arms. For national leaders and their governments, their potential vulnerability to precise targeting could, in the coming decades, revivify the strike-first mentality.
Meanwhile, deterrence appears increasingly essential and essentially impractical. In short, we have the power to deter, but not the will.
Successful deterrence relies upon three factors. First, it requires the means to inflict unacceptable pain on an aggressor. Second, it demands the firm and undoubted resolve to employ those means. Third, deterrence requires a rational interlocutor who can objectively weigh the consequences of his intended actions.
The first tenet could be met readily by the “West,” with its breathtaking wealth and military strength (at least, on paper). Even if they are not decisive, economic sanctions have, at times, served as a braking mechanism to buy time, and, if employed as part of a package with threatened physical coercion, could add to the calculus.
Our problems begin with the second requirement, the demand that we demonstrate and maintain the strength of will to back our ultimatums with real and timely consequences. Still well short of military force, our credibility suffers from our own reluctance to bear the mildest discomfort ourselves. Relying upon economic sanctions, we invariably water them down: Allies wish to minimize trade disruption; we don’t want to annoy human-rights activists or our own tax-dodging multinational corporations; and third parties raise a ruckus over access to resources, or simply flout our sanctions through layers of intermediary transactions. Yes, we outlaw business conducted through lesser foreign banks or arrest and prosecute middling individuals who subvert efforts, but rare is the capitulation of the sanctioned government.
Now our efforts at averting a disastrous war have been muddled by the NordStream2 pipeline project, a see-through Trojan horse embraced by German politicians and industrialists, even though Russia’s strategic purpose was obvious: bypassing old pipelines that crossed and thus empowered East and Central European states that had escaped Moscow’s force field. Greed is ever a salient characteristic of humankind, but German greed in this instance has reached mythic heights of selfishness and cynicism (not least, because of the immeasurable destruction inflicted on Ukraine by German troops within living memory).
Germany’s novice coalition government says many of the right things, but it mouths them with evident reluctance, as would a schoolboy forced to read a confession in front of his classmates. (Ever underestimated, Putin has played the long game with the Germans, hiring out-of-office German politicians, including a former chancellor, at absurdly high salaries to “work” in Russia’s energy sector.) We shall see if Putin moves and Germany sustains the NATO alliance or breaks it over a pipeline, but, in the meantime, we have gotten a lesson, yet again, about the dominance of German business interests over all else in Berlin’s de facto Weltanschauung. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party had campaigned on a pledge to stand up to Vladimir Putin on human-rights grounds; however, since assuming office and facing Putin’s influence along the banks of the Spree, she has appeared much chastened, an Atlanticist who can’t swim. Europe’s nineteenth century “German problem” is still with us, if in a charcoal-gray suit not a Feldgrau tunic.
If the West cannot halt a single pipeline to deter a brazen, savage war of conquest, we had best prepare for a very messy future.
Then there is that wild-card third factor, the need for a rational target audience for our deterrent warnings. Here, we defeat ourselves by clinging to our insistence that real and potential opponents not only will act rationally but that their psychology will conform to our culturally specific concept of rational behavior and abstract logic. But what appears self-evidently logical to us may seem naïve, or bizarre, or suspect to a strong-man in Beijing—to say nothing of a religious fanatic or a military strongman in Africa or, for that matter, a firebrand nationalist in the re-Balkanized Balkans.
Further crippling our efforts, our Ivy-League-deformed view of how diplomacy must work excludes the overpowering force of emotion in human affairs. We are, ultimately, ruled by the heart, not the head. Only a minority—a very small minority—of wars of aggression over the centuries were begun in an atmosphere of mathematical detachment. Indeed, the twentieth century may fairly be described as the “hysterical century” (although history provides plentiful competition for the title).
So…we have the means to deter (where deterrence is possible), but lack the commitment and resolve to use it. And even after our misadventures in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, in Somalia or in the “War on Terror,” we insist that every opponent’s logic must mirror our logic, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. How can we act effectively if we will not assess our enemies honestly and respond incisively?
As an aside, religious fanatics—the true believers—can never be deterred, only killed. Even nationalist violence may not be subject to deterrence. If Germany, once considered the most coldly analytical of nations, could commit cultural suicide by murdering its Jewish population and practical suicide by attacking inexhaustible powers with the Nazi regime’s limited means, how shall we believe that reason brings to bear an imperial force in human affairs?
Whether or not Putin moves to conquer more of Ukraine will, as noted above, depend upon Putin, not upon our frantic demarches. Faced with an increasingly disorderly world, advances in military technology, a society-rupturing misinformation revolution, and humanity’s gleeful appetite for malfeasance, deterrence is much needed but in near-terminal decay, decadent in its self-delusion and laughably self-righteous.
Might may not make right, but it can make a potential opponent think twice. Weakness, actual or perceived, is an invitation to bad behavior, in the schoolyard or in the Pripet Marshes.
Humanity’s natural impulse is to postpone pain, even if our evasion is sure to cause us greater pain in the future. Our wishful-thinking enfeeblement of the concept of deterrence all but guarantees future misery. With a brilliant monster on the hunt where Europe’s boundaries waver, we just want to have an undisturbed lunch.
Ultimately, there is no deterrence without risk, but there is nothing but risk in the absence of deterrence. We primly warn bullies that we might not share our candy with them tomorrow—so they take all the candy they can grab today.