‘Integrated Deterrence’ Is Not So Bad

Since the 1990s, every four years (give or take) the Department of Defense (DOD) issues its major strategic planning document, the National Defense Strategy (NDS). And every four years, the strategic studies community tackles the NDS and its core concepts with the enthusiasm and vigor of kids taking down a piñata at a birthday party. Past debates have focused on questions such as whether the department was actually preparing itself to better wage irregular warfare (2006), whether the document overprioritized addressing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at the expense of longer-term emerging challenges, whether the document sufficiently accounted for then-emerging threats like Russia (2014), and whether the budget existed for the capabilities needed to prepare the U.S. military for great power competition (2018). The 2022 NDS is no exception. In this instance a major discussion swirls around the meaning of “integrated deterrence,” a construct at the heart of the NDS that is pilloried by many as another defense buzzword without meaning or substance.

The critics of integrated deterrence make good points. Deterring an adversary from taking a particular course of action is not just a matter of stationing forces on a front line or maintaining nuclear weapons. Rather, deterrence is a form of high-stakes political communication. Deterrence is therefore psychological as much as anything else. It requires clearly signaling political will and intent to act decisively if an adversary crosses a red line. During the Cold War, discerning the robustness of each other’s political will—and whether such will was eroding—was a constant preoccupation of Kremlinologists in Washington and U.S. specialists in Moscow. In this, all governmental actions—from conducting military exercises to involvement in proxy wars, to stationing troops and political statements and messaging—were weighed and assessed holistically in order to judge whether, for example, Washington would really risk New York to save Paris. Allies reliant on the U.S. nuclear umbrella also constantly assessed the United States’ political willingness to deter Russian aggression. Fast forward to 2022 and many observers are left wondering what integrated deterrence could possibly mean when deterrence by its very nature must be integrated with all other instruments of national power in order to be effective.

The problem is that in recent decades, DOD seems to have forgotten the fundamentals of deterrence. In recent years, the word “deterrence” has been used liberally, meaning any number of different things to different components of the building. Some use the term to reference U.S. nuclear capabilities (or “strategic deterrence”) specifically. Others use it as a kind of strategic end in and of itself, as if deterrence is a thing that can be established—or reestablished—by, for example, stationing forces in a given place, at a given time. Still others use it as a rationale for programmatic or budget justifications, such as the European Deterrence Initiative. In other words, “deterrence” is alternately used to describe either ends, ways, or means—the kind of conceptual opacity that tends to lead to less-than-rigorous national decisionmaking.

It is also worth noting that in the library of recent national and defense strategic documents, the term “deterrence” is most frequently articulated as a primarily military task. Other agencies and instruments of national power that are vital to creating an effective deterrence strategy have generally been referenced as almost throwaway clauses amid sweeping statements about building lethal, joint, agile forces to “deter, deny, and—when necessary—defeat” adversary aggression. Yet the overwhelming focus on military force as a mechanism to “establish” or “strengthen” deterrence may be strategically counterproductive. China is using economic competition and coercion through tools like the One Belt, One Road Initiative and quietly annexing its neighbors territory in order to advance its objective of regional, if not global, dominance. Russia has used just about every information tool at its disposal to sow political discord—and therefore political will—across NATO and Western publics. Yes, the military is an important tool for communicating deterrence signals, but it is by no means the only—or arguably most important—tool in adversaries’ toolkits. 

All this is to say integrated deterrence appears to be a mechanism to communicate that deterrence is distinct from the nuclear deterrent, and that an effective deterrence strategy should holistically communicate U.S. government intention to act in certain scenarios and parameters. An effective deterrence strategy utilizes all aspects of national power, not just the military, to communicate intent; it is also generally a good idea to ensure that U.S. signals are coordinated with those of allies and partners. From this perspective, integrated deterrence is a valuable contribution to the defense policy discourse indeed. 

Problems with the Basics

So integrated deterrence is a back-to-basics reminder about what deterrence means. Even so, the construct does have some inherent limitations. Indeed, there are at least three main problems to implementing an integrated deterrence strategy as described in the National Security Strategy and NDS. These include tasking DOD with leading its execution, the actual interagency capability and capacity needed to implement integrated deterrence, and whether an integrated deterrence strategy can be meaningfully tailored. All of these constitute conceptual challenges the U.S. government writ large must resolve in order to safeguard and defend U.S. interests during this “decisive decade.”

First, given that integrated deterrence is a nod to the whole of government nature of any deterrence strategy there is an unfortunate Biden administration stumble out of the gate. Namely, the NDS—and the 2022 National Security Strategy—both imply that DOD, rather than the president—is in charge of integrated deterrence. This raises the question as to whether other government agencies genuinely subscribe to the notion of integrated deterrence, and whether it is appropriate to task DOD with its implementation direction. 

Second, that the U.S. government’s right hand should be able to talk to and work with its left hand is obvious. Yet anyone who has worked in an interagency setting knows exactly how hard it can be to get the government to speak with one voice and act towards a common intention. The problem of interagency coordination and action is a perennial one with various manifestations over the years. In the aftermath of the September 11attacks, the interagency conundrum was viewed as insufficient communication and intelligence sharing among key actors. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the problem manifested as an inability to sufficiently break through bureaucratic stovepipes in order to achieve unity of effort on the ground. For decades, various observers have argued that the national security system established after the end of World War II is now insufficient to grapple with the multifaceted, and riskier, emerging geostrategic environment. Is the present national security apparatus designed to enable meaningful integrated deterrence? Or will efforts to integrate deterrence fail due to yet another manifestation of bureaucratic sclerosis?

A third—and perhaps most important—challenge of integrated deterrence is tailoring it towards at least two adversaries simultaneously. The experience of the Cold War suggests that deterrence signaling is quite difficult when directed towards only one primary adversary. Using all mechanisms of national power to communicate deterrence signals toward multiple adversaries is exponentially more difficult. This is because, for example, small political-military movements, such as the direction of forces from one theater to another, can inadvertently communicate eroding resolve to defend U.S. interests. Is it possible to effectively tailor integrated deterrence towards multiple strategic competitors? Or in the act of tailoring, does one weaken integrated deterrent signaling, thereby undermining the strategy altogether?

Is integrated deterrence a conceptual panacea for U.S. strategy in the twenty-first century? Of course it is not. But the term—which is central to the 2022 National Defense Strategy—serves as a useful reminder that convincing an adversary not to cross a given red line is something that should be done in concert with the rest of the U.S. government—as well as with allies and partners. But while such a reminder is useful, the strategic and bureaucratic obstacles to implementing integrated deterrence are significant. One hopes that DOD—and the U.S. government—is able to do so if not directly led by the White House.  

Kathleen J. McInnis is a senior fellow with the International Security Program and director of the Smart Women, Smart Power Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Kathleen McInnis
Senior Fellow, International Security Program and Director, Smart Women, Smart Power Initiative