Rethinking Deterrence

New paradigms for deterrence strategy

Remote Visualization

James A. Lewis on his research for the Brzezinski Institute

Deterrence was the linchpin of U.S. defense strategy for decades, but the political and military context for deterrence has changed significantly.  Instead of a single, near-peer opponent, the U.S. faces an array of possible foes, each with differing capabilities and tolerances for risk.  In this new environment, it is necessary to consider how deterrence can remain an effective guide for policy.  Political leaders have not devoted time thinking about or debating these matters in recent years, treating deterrence as a kind of received wisdom for strategy.

This project would reconsider deterrence and look at the role of nuclear weapons in deterring different kinds of attacks and ask where deterrence still makes sense as a part of U.S. defense strategy and foreign policy and where a reliance on nuclear deterrence could have undesirable or destabilizing effects.  Cybersecurity is a salient aspect of this debate on the place of the nuclear arsenal in making politically credible threats. 

The changing nature of warfare and strength of U.S. armed forces means that countries will try to avoid military conflict, but neither a nuclear response nor the threat of conventional attack will deter many of the threats the U.S. faces today.  The U.S. must calculate what now comprises credible deterrence and how best to communicate this to opponents.  If deterrence can be revitalized, it will require clear thinking on the following problems:

  • What is the U.S. trying to deter?  Can we deter anything less than an existential threat?
  • What is the role of nuclear weapons in deterring new kinds of threats like cyber attacks?
  • How can we calculate a response that is both politically viable and effective, particularly for “cross domain” deterrence?
  • How does the U.S. set thresholds, and how does it unambiguously tell potential opponents what they are?  What kind of threats shape opponent decisions?

These issues point to the central questions for political leaders and policy makers: How useful is deterrence for U.S. strategy and what changes could make it more useful?

This joint project will involve bipartisan working groups that span the spectrum of intellectual thinking on these matters to develop new policy ideas.  We will bring these individuals together for a series of simulation-based seminars to test ideas on deterrence. 

This project is undertaken jointly by the Nuclear Threat Initiative and CSIS’s Brzezinski Institute on Geostrategy