Deterrence and Terrorism: Can Global Terrorism be deterred?

Essay, 2004

9 Pages, Grade: 2+ (B+)


For more than four decades during the Cold War, deterrence has been a key element of US defence policy and it can even be argued that the strategy of nuclear deterrence thwarted a major military confrontation between the Soviet Union and the USA.[1] With the end of superpower tensions and the end of the Cold War itself, the deterrence system became obsolete. However, the terrorist attacks of September 11 brought deterrence back on the political agenda. In its National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction the USA calls for “new methods of deterrence”[2] in order to meet the threats of global terrorism.

The question arises whether deterrence, which seems to have worked in a traditional setting, where one state deters military action of another state, can work in a non-traditional confrontation between a state and an abstract opponent like terrorism? In order to establish whether deterrence can work against terrorism, this essay will firstly look at the theory of deterrence. What are the criteria that must be fulfilled for deterrence to be successful and why does it not work in all situations?

Secondly, this essay identifies the main characteristics of the terrorist threat and establishes what the difficulties of deterrence in this specific asymmetric confrontation might be. The main difficulty seems to be the problem to execute appropriate action should deterrence fail, since the target is often unclear and the perpetrator of the terrorist action most likely dead. Special attention is given to the moral dilemma that derives from suggestions to execute retaliation actions against the families of suicide bombers in order to deter others from becoming suicide bombers as suggested by Steinberg.[3] He argues that terrorism can indeed be deterred, if the concept was applied correctly, that is against terrorist leaders, who are “not so quick to give up their own lives”[4].

Finally, this essay will conclude that although it might be possible to deter individual terrorist actions[5], terrorism itself cannot be deterred by military means. And if the aim is indeed to eradicate terrorism completely, like the rhetoric used in the war on terrorism seems to suggest, deterrence is certainly not the most effective strategy.

Deterrence is probably as old as conflict itself. Although it has far wider applications, it is commonly thought to be a military tool. Ironically, it can be characterized as the “skilful nonuse of military force”[6]. In its purest form it is a strategy to prevent an enemy’s decision to take certain undesired actions by threatening to inflict unacceptable costs upon him.

Deterrence involves a particularly distinctive type of influence that rests directly and openly upon threats of sanctions or deprivations. It is basically an attempt by party A to prevent party B from undertaking a course of action which A regards as undesirable, by threatening to inflict unacceptable costs upon B in the event that the action is taken.[7]

Most importantly, for deterrence to work the deterring party has to make a threat against something that is valuable for the deterred, otherwise the threat will be meaningless. In traditional confrontations between states this criterion can be more or less easily satisfied. Even the culturally most divergent states, have certain values in common, the highest value being national survival.

Furthermore, there is common understanding that ‘communication’, ‘capability’ and ‘credibility’ are three important factors for the success of deterrence.

In order to make an effective deterrent posture it is essential that the adversary is “aware of precisely what range of action is prohibited, and what is likely to happen if he disregards the prohibition.”[8] Therefore, channels that allow both parties to communicate effectively with each other need to exist. Yet, even between states this seemingly simple condition can pose severe difficulties in reality. During the Cuban Missile Crisis for example, mutual misunderstanding and ineffective communication between the USA and the Soviet Union almost lead to an escalation of the situation, despite the fact that diplomatic channels to facilitate communication were in place.

‘Capability’ refers firstly to the physical capacity and ability to inflict unacceptable costs on the opponent. “Deterrence depends on what one can do, not on what one will do.”[9] Yet, even if the deterring party has the military capacity needed, it is nevertheless possible that the deterrence fails, because the party being deterred might not be able to “assess properly the likely relationship between gains and losses attendant upon any move he might make.”[10] In other words, the deterred must be capable of rational decision-making.


[1] The view that it was indeed the strategy of nuclear deterrence that prevented a major military confrontation between the superpowers is not undisputed. However, it is not the purpose of this essay to examine the impact deterrence had on Soviet decision-making. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that the existence of nuclear weapons gave rise to the belief that war had become impossible and it is thus assumed that the strategy of deterrence was at least partly responsible for the prevention of war.

[2] National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, December 2002, <>, (12 January 2004)

[3] Gerald M. Steinberg, “Rediscovering Deterrence after September 11”, 2001, in: Jerusalem Letter, No.467, Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, 2 December 2001

[4] ibid.

[5] The distinction between terrorism and individual terrorist actions is also made in: Paul K. Davis and Brian Michael Jenkins, Deterrence and Influence in Counterterrorism: A Component in the War on al Qaeda, RAND, Santa Monica, 2002

[6] Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1960, p.9

[7] John Baylis, Ken Booth, John Garnet and Phil Williams, Contemporary Strategy: Theories and Policies, Croom Held, London, 1975, p.69

[8] ibid., p.70

[9] Kenneth N. Waltz, “Nuclear Myths and Political Realities”, in: American Political Science Review, Vol. 84, No. 3, 1990, pp.731-745, p.733

[10] Baylis, Booth, Garnet, op.cit., p.73

Excerpt out of 9 pages


Deterrence and Terrorism: Can Global Terrorism be deterred?
University of Kent  (Brussels School of International Studies)
2+ (B+)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
493 KB
The strategy of deterrence is as old as conflict itself. During the cold war, the concept of US nuclear strategy was further developed and is now once again being discussed in connection with global terrorism. This essay argues that deterrence is not a suitable way to hinder terrorism and in various developments is actually in violation of international law.
Deterrence, Terrorism, Global, Terrorism, Detered
Quote paper
Patrick Wagner (Author), 2004, Deterrence and Terrorism: Can Global Terrorism be deterred?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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