The Concept of Deterrence

Deterrence is intended to indicate to an opponent, primarily via credible threats of sanction or deprivation, that the costs of an action by him far outweigh the benefits (Mohan 1986:4).  The strategy of deterrence has at least three components: capability, credibility and communication (Mohan 1986:4).

(1) Capability – rational assessments of relative military capabilities can only ever be subjective, leaving considerable room for miscalculation and mistake (Mohan 1986:4).

(2) Credibility – capability is not sufficient to ensure deterrence; a challenger must also believe that the leadership of the deterring state is willing to carry out its threat, otherwise deterrence is unlikely to work (Mohan 1986:5).

(3) Communication – a key condition for a successful deterrent strategy is that the potential challenger be made aware precisely what range of actions is proscribed and what would be the consequences of proscribed actions.  The reception and assessment of such signals passing between complex state bureaucracies is complicated and thus vulnerable to contradiction, distortion and misunderstanding (Mohan 1986:5).

Deterrence assumes a rational analysis of the cost-benefit trade-offs by both sides involved; in the absence of rational behaviour by both sides, deterrence is likely to break down (Mohan 1986:4).   These conditions of deterrence are rarely fully satisfied in the real world (Mohan 1986:5).


Resources are organized in chronological order

Link |  Reinhardt (1958) Deterrence is Not Enough (RAND P983)

Link |  Wohlstetter (1958) The Delicate Balance of Terror  (RAND P1472)

Link |  Schelling (1958)  The Reciprocal Fear of Surprise Attack  (RAND P1342)

Link |  Brodie (1959) ‘The Anatomy of Deterrence,’ World Politics, Vol.11, No.2 (Jan 1959), 173-191

Link | Wohlstetter (1959) ‘The Delicate Balance of Terror,’ Foreign Affairs, January 1959

Link | Brodie (1959) Strategy in the Missile Age (RAND CB137-1)

Link |  Wohlstetter (1959) ‘The Delicate Balance of Terror,’ Foreign Affairs, Vol.37, No.2 (Jan 1959), 211-234

Link | Kahn (1960) The Nature and Feasibility of War and Deterrence (RAND P1888)

Link |  Snyder (1960) ‘Deterrence and Power,’ The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol.4, No.2 (Jun 1960), 163-178

Link |  Brodie (1962) ‘Defense Policy and the Possibility of Total War,’ Daedalus, Vol.91, No.4 (Fall 1962), 733-748

Link | Wolf (1964) The Uses and Limitations of Nuclear Deterrence in Asia (RAND P2958)

Link | Brodie (1965) Escalation and the Nuclear Option (RAND RM4544)

Link | Enthoven & Smith (1971) How Much is Enough? (RAND CB403)

Link |  Jervis (1979) ‘Deterrence Theory Revisited,’ World Politics, Vol.31, No.2 (Jan 1979), 289-324 (Review of Alexander George and Richard Smoke (1974) Deterrence in American Foreign Policy: theory and practice)

Link | Brown (1977) Deterrence Failures and Deterrence Strategies (RAND P5842)

Link |  Conover (1977) US Strategic Nuclear Weapons and Deterrence  (RAND P5967)

Link |  Jervis (1979) ‘Why Nuclear Superiority Doesn’t Matter,’ Political Science Quarterly, Vol94, No.4 (Winter 1979-80), 617-633

Link |  Kanzelberger (1979) American Nuclear Strategy: a selective analytic survey of threat concepts for deterrence and compellence  (RAND N1238)

Link |  Lodal (1980) ‘Deterrence and Nuclear Strategy,’ Daedalus, Vol.109, No.4 (Fall 1980), 155-175

Link |  Jervis (1982) ‘Deterrence and Perception,’ International Security, Vol.7, No.3 (Winter 1982-82), 3-30

Link |  Schelling (1984) ‘Confidence in Crisis,’ International Security, Vol.8, No.4 (Spring 1984), 55-66

Link |  Mearsheimer (1984) ‘Nuclear Weapons and Deterrence in Europe,’ International Security, Vol.9, No.3 (Winter 1984-85), 19-46

Link |  Wolfe (1984) ‘Shifts in Soviet Strategic Thought,’ Foreign Affairs,

Link | Powell (1985) ‘The Theoretical Foundations of Strategic Nuclear Deterrence,’ Political Science Quarterly, Vol.100, No.1 (Spring 1985), 75-96

Link |  Wieseltier (1985) ‘When Deterrence Fails,’ Foreign Affairs, Vol.63, No.4 (Spring 1985), 827-847

Link |  Marullo (1985) ‘The Ideological Nature of Nuclear Deterrence: some causes and consequences,’ The Sociological Quarterly, Vol.26, No.3 (Autumn 1985), 311-330

Link | Mohan (1986) ‘The Tragedy of Nuclear Deterrence,’ Social Scientist, Vol.14, No.4 (Apr 1986), 3-19

Link | Rhodes (1988) ‘Nuclear Weapons and Credibility: Deterrence theory beyond rationality,’ Review of International Studies, 14(1) 45-62

Link |  Freedman (1988) ‘I Exist; Therefore I Deter,’ International Security, Vol.13, No.1 (Summer 1988), 177-195 (Review of Morton H. Halperin (1988) Nuclear Fallacy: dispelling the myth of nuclear strategy)

Link |  Jervis (1989) ‘Rational Deterrence: theory and evidence,’ World Politics, Vol.41, No.2 (Jan 1989), 183-207

Link |  Lebow & Gross Stein (1989) ‘Rational Deterrence Theory: I Think, Therefore I Deter’, World Politics, Vol.41, No.2 (Jan 1989), 208-224

Link |  Freedman (1989) ‘General Deterrence and the Balance of Power,’ Review of International Studies, Vol.15, No.2 (Apr 1989), 199-210

Link |  Powell (1989) ‘Nuclear Deterrence and the Strategy of Limited Retaliation,’ The American Political Science Review, Vol.83, No.2 (Jun 1989), 503-519

Link | Waltz (1990) ‘Nuclear Myths and Political Realities,’ The American Political Science Review, 84(3) 731-745

Link | Builder (1991) The Future of Nuclear Deterrence (RAND P7702)

Link |  Wolf (1991) When the Weak Attack the Strong: failures of deterrence  (RAND N3261)

Link | Millot (1991) The Role of Deterrence in America’s European Strategy,  (RAND N3183)

Link |  Williams (1992) ‘Rethinking the “Logic” of Deterrence,’ Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, Vol.17, No.1 (Winter 1992), 67-93

Link |  Levine (1993) Uniform Deterrence of Nuclear First Use  (RAND MR231)

Link |  Gompert, Watman & Wilkening (1995) US Nuclear Declaratory Policy: the question of nuclear first use  (RAND MR596)

Link | Wilkening & Watman (1995) Nuclear Deterrence in a Regional Context,  RAND MR500

Link | Lebow & Gross Stein (1995) ‘Deterrence and the Cold War,’ Political Science Quarterly, Vol.110, No.2 (Summer 1995), 157-181

Link |  Freedman (2000) ‘Does Deterrence Have a Future?’, Arms Control Today, Vol.30, No.8 (Oct 2000), 3-8

Link | Sagan (2000) ‘The Commitment Trap: Why the United States should not use nuclear threats to deter biological and chemical weapons attacks,’ International Security, 24(4) 85-115

Link |  Siracusa & Coleman (2000) ‘Scaling the Nuclear Ladder: deterrence from Truman to Clinton,’ Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol.54, No.3 (2000), 277-296

Link |  Kunsman & Lawson (2001)  A Primer on US Strategic Nuclear Policy  (Sandia National Laboratories)

Link |  MccGwire (2006) ‘Nuclear Deterrence,’ International Affairs, Vol.82, No.4 (2006), 771-784

Link | Dunn (2007) ‘Deterrence Today: Roles, Challenges and Responses,’ in collaboration with the Atomic Energy Commission

Link |  Long (2008) Deterrence from Cold War to Long War: lessons from six decades of RAND research, RAND

Link |  Lebow (2008?) ‘Deterrence’

Link |  Lupovici (2010) ‘The Emerging Fourth Wave of Deterrence Theory – toward a new research agenda,’ International Studies Quarterly, Vol.54, No.3 (Sep 2010), 705-732

Link | Pifer et al (2010) ‘US Nuclear and Extended Deterrence: considerations and challenges,’ Brookings, Arms Control Series, Paper 3, May 2010

Link |  Krepon (2011) ‘Assured Destruction,’ online at www.armscontrolwonk.com

Link | Quackenbush (2011) ‘Deterrence Theory: where do we stand?’  Review of International Studies, Vol.37, No.2 (Apr 2011), 741-762

Link | Delpech (2012) Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century, RAND Corporation

Link |  Shultz & Goodby (2015) The War That Must Never Be Fought: dilemmas of nuclear deterrence