Deterrence can never fail, it can only be failed

8 April 2023, 1201 EDT

The government of a country makes explicit or implicit threats to another: “if you cross this line, we will inflict harm upon you.” The threat fails; the government crosses the designated line. Has deterrence failed?

Well, yes. Of course. By definition. It is, for example, unequivocally true that the United States did not deter Russia from invading Georgia in 2008, nor Ukraine in 2014, nor Ukraine (again) in 2022. Should you have any doubts about this, you can always go read a nearly four-thousand word Foreign Policy article on the subject.

I agree with its authors, Liam Collins and Frank Sobchak, that U.S. policymakers made a number of mistakes in handling Russia. Trump’s rhetoric concerning NATO, Russia, and Ukraine did not exactly help make U.S. deterrence credible; then again, Trump wasn’t in office when Putin ordered the invasion. In retrospect, Obama’s decision to withhold lethal aid from Ukraine was probably mistake, as not much seemed to happen when the Trump administration reversed course. But do we really think that providing more javelins in 2015 or 2016 would have deterred Putin’s invasion?

Apparently, yes. For Collins and Subchak, Washington’s failure to deter Russia means that U.S. policymakers should, ipso facto, have adopted a more hardline policy toward Russia. But much like the opposite claim—that Georgia and Ukraine “prove” that the U.S. should have adopted a more accommodating approach toward Russia, for example, by not expanding NATO—we’re looking at reasoning that is less “ipso facto” than “post hoc ergo propter hoc.”

That is, just because X preceded Y does not mean X caused Y. In the context of policy analysis we might add that just because Y is bad doesn’t mean Y’ would be better.

Sometimes, X isn’t even X. The fact that ‘deterrence failed’ doesn’t imply that any attempt to accommodate Russia was a capitulation to Moscow. Sometimes the opposite is true.

For instance, Collins and Sobchak argue that Ukraine shows the folly of Obama’s decision to cancel the “Third Site” anti-ballistic missile system, which involving placing radar in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland.

But the Obama administration replaced the “Third Site” with the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), which (as the Russians soon figured out) was easier for the United States to upgrade into the kind of system Moscow worried about. EPAA also entailed eventual deployments in Romania; Obama committed to stationing Patriots on Polish territory, as well “left open the door to stationing new types of missile defense interceptors in Poland, an offer the Poles later agreed to accept.” Moreover, at the Wales NATO summit Obama convinced NATO to affirm that missile defense was part of its collective mission.

Given all of this, it seems bizarre to claim, as Richard Minter did in 2014, that after “Obama delayed deployment of missile defenses in Eastern Europe, Putin knew he had a free hand to reassemble the old Soviet Union piece-by-piece. Invading his neighbors would now be cost free.”

Now, Collins and Sobchak don’t write anything quite so ridiculous. But they sometimes land come within striking distance.

Consider the very opening of the article, which discusses the U.S. response to the Russia-Georgia war:

Recall the aftermath of the 2008 invasion of Georgia. The Bush administration airlifted Georgian soldiers serving in Iraq back to Georgia to fight, provided a humanitarian aid package, and offered tersely worded denouncements and demarches. But it categorically rejected providing Georgia with serious military assistance in the form of anti-tank missiles and air defense missiles and even refrained from implementing punishing economic sanctions against Russia. The United States’ lack of resolve to punish Russia for its gross violation of international law was underscored when U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley’s remark “Are we prepared to go to war with Russia over Georgia?”—made during a National Security Council meeting after the war started—was later released to the media.

Keep in mind that they’re talking about an effort to proved anti-tank missiles and air-defense systems during a war that lasted five days—one in which Russia systematically annihilated the shiny systems that the United States and its partners had previously provided. If the argument is that the United States should have given Georgia anti-tank weapons or air-defense missiles after the conflict, then (while that might have been a good idea) it’s not clear to me how that would’ve signaled U.S. resolve.

(Stephen Hadley’s remark first appeared, if I remember correctly, in Ron Asmus’ book about the Georgia war. So the passive voice is definitely doing some work here. At the time, Hadley refused to comment on the specific quotation but did confirm that the Bush administration decided that the risks of using force outweighed the benefits. This “revelation” shouldn’t have surprised anyone, including Moscow, since, you know, the United States did not, in fact, use force. What’s particularly strange about this example is that it’s backwards. What surprised people was the extent of support within the administration for a more aggressive response. The headline of the Politico article that I linked to above wasn’t “The United States didn’t risk war for Georgia.” It was “U.S. pondered military use in Georgia.”)

It is not obvious that the United States could have secured support for, say, more punishing sanctions. The Georgia War did not deter France from closing a deal to sell two Mistral-class helicopter carriers to Russia. Paris only cancelled that sale after the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, when Hollande (rather than Sarkozy) was president (interesting side note here).

But, as is typical for this genre, the article never seriously considers either the viability or the downside risks of alternative policies. This is… problematic… given that it is very difficult to assess what the world would like after fifteen years of concatenating changes produced by different policy decisions.

None of this means that we shouldn’t evaluate past policies and work through conterfactuals. That’s a crucial element of policy analysis, social-scientific inquiry, and policymaking, Collins and Sobchak, like too many others, don’t even do the bare minimum—in their case, despite writing a piece that runs as long as a short academic article in International Relations.

That failure is particularly pernicious when an obviously “bad outcome” makes it easy to gloss over. In fact, the last sentence of Collins and Sobchak’s article gives the game away:

The sad irony is that U.S. leaders, of both parties, chose to avoid deterrence for fear of escalating conflict—only to find themselves continually escalating their support once conflict started. Time after time, the United States chose the option that was perceived as the least provocative but that instead led to the Russians becoming convinced that they were safe to carry out the most provocative action of all: a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The United States ignored the eternal wisdom of the Latin phrase Si vis pacem, para bellum (“If you want peace, prepare for war”) and instead hoped that half-steps and compromise would suffice. While so far those decisions have prevented direct conflict between two nuclear-armed superpowers, they have caused Russia and the West to be locked in a continuing series of escalations with an increasing danger of a miscalculation that could lead to exactly that scenario.