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date: 17 October 2017

Summary and Keywords

Deterrence is an old practice, readily defined and described, widely employed but unevenly effective and of questionable reliability. Elevated to prominence after World War II and the arrival of nuclear weapons, deterrence became the central recourse for sustaining international and internal security and stability among and within states in an era of serious conflict. With regard to the presence of nuclear weapons in particular but also to deal with non-nuclear violent conflict, deterrence has been employed to prevent (or at least limit) the destruction of states, societies, and ultimately humanity. The greatest success has been that no nuclear weapons have been used for destructive purposes since the end of World War II in 1945. Deterrence has been widely used below the nuclear level but with very uneven results.

Deterrence has been intensively studied and tested as to its use in terms of strategy in international relations, the maintenance of stability in international relations, the conduct of violence and warfare in both international and domestic contexts, and in political affairs. Since deterrence is the use of threats to block or reduce the inflicting of serious harm, the existence of capacities for inflicting harm are readily maintained and periodically applied, so available deterrence capabilities provide a degree of continuing concern and a regular desire to at least do away with nuclear weapons and threats. A brief period in the ending of the Cold War saw a serious effort to reduce the reliance on deterrence, particularly nuclear deterrence, in international politics but it was soon replaced by serious movement in the opposite direction. Yet efforts to reduce the need for and use of deterrence continue.

Extensive efforts have been applied in the development of theories of deterrence, particularly to generate empirical theory in order to better understand and apply deterrence but without arriving at widely accepted results. This is the result of the considerable complexity of the subject, the activity involved, and the behavior of the practitioners.

The conduct of deterrence is now broader and deeper than before. It is under greater pressure due to technological, political, and cultural developments, and operates in a much more elaborate overall environment including space, cyberspace, and oceanic environs. Thus the goal of developing effective empirical theory on deterrence remains, at various levels, still incompletely attained. The same is true of mastering deterrence in practice. Nevertheless, deterrence remains important and fascinating.

Keywords: deterrence, compellence, nuclear deterrence, general deterrence, immediate deterrence, extended deterrence, mutually assured destruction, credibility, stability, collective global security management, empirical international relations theory

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