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The Trouble with “Integrated Deterrence”
New national security slogans won’t help America prevent aggression overseas
This week, the Pentagon sent its new National Defense Strategy to Congress, one of the many high-level policy reports the Department of Defense is required to produce on a regular basis. In theory, these strategies guide the Pentagon and wider U.S. government as they go about the difficult business of foreign policy and national security. This new document is no different, and Pentagon leaders from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on down has been making abundantly clear that its new strategy will be grounded on the concept of “integrated deterrence.”
What integrated deterrence actually means both in theory and practice remains far less clear. Pentagon officials have deployed massive quantities of national security jargon to sketch out the concept, but it’s still difficult to define integrated deterrence or understand what makes it distinct and different from traditional notions of deterrence. Some of it seems common sensical, such as pulling together other required reviews of the military’s nuclear forces and missile defenses into the wider national defense strategy or better incorporating cyber-capabilities into the Pentagon’s strategic thinking. But these otherwise creditable moves appear focused more on process than substance.
Other statements by Pentagon officials seem to indicate that integrated deterrence means less reliance on military power to deter adversaries and more reliance on what are euphemistically called “other instruments of national power.” These other instruments include diplomacy, law enforcement, economic statecraft including sanctions. Pentagon staffers appear to believe that the war in Ukraine has proven their ideas right, with one anonymous official claiming that “the model of integrated deterrence comes out smelling pretty good from this.”
To be fair, Pentagon officials haven’t claimed that integrated deterrence would have stopped Putin from invading Ukraine. Instead, they say it’s kept the Kremlin from expanding the war into NATO territory. But it’s not hard to see how the basic ideas of integrated deterrence – less emphasis on military force, more on diplomacy, sanctions, and the like – informed the Biden administration’s otherwise praiseworthy efforts earlier this year to ward off a Russian invasion of Ukraine. For all the administration did right, though, its intelligence releases, arms transfers, and threats of sanctions failed to deter Putin.
Indeed, if Ukraine represents an example of integrated deterrence in practice it’s an example of failure. The prospect of severe economic sanctions, for instance, doesn’t necessarily serve as a particularly credible or effective deterrent measure. It’s far too easy for an autocratic government or regime to believe it can ride them out, especially if it’s headed by a dictator like Vladimir Putin in possession of a deeply distorted worldview or single-minded in the pursuit of a particular objective like the Kim regime in North Korea or the powers that be in Iran. Even if the scope and scale of sanctions surprise an aggressor – as apparently has been the case for the Kremlin – historically sanctions have rarely deterred aggression.
Nor does an appeal to widely-shared values or shame really work if an aggressor’s core goals include overturning or otherwise undermining the very values to which the United States and its allies appeal. That’s clearly been the case in Ukraine, where dismantling the political underpinnings of post-Cold War Europe was one of Putin’s central objectives and driving motivations. In Putin’s mind, the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must – international laws, norms, and ideals be damned. This rejection of the principles and values that the United States and its allies uphold, however imperfectly, doesn’t just stop in Moscow though – it runs through Tehran and Beijing as well.
Intelligence warnings from the United States and United Kingdom played a crucial role in preventing the Kremlin from constructing a pretext for its aggression against Ukraine. But as with promises of sanctions and appeals to values, intelligence disclosures suffer from inherent credibility problems – no matter how good the intelligence community may be at its job. There’s the Iraq syndrome, in which any U.S. claims based on intelligence information receive knee-jerk skepticism and disbelief rather than careful examination. Moreover, the Ukrainian government went out of its way to criticize American predictions of an imminent Russian invasion, saying they harmed Ukraine economically.
While they didn’t deter Russia in this particular case, these diplomatic and economic measures may have greater success elsewhere in the future. Because the United States and its allies in both Europe and Asia went ahead and imposed severe sanctions on Russia after it invaded Ukraine, for instance, threats to impose similarly severe sanctions against other countries – like, say, China – will be far more credible. Likewise, American warnings about potential aggression will probably receive less reflexive skepticism going forward. However, it’s important to remember that, like the Kremlin today, would-be aggressors would likely imagine that they’ve insulated their economies against sanctions or can otherwise absorb the costs to achieve aims like the conquest of Taiwan or pursuit of nuclear weapons.
In other words, then, the notion that economic statecraft or diplomacy can effectively substitute for military power leads to disintegrated deterrence. Both before and after the Russian invasion, President Biden repeatedly and explicitly ruled out sending U.S. troops to Ukraine under any circumstances. That decision may have been wise for a host of other reasons, from reducing the risk of a clash between American and Russian forces to removing Putin’s ability to frame his invasion as a fight with the United States and NATO. But it did little to deter the Kremlin from embarking on a war of aggression against Ukraine.
Even now, the United States and its allies deter themselves by repeatedly signaling a desire to avoid conflict with Russia at all costs. The United States refused to send Ukraine used Polish MiG-29 fighter jets, for instance, because of worries that such a move “may be mistaken as escalatory” – even though there’s scant indication that the Kremlin would see the transfer of these surplus aircraft as such.
It's probably correct to say, as some anonymous defense officials and others have argued, that nothing short of stationing U.S. combat troops in Ukraine would have kept Putin from invading. But that reality only goes to show the limitations inherent in the idea of integrated deterrence, at least as it’s been sketched out in public so far. Unlike threats of sanctions or ostracization from international society, military power possesses a latent deterrent credibility – especially in the context of defensive alliances like NATO. If Putin’s deterred from expanding his war in Ukraine, it will have less to do with newfangled ideas of integrated deterrence and more to do with the old-fashioned notion that the Kremlin would risk a war with the United States if it escalated beyond Ukraine.
Why does all this matter?
First, the United States and its allies still need to deter Moscow from further escalation as the war in Ukraine drags on. Possible scenarios for Russian escalation include direct attacks against NATO territory and the use of chemical weapons, among others. It’s very hard to deter these potential threats without integrating military force more directly into our thinking, especially after with the scope and scale of sanctions already in place. Indeed, it’s unlikely that the prospect of, say, a full European boycott of Russian oil and gas would prevent Putin from using chemical weapons or embarking on some other form of escalation.
NATO’s enhanced military presence along the alliance’s eastern flank will probably prove sufficient to deter any action against its member nations. That presence can be bolstered when needed, as shown by the recent decision to send six U.S. Navy electronic warfare aircraft to Germany. As distorted and detached from realityas Putin’s overall thinking has become, he and his cronies still appear lucid enough to know that attacking NATO would be a bad idea that risks a catastrophic war with the United States.
Deterring Russian chemical weapons use presents a separate and more difficult question. The United States President Biden has already asserted that the Kremlin would pay a “severe price” if it used nerve agents like sarin or Novichok in Ukraine, and Secretary of Defense Austin has promised a “significant reaction” to any Russian chemical weapons attack. But it remains unclear what exactly that reaction might be, even as the United States continues to warn that an attack may take place.
Second and more importantly over the long term, if the United States is to rely on the concept of integrated deterrence moving forward it will need to give the idea more serious thought than it has shown to date. The attempt to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine without integrating military power into our calculations failed, and there’s an understandable aversion to actually integrating military power into our thinking in general. It’s something we see in the constant mantra that there are no military solutions to conflicts around the world, a mentality that tends to cloud our vision and crowd out serious thinking about how to actually end wars and deter aggression.
The war in Ukraine ought to be seen as a warning sign for the Pentagon and its new defense strategy, not an occasion for a victory lap. Insofar as the United States sought to deter Putin from invading Ukraine through economic statecraft and diplomacy rather than military power, we failed – and that fact ought to have broader implications for our thinking about deterrence more broadly and in scenarios like Taiwan and the Middle East. If integrated deterrence is to avoid the fate of “smart power” and other similar ideas that have been floated over the past two decades, it will need to ditch the aversion to military power and security considerations that so often characterizes foreign policy thinking today.