Time to Stop Deterring Ourselves
Why American second guessing undermines our foreign policy and global peace
America has a self-deterrence problem.
Too often in our foreign policy debates, justifiable caution and sober risk assessment give way to apprehensive second guessing and paralyzing fear of what others might do in response to any actions the United States might take. We play eleven-dimensional chess against ourselves, imagining that we know the interests and thinking of our adversaries and competitors better than they do themselves. Whatever the underlying motives for this impulse - and they’re usually well-meaning - the results are all too frequently the same: a number of American policymakers, pundits, and experts seemingly search for reasons not to take action, considering any move the United States might make to be unduly escalatory or needlessly provocative – ignoring the ways inaction and passivity undermine America’s own interests and values.
Take the current crisis instigated by Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine: in the days right before the outbreak of war, the Biden administration debated whether or not military assistance to Kyiv would make the United States a “co-belligerent” in a conflict between the two countries. Reportedly, some administration officials ominously warned that military aid to Ukraine could “inadvertently escalate tensions with Moscow.”
Such concerns have gone by the wayside since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, at least within the Biden administration itself. But outside experts continue to intone against the perils of escalation, even as Russian tanks and artillery bear down on major Ukrainian cities. Russian leaders, one European think tank head forebodingly warns, “might regard arms convoys coming to Ukraine from NATO states as the functional equivalent of intervention” and unleash their nuclear weapons. Other smart analysts couch their otherwise reasonable and level-headed policy recommendations – keeping lines of communication between NATO and Russian militaries open, for instance – in the dire language of uncontrollable escalation. Whatever their fundamental differences, these voices effectively propose the United States and its NATO allies cringe in fear of what Putin might do if they stand up to his aggression.
It's an attitude that’s become deeply ingrained in many of our foreign policy debates, one that takes the spiral model of conflict – the notion that war unintentionally results when crises spiral into confrontation if not open conflict – as axiomatic and posits that the United States remains the only nation on the global stage that can be held responsible for its actions. Only the United States can “provoke” or court escalation; others merely react to what we do or say. In this way of thinking, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine doesn’t really count as a provocation – but anything the United States and its allies do to oppose this naked aggression necessarily risks escalation up to and including general nuclear war.
We’ve seen this attitude at work before, including in Ukraine in 2014. Back then, President Obama refused to send weapons to Kyiv as it fought off thinly-veiled Russian proxies in the country’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The White House believed that such a move would provoke a direct confrontation with Russia, something the administration was anxious to avoid. As one senior administration official put it at the time, “The debate is over how much to help Ukraine without provoking Russia.”
A similar logic played out in the Obama administration’s Middle East policy – in particular nuclear talks with Iran. The administration reportedly backed off sanctions against Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist group and Iranian proxy, due to concerns that such a move might upset delicate negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program. Likewise, State Department shelved plans to finger the Assad regime in Syria for a series of chlorine attacks out of fear that such a move “might upend efforts to secure Russia’s support for peace in Syria and jeopardize an Iran nuclear pact.” Former Obama NSC Middle East head – and current lead Iran negotiator – Robert Malley inadvertently explained the logic behind this stance, arguing that “even finely tuned action can have unintentional, outsize repercussions given the regional dynamics [in the Middle East].”
Thanks to its own fear of escalation spirals and perception that wider wars were just a stray spark away, the United States deters itself and leaves the door open for aggressive powers like Russia and Iran to press their own geopolitical advantages without fear of provoking the United States. Many American policymakers, pundits, and analysts have become afraid of what others – whether China, Russia, or Iran – might do that they have given these powers enormous strategic leverage against the United States and its allies. In effect, we remove ourselves from the geopolitical equations of leaders in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran as they contemplate aggressive moves abroad. Knowing they can count on the United States to deter itself, these autocratic regimes display no apparent concern about how their actions might provoke or escalate tensions with the United States.
In other words, America’s propensity toward restraint gives these countries far more power and influence on the world stage than the size of their economies or their military capabilities might suggest. It allows Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran to present themselves as reliable partners and effective challengers to an irresolute and decadent United States – a nation afraid to assume even minimal risks to protect its interests and values in the face of blackmail and coercion. That’s not a recipe for a more peaceful and prosperous world, but it is a formula for what FDR once called “a world dominated by the philosophy of force” and “gangster rule.” Worse, self-deterrence serves notice that America and its political leaders doubt that core liberal values like freedom, pluralism, and democracy are even worth defending in the first place.
Acknowledging America’s self-deterrence problem shouldn’t be taken as an argument that the United States should take unnecessary risks or pursue reckless policies without any thought for the consequences; recent proposals that NATO establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine represent the worst of both these worlds. Instead, it’s a call to recognize that firm American responses to aggression aren’t always “provocative” or “escalatory” in and of themselves. Nor should policymakers and analysts invent linkages between problems that do not actually exist, especially when adversaries and rivals give little indication the they view distinct problems as related. To its credit, the Biden administration appears to have overcome these self-imposed barriers to action, at least when it comes to military support for Ukraine and economic sanctions against Russia to include yesterday’s ban on imports of Russian oil, gas, and coal.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to devise a one-size-fits-all rule here that might apply to every potential foreign policy situation; indeed, the reflexive default to the spiral model of conflict among many policymakers and policy analysts has helped distort our thinking about difficult foreign policy issues in ways that make self-deterrence and passivity more likely. America’s adversaries and competitors should fear provoking the United States, not the other way around. That means the United States needs to be willing respond firmly and assertively to provocations from adversaries and competitors, accept reasonable risks in doing so, and be willing to walk away from talks if necessary.
In the context of nuclear talks with Iran, for instance, this approach would entail a willingness to walk away from or suspend negotiations in the event of proxy attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq or direct attacks against American forces or regional partners. The Biden administration’s response to the war in Ukraine several useful examples assertive responses to aggression and provocation, in particular its willingness to rapidly reinforce NATO’s eastern flank and overtly supply Ukraine with weapons. Other measures include permanent stationing of NATO forces on the eastern flank to deter any thoughts the Kremlin might have about further adventurism and the deployment of cruise missiles as a prelude to eventual arms control talks. While balances can prove hard to strike here, they’re not impossible or insurmountable challenges.
Ultimately, however, the United States can’t be scared of its own shadow – or assume that standing up for ourselves and others will automatically provoke or escalate tensions with other nations. We’ve walked on eggshells in foreign policy, believing that the slightest misstep on America’s part will enrage volatile dictators and set off a general conflagration. In making conflict avoidance and risk aversion the two primary goals of our foreign policy, we’ve allowed autocrats to run the geopolitical table against us and commit horrendous crimes against humanity with seeming impunity.
Unless we want to live in a world where the likes of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping call the shots, America has got to be ready and willing to run reasonable risks to defend its interests, its allies, and its values in the world.