Sharpening the Blunt Tool: Why Deterrence Needs an Update in the Next U.S. National Security Strategy

Contributing USMA Research Unit(s)

Social Sciences

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The Strategy Bridge

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The 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy appeared to bring deterrence back: departing from its predecessor, the document prioritized the concept by including “preserving peace through strength” as a vital national interest. From nuclear weapons to cyberspace, the strategy emphasized the logics of denial and punishment, which were hallmarks of the classical deterrence theory that emerged after World War II. However, recent thinking on deterrence has evolved beyond these simple logics. Now emerging concepts such as tailored deterrence, cross-domain deterrence, and dissuasion offer new ideas to address criticisms of deterrence in theory and practice. Therefore, the most vital question for the new administration is: how should the U.S. revise its deterrence policy to best prevent aggression in today’s complex environment? A review of the problems and prospects in deterrence thinking reveals that in addition to skillfully tailoring threats and risks across domains, U.S. policymakers should dissuade aggression by offering opportunities for restraint to reduce the risk of escalation.

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