Richard Ned Lebow on national defense including deterrence

Richard Ned Lebow discusses national defense including deterrence. Lebow is Professor Emeritus of International Political Theory in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and James O. Freedman Presidential Professor Emeritus at Dartmouth. He is also a Honorary Fellow of Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. He has taught strategy at the National and Naval War Colleges and served as a scholar-in-residence in the Central Intelligence Agency during the Carter administration. He was born in 1941 in France under Nazi occupation and is the only member of his family to have survived World War II. He was adopted by an American family and grew up in New York City. He has written dozens of books including 3 currently under review for publication, one of which is a novel, in addition to hundreds of journal articles. He is interviewed by Doug Samuelson and Spencer Graves.

The lesson of Munich

Lebow says that the so-called “Munich lesson” was coined by Winston Churchill to help ease from power Neville Chamberlain during the “phoney war” following the German invasion of Poland, during which Germany also invaded Norway. After World War II Churchill mentioned Munich, with the tacit support of US President Truman, to win US support for opposing the Soviet Union in Europe. Since the Cold War, it has become a tool of right wing hawks opposed to caution by both Republican and Democratic presidents.

The fundamental problem with the “Munich lesson” is that the use of force creates considerable blowback, which could be dramatically worse than the situation used to justify the use of force to start with. The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003 is one dramatic and well-documented example. Whatever goals were sought, including possibly making the Palestinians, North Koreans, and Iranians more pliant, it did the reverse.


Lebow has published extensively on deterrence, which is based on the assumption that most aggressive behavior in international affairs is opportunity driven. An effective strategy to counter such behavior one must do four things:

  1. Define a commitment.
  2. Communicate that commitment
  3. Have the military capability to respond effectively if needed to uphold that commitment.
  4. Act in ways to make the commitment credible.

This may not deter aggressive behavior driven by need, not opportunity. There’s all kinds of empirical evidence that a deterrence strategy is as likely to provoke the behavior it seeks to prevent as not.

The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is an example. The Soviet Union and the US had each threatened the other. The political leaders in the US believed that Soviet Premier Khrushchev was unhinged and had to be restrained. What US President Kennedy did as a result made Khrushchev feel insecure. Soviet ICBMs too often exploded on the launching pad making them more dangerous to the Soviets than to the US. Khrushchev therefore decided to station more reliable intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba. He did so in secret, fearing the US might intercept them en route otherwise. The secrecy made Kennedy feel threatened. Deterrence as practiced by both sides made the other feel more insecure. Each was convinced that giving in would only invite new challenges, and they had to behave in tough and convincing ways.

During that crisis, there were nuclear tipped US missiles on Taiwan aimed at Chinese mainland targets. The commander of that missile base received what looked like an attack order from CINCPAC, the Commander in Chief Pacific Area Command. He was horrified when he received this, because it involved launching nuclear missiles at Chinese bases and possibly cities. So he didn’t do it. Instead he cabled back and asked for clarification. In the interim, one of the officers who was in command of three missiles, insisted they had to be launched. So this commander, sent over officers, armed with weapons, with instructions to shoot this American officer, if he tried to launch; he was persuaded to wait. Three hours later, CINCPAC told the commander that whatever message he had received was a mistake.

We now know that if the US had bombed and invaded Cuba during that crisis, the Soviets had a combat brigade with 42,000 troops with Luna missiles tipped with nuclear weapons with advanced permission to use them against an American invasion fleet. Imagine where that would have gone.

MacArthur vs. Clausewitz

General Douglas MacArthur famously said that the only things the Chinese understand is the use of force and being strong. During the Korean War he ordered his troops up to the Yalu river with catastrophic consequences, while keeping Washington in the dark. At one point, Omar Bradley, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and supposedly MacArthur’s superior, and President Truman studied a huge globe together trying to figure out where American forces were in Korea, because MacArthur wouldn’t tell them.

MacArthur famously said, “In war there is no substitute for victory.” In this, he completely missed the point. Carl von Clausewitz, the great Prussian theorist of war, rightly argued that war is an extension of politics by other means. You seek political goals. You use force to bend or break the will of an adversary. The use of force has to be carefully calibrated to the political goal you seek. Victory is not an end in itself and sometimes is counterproductive to the goals that you seek.

The role of the media in conflict

Regarding the role of media in conflict, Lebow said that the yellow press forced President McKinley into an undesired war with Spain. On the other hand, Lebow said that Edward R. Murrow‘s broadcasts from London during the Blitz did a lot to bring US public opinion around to support the allies during World War II. More recent war coverage with embedded journalists ends up representing an official point of view rather than an independent one.

In the late years of the Weimar Republic leading up to January 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor, almost all newspapers were owned either by political parties or by industrialist. Each had a party line. Everyone knew that, but because there were a number of papers, there were diverse and competing opinions on everything. Before Hitler became Chancellor, he never received more than 32 percent of the vote and never should have become Chancellor. Within weeks after he became Chancellor, any number of journalists were arrested and killed by the Prussian police, which was the largest armed forces in Germany and was taken over by the Nazis without resistance. A free press no longer existed. The remaining press mobilized increasing support for him.


Lebow has collaborated with Philip Tetlock on a number of things including counterfactuals. For example, how might the world be different if Al Gore had requested a recount in all of Florida in the 2000 election, instead of only the precincts he thought he might have won? The Supreme Court likely would have allowed that, and Gore would have won that election, and there may not have been a US-led invasion of Iraq.

Tetlock and Lebow felt that historians and international relations scholars seemed to believe that past events were inevitable. To challenge this, they presented a control group with a brief narrative of a historical event and asked how likely they thought the outcome was. Experimental groups were presented with expanded narratives. Lebow and Tetlock found that the people receiving the expanded narratives were more willing to believe that the outcome could have been different.

When the Bay of Pigs invasion was failing in 1962, President Kennedy, to his credit, refused the request of the Joint Chiefs to send the US military into Cuba. As a counterfactual, if Richard Nixon had won the 1960 US presidential election, he likely would have approved that request, and Cuba would have become an Afghanistan.

Human cognition in conflict

Humans are cognitive misers: Our cognitive resources, like our financial resources, are limited. This leads everyone to make most decisions based on simple rules of thumb. We see what we expect to see. We give credit to information that confirms our beliefs, and we are resistant to information that challenges them. For our beliefs to change, they must literally be overwhelmed by discrepant information, and even then there is often considerable resistance.

In conflict we often interpret noise as signals and dismiss intended signals as noise. Communication becomes very difficult. This can be documented repeatedly in crises in the twentieth century with decisions that lead to wars that policymakers did not want.


copyright 2023 Richard Ned Lebow, Doug Samuelson, and Spencere Graves Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA) 4.0 international license.

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