Deterrence, its failures, and relations between the US and China

Richard Ned Lebow speaks on deterrence, its failures, and relations between the US and China.

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 College, author of dozens of books, including three currently under review for publication, as well as hundreds of articles in this subject. 

Professor Lebow was recommended to us by John Mueller, who presented at All Souls Forum 51 weeks ago about “The Stupidity of War and the Exaggeration of Threat“. In brief, Mueller said the most important thing the US did to win the Cold War was … NOTHING: Between the Fall of Saigon in 1975 and the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as President of the US in 1981, the US fell into a non-intervention funk, and the Soviet Union gathered economic basket cases it could not support and invaded Afghanistan, where it bled to death. Mueller said we should ask Lebow to discuss deterrence and ask Susan Shirk to talk about China. The Forum Committee agreed, and the two of them accepted: We hear from Lebow today and Shirk next week. Both of them have recent books on China including Lebow and Feng Zhang1 (2022) Justice and International Order: East and West (Oxford U. Pr.) Lebow and Feng Zhang (2020) Taming Sino-American Rivalry (Oxford U. Pr.).

Unlike many previous great power conflicts, Lebow and Feng argue that there are no outstanding substantive issues between the US and China, other than Taiwan. Each wants to be top dog. Each is jealous of the other. Each sees what the other does to increase its security as a threat. Deterrence has played a negative role on both sides, similar to the Cold War. Each interprets the other’s “defensive” actions as “offensive”. Over reliance on deterrence has had poisonous effects by and on both parties. 

During the Cold War, one of the principle goals of Western military policy was to keep the Soviet Union from attacking Western Europe. We now know that no Soviet leader ever intended to attack Western Europe, but US leaders didn’t know that. They therefore attempted to deter that perceived threat by themselves threatening to destroy the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. The Soviets responded to that nuclear threat by building their own nuclear arsenal to deter the US from attacking them.

Deterrence also sits at the core of criminal justice policies. There is no evidence that the death penalty deters crime, but people who support the death penalty never consider the evidence.

People advocating deterrence often cite the 1938 Munich Agreement, claiming that Britain and France should have stood up to Hitler then. However, the German records from that time reveal that Hitler could not have been deterred: He wanted war and was furious that the British and the French refused to fight then.

Nuclear deterrence makes no sense, because use of nuclear weapons on any scale would be suicidal. Theory says that deterrence requires four things:

  1. You must define a commitment.
  2. You must communicate that commitment.
  3. You must have the capability of enforcing it.
  4. You must demonstrate your resolve.

No rational person could persuasively communicate such a commitment, because any detonation of a nuclear weapon in armed conflict could too easily lead to a nuclear response with unacceptable consequences. Nixon thought that by acting irrationally, he could more persuasively communicate such a commitment. However, he failed to consider how his opposition might respond.

Professor Lebow wrote the first empirical-theoretical analysis of deterrence based on a dataset he created of deterrence cases from 1898 through 1967. He concluded that  the actors in these cases rarely acted rationally, thus violating what is perhaps the most important hidden assumption of deterrence theory. Examples include the G. W. Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq and Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.

But even if they act rationally, they often reason that if I give in to a certain threat, that acquiescence will be followed by a bigger demand, so it’s best to deny say “no” now than wait, as our relative strength could be worse later.

During an earlier interview for Radio Active Magazine 2023-11-28, Lebow said that a deterrence strategy has been as likely to provoke as prevent an undesired behavior. 

Copyright 2024 Richard Ned Lebow and Spencer Graves, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA) 4.0 international license.


  1. In Chinese tradition, the family name (surname) comes first. Thus, “Lebow and Feng Zhang” is shortened to “Lebow and Feng”, NOT “Lebow and Zhang”. 

Share This Episode