Ignored and Intangible: Deterrence, Nuclear Force and Quantitative Method

by Howard Fienberg

for Professor Ethan Zorick, Nov 11, 1996

The previous week's readings were based around numerous personal attacks between three academics, essentially accusing each other of being stupid. The opposing teams of Paul Huth and Bruce Russett in their article "Testing Deterrence Theory: Rigor makes a Difference", and Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Stein in "Deterrence: the Elusive Dependent Variable", did not degenerate quite so far. However, it could easily go there if the two parties continue to fail to recognize that the essence of their disagreement on deterrence comes down primarily to operational definitions.

This paper will focus first on the relevance of this classical approach to deterrence theory in the modern world, then on the problems with the attempts by both articles' authors to deal with qualitativity and quantitativity in deterrence and international relations theory.

The relevance of deterrence theory as examined by these articles is slightly questionable when one considers the advent of nuclear weaponry and, in particular, its rapid proliferation around the world. Deterrence was elevated when it was used in the cold war bipolar system. The development of unprecedented nuclear striking power by the US and the USSR created a temporary mutual deterrence because neither side could attack the other without suffering unbearable horror. Dubbed Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), deterrence managed to keep the superpowers from attacking one another directly, or utilizing nuclear weapons at all. There were a few occasions when it was truly tested, such as during the Yom Kippur War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it generally held.

In essence, it kept a form of peace. Towards the end of the cold war era, the bipolar MAD system had become obsolete, and today, the world has many nuclear-armed powers: the big five, India, Israel, Pakistan, and South Africa, as well as numerous ex-Soviet republics that are supposed to be decommissioning their nuclear arms, and a whole slew of countries working feverishly to attain them. Hence, we see a multipolar nuclear system, one much less stable.

It is a relatively safe assumption that nuclear weapons are essentially 'unusable' weapons, in that most everyone is too frightened of the wider implications of their usage to even consider it. If this were entirely true, then these two articles' approach would stand unchallenged.

Both sets of authors essentially ignore the nuclear factors, and the fact that a nuclear arsenal played any part in the deterrence of conflict. That is because it is a so-called 'intangible' factor, since it is solely a matter of perception on the behalf of the attacker (or compeller) as to whether or not the defender would use them. Even if their use is never threatened, either by the raising of the Defense Condition in the US, or by verbal or diplomatic threat, the threat is still there. There are endless piles of 'potential' mass destruction stockpiled around the world, and it will always be a factor in these sorts of cases; not simply because it is there, but because its non-utilization will never be entirely certain. The psychological factors can be second-guessed, but the risks in that second-guessing are astronomical.

At least eighteen of the cases listed in Huth and Russet's article involve nuclear powers (35-41, 43, 46-49, 51-52, 55-58) in some fashion, either as attacker, defender, or both. Neither they, nor Janice and Stein really address the implications of nuclear forces in these encounters. This highlights a weakness in the approach in both articles.

Seen from a broader perspective, it shows that a universal approach has not been achieved, since neither can account for changes of such nature as nuclear force in international relations. This happens to be a common critique of neorealism, in that its focus on IR as the realm of continuity and repetition, it fails to address the origins of the system or to account for change over time. Moreover, if both parties' explanations for failing to address the problem would be the cold war MAD system, they would enhance the irrelevance of their theory by its incapacity to deal with IR as anything but an eternal continuity.

Even more so, although shared by both, this omission demonstrates a further weakness which Huth and Russett particularly show. One of the major critiques they make of Lebow and Stein is their 'fuzziness': their tendency to rely on qualitative judgments that are not directly linked to quantitatively observable behavior. The capacity for observable behavior in any social science is extremely limited, but international relations is an even worse position. Subtlety and perception is completely ignored by Huth and Russett.

They admit that "the possibility of deception is a fundamental element of deterrence," (Huth and Russett 480) and then fail to realize the implication of that for their entire study. Foreign policy is never blatant and open, even when it seems to be so. Their reliance in their operational definition on "observable traces" emphasizes military actions and diplomatic notes and speeches. Any diplomat can confirm that the subtleties and nuances of their trade are varied and always open to interpretation. While there are rules as to how a message should be gotten across, it will not always be interpreted the same way. Huth and Russett may have be correct in de-emphasizing "after-the-fact statements made by the parties involved," (Huth and Russett 483) which Lebow and Stein utilize in their analysis, because such recounting may often involve the parties' skewing history to their own ends, or may suffer from poor memory. However, reading the "actions and behavior" of a party "at the time of the dispute" is more often worthless than it is not. As well, such evidence is often unavailable.

An example of this is the recriminations over the 'message' that the US was sending to Iraq before it invaded Kuwait. Hussein said he interpreted the 'message' he received from the US ambassador to mean that the US didn't care much about Kuwait. Since he capitalized on this misinterpretation, the ambassador came under attack, many people saying that she sent 'the wrong message'. However, no there are no definitive records of the meeting which can aid either side in the argument.

Huth and Russett refute Lebow and Stein's assertion that "the PRC was not planning to attack Taiwan" by pointing out that it "reflects a tendency on their part to accept too readily the conclusions of the revisionist literature." (Huth and Russett 487) They state that they have used the "most compelling interpretation," which sounds, of course, like a good idea. Unfortunately, it is a loaded and qualitative statement, which demonstrates that they made decisions based on their faith in one interpretation over another. There is a definite bias shown against any sort of revisionist literature, and their reliance on the "compelling" mainstream does little to fortify their analysis' credibility.

Lebow and Stein also claim that there must be evidence "to indicate that the challenger considered an attack, as well as evidence that a defender attempted to deter"; when such evidence is unavailable, they "refrain from making a judgment." (345) This emphasis on evidence is just as dubious as that made by Huth and Russett. What works in Lebow and Stein's favor is that they claim to have consulted a wide variety of experts on each possible case to try to reach some semblance of consensus. This is at least somewhat more "rigorous" than Huth and Russett's choosing of compelling interpretations. Both are flawed in the long run, unfortunately.

In fact, the whole exercise is flawed. Both groups are trying to be quantitative and methodologically clean in their analyses of deterrence, and both end up being decidedly qualitative throughout. What works in favor of Lebow and Stein is their acceptance and realization of the limits of the quantitative approach. They come closer to admitting their bias than their adversaries.

Huth and Russett, throughout, emphasize their rigorous quantitative approach to deterrence. This is problematic in and of itself, due to the limitations of what one can do when maintaining this approach. It is made worse because they consistently make qualitative statements and judgments, and systematically fail to recognize it when they are issuing them. Their bias is not spoken directly, nor is it particularly well hidden.

Deterrence is primarily a matter of perception and interpretation. This makes it more a study in psychology than anything else. Psychology, a medicinal science, has its schools and intra-discipline disagreements like any other. Recognizing that no science is perfect, one must ask if one is being too harsh in laying judgment on either the quantitative or qualitative approach to social science, since both are trying to achieve the same goals. The rigorous method sought after by Huth and Russett through quantitativity is an admirable enterprise, if imperfect, as is the recognition of the limits of this approach by Lebow and Stein. Both groups are highlighting the areas in need of improvement and evolution in the study of deterrence, and hence in international relations theory overall.


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