When Deterrence Fails

The attacks in Paris are yet another reminder that we face enemies who cannot be deterred. The certainty of their own death did not deter the Islamist terrorists who killed in the streets of Paris. But the failure of deterrence is not simply a problem at the tip of the enemy’s spear—namely, the megalomaniacal and perverted individual who desires to blow up himself (or herself). It is also not exclusive to the various groups and cells of Islamist persuasion. Other, more traditional rivals, such as Russia and Iran, also appear to be less amenable to being deterred and are poking around their neighborhood despite their own fragility and weaknesses. They are seeking wars, not avoiding them.

In other words, there seems to be a general crumbling of our—that is, the West’s—ability to deter and thereby maintain order. We are surrounded by wars, and war is penetrating deep into our territories.

There are of course many reasons for the deterioration of deterrence and the resulting instability. One reason is the weakening of our reputation and credibility. Europe long ago ceased to present a convincing capacity to stop or punish enemies beyond momentary spikes of anger and disbelief. It has also been incapable and unwilling to fulfill the basic purpose of any polity: the protection of its own borders.

The United States is not far behind. The belief seems to be that maintaining deterrence does not require hard work. President Obama reserves his anger for his opponents inside-the-Beltway but considers the Paris attack a mere “setback” in the somehow inevitable self-destruction of ISIS. He also seeks to partner with a belligerent Putin, as if the cooperation had until now been missing simply because the two men did not have a private conversation on the sidelines of a summit.

But all of these causes of weakened deterrence are only…

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