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Message Diane Perlman

Instead of fighting over whether deterrence works, let's ask when it might work, under what conditions, for how long, and when it might have the opposite effect of provoking an attack. Does deterrence work - compared to what? Are there better ways?

THE SECURITY DILEMMA AND THE SPIRAL MODEL Deterrence leads to policies that increase tension, fear and insecurity in the Other. In "Preventing Armageddon," Morton Deutsch describes how "If one party in a conflict attempts to increase its security without regard for the security of the other party, the attempt readily becomes self-defeating, a situation that is potentially catastrophic when the stakes involve nuclear war. If military inferiority is dangerous, so is superiority. It is dangerous for either side in a conflict to feel tempted or frightened into action, or to have grounds to believe that its antagonist might be so tempted or frightened. According to this analysis, our security and that of an adversary can only be obtained through our mutual security."

Pressure creates conditions where deterrence can break down and trigger dynamics that provoke what Deutsch calls a "malignant spiral of hostile interaction." In "Deterrence, the Spiral Model, and Intentions of the Adversary," Robert Jervis says, "Spiral and deterrence theories contradict each other at every point" Each claiming to be true, give opposite answers on strategy. "..deterrers worry that aggressors will underestimate .. their resolve, " "while the spiral theorists believe that each side will overestimate the hostility of the other." Advocates of each theory fail to describe the conditions under which their favored approach does not apply.

CONDIITONS FOR DETERRENCE OR SPIRAL Jervis observes deterrence works best when the Other sees its costs for standing firm as too high and costs of retreating as low, if their central values, issues, and commitments are not involved, if goals are seen as limited, deriving from a desire for security, if means and goals are proper for equal actors, and if there is no humiliation, gratuitous punishment, illegitimate demands for something of greater value to the Other, and if there is no fear that a retreat will lead to further demands. Ralph K.White says deterrence works best when accompanied by drastic tension reduction.

At base are the assumptions about the adversary's "values, strength and resolve." When one side acts overly hostile, and demands are seen as illegitimate, giving in will feel intolerable. Psychiatrist Vamik Volkan, said that some would rather die physically than psychologically. Intolerable pressures may cause people choose defiance and death than back down as in "Give me liberty or give me death" and "Better Dead than Red"?

Deutsch describes characteristics of unintended escalation into a malignant spiral process. A win-or-lose orientation intensifies misperceptions, misjudgments, cognitive rigidity, stereotypes, misinformation, errors, suspiciousness, and sensitivity to difference and threats. Zero sum thinking promotes a belief in the need to use superior force or to outwit the Other. People are more dangerous when afraid and insecure. Acting out of fear, parties behave in ways act in ways that justify the Other's fears provoking a mutual process of "self-fulfilling paranoia."

Drawn into unwitting commitments, parties create vicious escalating spirals. A gamesmanship orientation shifts from real issues to "an abstract conflict over images of power." Each becomes locked into their positions, acting in ways that perpetuate the conflict. A blaming attitude makes it impossible to explore mediation, problem solving, winwin strategies, common interests, and mutually desirable policies and programs.

A country under threat and pressures feels backed into a corner and fears being attacked. With few options, they wish to discourage an expected attack say sending up a missile to signal "Please don't attack us because if you do we can retaliate." Others misinterpret and believe they are signaling an attack so they escalate their rhetoric and pressure.

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Visiting Scholar Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution George Mason University

Diane Perlman is a clinical and political psychologist, devoted to applying knowledge from psychology, conflict studies and social sciences to designing strategies and policies to reverse nuclear proliferation, to drastically reduce (more...)

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