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Is there a traumatic kernel to deterrence?

Preparing a paper for the ISA conference in San Francisco on Cyber-Deterrence, I wondered what happened to the “terror” of deterrence. Today deterrence is a merely theoretical shell expressing a rational calculus.


On Cyberdeterrence

Since the beginning of the atomic age it was immediately clear that access to this force allowed for a direct connection – a shortcut – to power. The paradox to be solved was, how nuclear weapons can be “used” and not be “used”, how they will never explode but still be useful. The answer was deterrence theory

2nd Wave Deterrence.

Deterrence theory laid out the rules how states can “use” the destructive force of the atom to play a rational game that allows them to participate in the power struggles of the new, the nuclear world order.

By representing the dilemma of nuclear deterrence with new game theoretical methods and rational choice theory which rationalized and mathematized social processes, deterrence theorists were able to fabricate a new texture of meaning for the thing, which has the capacity to disrupt this web of meaning itself, to destroy the symbolic order itself. They took seriously that the new strategy was not to use the bomb ever (explode it), and redefined the “use” of a weapon to be a threat to others.

This made nuclear weapons useful items, powerful items in the sense that their destructive force had to be translated, transferred, displaced to be useful and be used in power relationships and negotiations between states. Such, a new language – the language of nuclear deterrence – was developed and invented. Today the system of nuclear deterrence is in place allowing states to hedge the destructive power of nuclear weapons in a meaningful way while still engaging in power politics.

3rd Wave.

The third wave of nuclear deterrence theory in the 1970s expressed critique on some of the assumptions of deterrence theory. The superficial question asked by third wave deterrence theory is how perception, culture and norms influence the values of a quadrant in a payoff matrix or if a utilitarian rational actor without internal dynamics and differences can be reasonably assumed. The third wave of deterrence theory laid open all the flaws in the second wave. But to consider all accessible psychological and circumstantial and norm based factors etc. also stabilized the “rational choice approach to understand actor’s strategic decision-making”. Although it “did not resolve the deficiencies it identified” and did “not replace rational deterrence theory” below the surface nuclear deterrence was made fit on an operational level to address new challenges, while still reaffirming the nuclear order.

During that process the core of what constitutes nuclear deterrence was subtly altered. Deterrence was genereralized, abstracted, augmented to apply in a topological sense to examples beyond the nuclear realm.

But nuclear deterrence is not only the threat of individual denial of benefits or a threat of punishment, a microeconomic rationalization of calculus or bargain with a payoff matrix.

The disturbing fact which has to be actively displaced, concealed, obfuscated, hidden, occluded is that nuclear deterrence is not only the threat of mass murder on an exorbitant scale but the threat to be responsible to literally destroy the world, the threat of absolute death. It is second order death, the death of the network of meaning itself.

One could of course argue that this apocalyptic dimension can be represented again in a payoff matrix, were the costs are almost infinitely high. I want to argue that absolute death is not representable in a rational game and nuclear deterrence is since its invention secretly participating at this ethical dimension. In political science literature such an ethical dimension of nuclear deterrence is sometimes partly captured by emphasizing the influence of norms on the practice of deterrence, based on the amorality of nuclear weapons – a nuclear taboo. But despite the fact that norms “channel constrain, and constitute action” this does not capture what in a slight alteration of Nietzsches aphorism would be: if you are gazing long into the nuclear abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

So, the question is: Is the theory of deterrence structured around this ethical dimension and does it change the theory of deterrence substantially if it is translated or applied to other fields like cyberdeterrence? Is each application of “a” deterrence theory unique, and do these other fields of application impose their own unique norms, changing the metric of deterrence itself?

I am not going to say much about cyberdeterrence here.

But to develop the grammar or metric of cyberdeterrence it is common to compare it to nuclear deterrence. Most authors agree that cyberdeterrence and nuclear deterrence have only few similarities, but that the nuclear example in general can give important lessons.

The main difference though between both is that nuclear deterrence is deterrence by punishment and threatens large scale destruction.

Cyberdeterrence operates in an environment unsuited to traditional models of deterrence. It will be most effective in deterrence by denial strategies and will probably not have a strong deterrence by punishment element. The obvious question is, what these substantive/topological differences in the logic of deterrence mean for cyberdeterrence and for attempts to produce the deterrence effect.

Can cyberdeterrence go beyond a mere cost/benefit calculation and is the metric of deterrence going to work effectively? For the strategic role cyberdetereence could play it will be decisive, if cyberdeterrence is an effective language that allows an actor to participate in power relationships like with nuclear weapons



By displacing the ethical dimension, the traumatic kernel in nuclear warfare, nuclear deterrence theory allowed to solve the deterrence paradox of nuclear use/non use and made nuclear weapons useful. While hedging their destructive force nuclear deterrence allowed nuclear armed states to engage in power politics and provided a common language. In the last decades the concept of deterrence subsequently diffused by applying the deterrence “skeleton”, the empty frame of rational calculation of costs and benefits, to non-nuclear fields. But the principal difficulties of the deterrence calculus remained. How do we measure goals and values, how do we quantify credibility, how do we treat epistemological and ontological uncertainty about the perspectives of the other? Deterrence is a blunt tool, it worked with nuclear weapons while survival was at stake.

Even if there is a clear declaratory policy for cyber deterrence strategies and an integration of deterrence with other policy tools, the question remains, if deterrence without large scale destruction is operationally/causally working or if deterrence is a theoretical shell to capture aspects of the metastructure of antagonistic adversarial relationships, but in the end it is quite unpredictable if the imagined deterrence calculus will work in the real world.


In that sense I am using  deterrence by denial or punishment on a day by day basis, to deter my daughter not to take unwanted action. (But even there I sometimes deter her e.g. from eating berries or mushrooms by claiming they are poisonous and deadly, which they are not – most of the time.)