Richard Ned Lebow

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From the beginning, deterrence theory and strategy has spawned critiques. The most interesting are those that evaluate deterrence strategy in the light of empirical evidence from historical cases. The work of Milburn (1959), Snyder and Diesing (1977), George and Smoke (1974), Lebow (1981), and Jervis, Lebow, and Stein (1984) is representative. George and Smoke recognized that challenges short of full-scale attacks – what they called “probes” – were difficult to deter and might be instituted by adversaries to test a state’s resolve. They and Milburn attempted to put deterrence into a broader context and argued that it might be made a more efficacious strategy if threats of punishment were accompanied by promises of rewards for acceptable behavior.

An important distinction must further be made between general and immediate deterrence (Morgan 1983). General deterrence is based on the existing power relationship and attempts to prevent an adversary from seriously considering any kind of military challenge because of its expected adverse consequences. Immediate deterrence is specific; it attempts to forestall an anticipated challenge to a well-defined and publicized commitment. Immediate deterrence is practiced when general deterrence is thought to be failing. It is almost impossible to know when general deterrence succeeds because non-action by a target state can be the result of many reasons, including any lack of intention to use force. Because cases of immediate deterrence success and failure are somewhat easier to identify, most research has sought to explain their outcomes. Analyses of immediate deterrence that ignore its relationship to general deterrence offer a biased assessment of its success rate and an incomplete picture of the conditions and processes that account for its outcome.

For many years, however, empirical research on deterrence, whether qualitative or quantitative, drew primarily on cases of immediate, conventional deterrence. Empirical studies of immediate deterrence are surrounded by considerable controversy in the absence of compelling evidence about the intentions and calculations of the leaders of target states (Huth and Russett 1984, 1988; Lebow and Stein 1990). Beginning in the late 1980s, evidence on Soviet and Chinese foreign policy began to become available, and it became possible for the first time to reconstruct critical Soviet-US and Sino-US deterrence encounters and to make some observations about the role of general deterrence in these relationships. It transpired that there had been striking differences among leaders on opposing sides about who was practicing deterrence and who was deterred. In many so-called deterrence encounters (Garthoff 1989; Lebow and Stein 1990), both sides considered themselves the deterrer. This is often due to different interpretations of the status quo. In the Cuban missile crisis (Lebow and Stein 1994), Khrushchev understood the secret Soviet missile deployment in Cuba to be part and parcel of his attempt to deter a US invasion of Cuba. Kennedy and his advisors interpreted the deployment as a radical and underhanded effort to upset the strategic status quo.

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