In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Deterrence Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Historical Surveys
  • Classic Works
  • Structural Theories
  • Case Studies and Analytic Narratives
  • Statistical Analyses
  • Critical Studies, Theoretical Appraisals, and Empirical Evaluations
  • Further Reading

International Relations Deterrence Theory
Frank C. Zagare
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0161


Deterrence theory refers broadly to a body of academic work that came to dominate the security studies literature in the United States and western Europe shortly after World War II. There is, however, no single theory of deterrence if, by “theory,” one means a collection of logically connected hypotheses. Rather, the literature is characterized by a number of distinct research thrusts that are oftentimes at odds with one another. It should be no surprise to learn, therefore, that the body of literature that delineates the field is at once large, intellectually diverse, conceptually vibrant, and politically relevant. The American strategic analyst Bernard Brodie is generally considered the field’s seminal figure. Brodie was among the first to realize that the postwar international system was radically different than the multipolar European state system that Bismarck had fashioned. For one thing, the postwar system was decidedly bipolar. For another, it was well on its way to becoming nuclear. It was clear to Brodie and a few others that the standard realist theory of war prevention would no longer suffice and that it would need to be revised in light of the new strategic realities that emerged after the war in the Pacific came to a sudden and decisive conclusion. Modern deterrence theory was that revision. It can, therefore, be usefully thought of as a necessary recalibration of classical balance of power theory.

General Overviews and Historical Surveys

The body of literature associated with modern deterrence theory is large, and the methodological and policy debates it contains are frequently arcane. The works listed here attempt to impose order on the field and critically assess its development in light of technological innovations in weaponry over time. Freedman 1989 is the most complete; Smoke 1992 is the most accessible, and Trachtenberg 1991 is the most perceptive. Powerful criticisms can be found in Green 1966 and Rapoport 1964. Morgan 1983 fine tunes the definition of deterrence; Kenny 1985 provides a philosopher’s perspective, while Freedman 2004 clarifies concepts and discusses the relevance of alternative policies.

  • Freedman, Lawrence. The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s, 1989.

    An easy to read and engaging discussion of strategic theory that is at once complete and insightful. Provides needed historical context to a number of important debates.

  • Freedman, Lawrence. Deterrence. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2004.

    A timely analysis of the future of deterrence as a strategic tool in light of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the rise of terrorism. Less historical and more theoretical than Freedman 1989.

  • Green, Philip. Deadly Logic: The Theory of Nuclear Deterrence. New York: Schocken, 1966.

    A critical assessment of the assumptions, the methodology, and especially the policy prescriptions offered by Schelling 1960, Schelling 1966, Kahn 1960, Kahn 1965, and others (all cited under First Wave).

  • Kenny, Anthony. The Logic of Deterrence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

    Discusses the strategic and ethical problems implicit in implementing deterrence policies and offers a provocative prescription for eliminating nuclear weapons from strategic arsenals. Highlights important issues that are sometimes ignored.

  • Morgan, Patrick M. Deterrence: A Conceptual Analysis. 2d ed. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE, 1983.

    A most influential work that laid the groundwork for subsequent empirical research. Morgan distinguishes four types of deterrence relationships: general, immediate, direct, and extended deterrence. These are now standard categories. See, for example, Huth 1988 and Quackenbush 2011 (both cited under Statistical Analyses).

  • Rapoport, Anatol. Strategy and Conscience. New York: Harper and Row, 1964.

    Another sweeping incitement of the first wave of rational deterrence theory and what Rapoport argues is the misuse of game theory by its developers.

  • Smoke, Richard. National Security and the Nuclear Dilemma: An Introduction to the American Experience in the Cold War. 3d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992.

    A concise and evenhanded review of the development of American strategic thinking up to the early 1990s.

  • Trachtenberg, Marc. “Strategic Thought in America, 1952–1966.” In History and Strategy. By Marc Trachtenberg, 3–46. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

    A short yet penetrating analysis of the origins of modern deterrence theory. A must read.

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