New Wars and the Fallacies of Traditional Deterrence Approaches

1945 – the year when the whole world witnessed the catastrophe of nuclear weapon use, their indiscriminate effect and their immense destructive power, has altogether altered the course of warfare. Old warfare strategies became almost obsolete and new trends soon emerged at the limelight of global security structure. Traditionally, where the victory lied in winning a war suddenly transformed into avoiding it. As it became unthinkable to instigate an all out war in the presence of a devastating nuclear arsenal, states resorted to small scale wars and limited conflicts. Consequently prompted states to pursue there goals through means other than a total war. This changing nature of warfare led to a paradigm shift in international security domain where traditional Westphalian model of nation-state system has been seriously compromised. The shift from a state centered approach, brought to the centrestage the role of non-state actors. State’s sovereignty and it’s writ has been challenged as result of the emergence of new forms of conflicts following the cold war and the post cold war era. State vs non-state conflicts seemed to have dominated the battlefield.

Such a deviation from conventional approach has not only undermined the Westphalian notion of state system but has also incorporated new agents and structures, that paved a way for new forms of conflicts and warfare. Drifting from traditional notion of war and warfare, the battlefield in the post 1945 is dominated by cold wars, proxy wars, trade wars, psychological wars, cyber wars, informations wars and hybrid warfare. It implies that mostly such forms of warfare are characterised by an ever growing role and influence of non-state actors.

The paper is a critical analysis of deterrence theory and its marginalisation in terms of relevance in new wars. It provides a thorough understanding of evolving non-nuclear threats largely dominated by state vs. non-state conflicts, non-nuclear and hybrid warfare; and the diminishing utility of traditional deterrence approaches. Furthermore, it offers a new framework for advocating Modern Deterrence and Tailored Deterrence so as to establish a corelation between the emerging hybrid threats and deterrence. 

Theoretical Framework

The pioneer of nuclear deterrence strategy Bernard Brodie suggests traditionally the sole purpose of military establishment was winning a war, from mow on its chief purpose must be to avert them.This deterrent approach is likely to work in nuclear conflicts as the famous axiom states ‘Nuclear deters nuclear’. The said notion is quiet acceptable in nuclear context as no two-sided nuclear war has taken place and are successfully being averted. But in the context of non-nuclear threats, the said approach seemed to be irrelevant. Deterrence has failed to avert non-nuclear wars that have posed devastating challenges to the international security and stability.

The stability instability paradox substantiate this idea of limited, small scale, non-nuclear  conflicts in the presence of nuclear weapons. While analysing nuclear deterrent capabilities it infers:

nuclear weapons confer large scale stability between nuclear weapon states, as in over 60 years none have engaged in large direct warfare due primarily to nuclear weapons deterrence capabilities, but instead are forced into pursuing political aims by military means in the form of comparatively smaller scale acts of instability, such as proxy wars and minor conflicts.

Drawing upon this theoretical understanding, the omnipresence of non-nuclear conflicts seem to be inevitable. The mere presence of nuclear weapons and their immense destructive capability have prompted state as well as non-state actors to explore new avenues for the pursuit of their desired ends. But such deterrence failure at lower levels can exacerbate tensions at strategic level as even minor conflicts can spiral up into a major nuclear flashpoint given the ambiguity of intentions and rationality when non-state actors get involved.

Threshold theory also contributes to address the issues of deterrence failure in case of new wars. The major cause of such failure lies with not properly defining the red lines of non-nuclear threshold. Whilst the non-nuclear wars are waged without explicitly crossing the nuclear threshold, thereby easily bypassing the the notion of nuclear response. Even though if the states intend to lower their threshold to accommodate various  non-nuclear strategic attacks, as some have already done; it becomes highly controversial. Besides, it become a subject to rational judgment that whether or not a non-nuclear (cyber) attack should be met with a nuclear retaliation.

Existing literature on deterrence has failed to comprehend the changing nature of warfare and as a result failed to adapt with the changing trends. Thus offering a fragile base on which to construct a complex hunch of the relevance of deterrence theory in the realm of new wars.

Emergence  of New Wars and Deterrence Calculus

The nuclear revolution of 1945 has not only transformed the nature of war but has also revolutionised the international security construct. It has divided the world into the pre and post nuclear world thereby challenging the conventional security architecture largely dominated by states in international system. The post nuclear era has witnessed the grey zones of peace and war largely due to the encroachment of myriad non-state entities in global politics and security environment.  The said developments heralded new wars and warfare domains:

State vs Non-State Conflicts

The ever growing role of non-state actors in warfare following the cold war and the post-cold war era, has fanned the flames of unpredictability and uncertainty in war. While the states are regarded as legitimate actors to wage a war, the non-state actors does not enjoy such perks of legitimacy under international law. Having said that it implies that states have an obligation to abide by the rules of international system while non-state actors are set free to do anything they desire.

The surfacing of state vs. non-state conflicts also reflect the drawbacks of deterrence theory. One of the core assumptions of nuclear deterrence theory i.e. “Deterrence works among rational actors, also seems futile in this context. Since non-state actors are regarded as irrational, hence the probable patterns of deterrence become hard to calculate. Modern wars being overwhelmed by asymmetry, ethnic conflicts, irregularity, insurgencies and terrorism; are some of the domains where traditional notion of deterrence appears trivial. 

Psychological Operations, Information and Cyber Warfare

Use of propaganda to psychologically manipulate the perceptions of adversary dates back to the ancient era. It has been successfully employed by Cyrus-The Great, Genghez Khan and German and Allied forces in WW2, to name but a few. In modern warfare psy-ops is usually executed using a more subtle and sophisticated medium i.e. information domain, either to ‘win hearts and minds’ of the population or to ‘demoralise the enemy’. Psy-ops when accompanied with information warfare not only has the potential to manipulate the information in oder to gain information superiority but rather makes a complex web of misinformation aimed at generating desired response from the targeted audience and mobilizing support for the perpetrator’s agenda.

Likewise, cyber warfare is also evolving and poses a great challenge to the national and global security. Cyber attacks are becoming more and more threatening to the critical infrastructure and the information and operational technology with high levels of sophistication. In todays information age, a fierce cyber attack can be easily mounted on an adversary with the aim of manipulating data so as to incur massive disruption and destruction to the recipient’s critical infrastructure. The most severe form of cyber attack can have a decapitating effect on the adversary; whereby its ability to respond to a threat is hampered and paralysed. The spillover effect of digital attacks can also cause physical damage as well.

In nuclear domain where threshold of nuclear use has been defined adequately, no serious effort has been made in defining the same in case of these emerging threats. There are no clear red lines and norms in cyber and information domain on which to devise a deterrence strategy in order to prevent a cyber attack. Furthermore, deterring such an adversary whom one cannot see, neither can one identify, nor can one communicate the credibility of the threat; makes a case where the very essence of deterrence strategy is expected to be challenged. 

Hybrid warfare

Hybrid warfare refers to the integration of different forms of warfare commonly referred as ‘multi-domain warfighting approach’ intended to inflict massive damage upon the opponent.

‘Hybrid warfare capabilities include the movement of conventional forces equipped with smarter technologies; nuclear force intimidation, trade wars, economic manipulation, energy coercion; propaganda and disinformation, use of proxies and insurgencies, diplomatic pressure and cyber disruption that are being employed through direct or covert means.’

The pervasiveness of hybrid threats and associated risks cannot be ignored. The notion of ‘existential deterrence’ that states ‘the mere presence of nuclear weapons capability can deter an adversary from taking aggressive actions that could possibly lead towards escalation’, also appears irrelevant since the mere presence of nuclear weapons did not prevent terrorists from attacking world trade centre on september 11, 2001. Likewise, strategic deterrence has lost its credibility in deterring hybrid attacks because the dynamics of these threats vary considerably from that of the cold war era.

Strategic Deterrence Failures

Legacies of the cold war ‘strategic nuclear deterrence’ still remain. But when viewed in line with the changing nature of new wars, it seems less flexible and hardly relevant. As a courtesy of  strategic deterrence, a nuclear war has been successfully averted but that does not seem to have a case as far as new wars are concerned. The success of deterrence in the cold war era does not imply that the same would also work in the post cold war era. That is to say ‘there is no one size fits all in deterrence. Unlike the deterrence patterns of cold war whereby primary focus was on deterring nuclear aggression from states, the current deterrence strategies are assessed with regard to the changing trends of new wars.

Thus the foundation of deterrence theory based on cold war security construct is deemed to fail when applied to the new forms of warfare that are non-nuclear in nature. The deterrence 3C’s approach i.e. Capability, Credibility and communication shall be utilized to assess its relevance in current era.


New wars have witnessed the enhanced role of non-state actors inflicting major damage to the state’s security and infrastructure by the employment of various non-conventional methodologies. These actors have so little to loose as compared to the benefits they reap from such adventures. The relative power of these actors is less than that of a state but their behavior is not constrained by the international system, whereby they can threaten even the superpowers. Thus the capability to deter such an aggression remains questionable as the states have not yet been able to deny such acts of aggression by these actors. The primary reason might be the states’s reluctance to carry out punitive actions against an adversary who is irrational and also due to the threat of escalation. Thus the capability of even a nuclear state is essentially been compromised in the face of new threats. Deterrence cannot work unless the opponent is psychologically motivated that his actions would be met with dire consequences and in case where the adversary is not a rational actor and is ready to risk everything, the notion of deterring such an adversary seems futile. Likewise, the unbeatable nuclear and conventional deterrent capabilities that state’s now a days possess had done no good in averting these challenges.


State’s credibility of deterrence has also been challenged. The inability of state to respond effectively to the emerging threats merely due to the difficulty in locating a non-state adversary, or due to the threat of escalation or as a rational choice, undermines the deterrence in the eyes of the perpetrator. It further conforms to the opponents belief that the state is unwilling to take retaliatory actions thereby prompting them to take risks and undermine the state’s credibility. Furthermore, the state’s failure in following up on the threats also attract these actors to continuously inflict damage and challenge deterrence credibility. Perception of the adversary regarding the credibility of threat of retaliation is a dominant factor in determining the deterrence success or failure.


The communication of the threat to the adversary forms the basis of deterrence. The capability and the credibility of any state become effective only when they are being conveyed to the opponent. In the context of new wars the inability of states to effectively communicate their deterrence capabilities and credibility to the opponents, constitutes the major part of the problem. The traditional notion of threat communication became almost obsolete as the world today has numerous entities other than states that can act as potential aggressor. Thus, explicitly communicating deterrent threat among those entities presents a grave challenge for the states. 

Rethinking the Traditional Deterrence Approaches

As the famous proverb goes ‘modern problems requires modern solutions’, the emergence of hybrid threats and new wars also requires modern deterrence approaches. The referent object of traditional deterrent approaches must be replaced i.e. a shift from state-centric nuclear deterrence to non-state centric non-nuclear deterrence.

Punishment vs denial deterrence

The two fundamental approaches of deterrence theory can provide a framework for understanding the contours of non-nuclear conflicts. Although their utility so far in deterring such conflicts has been questionable, they still can serve as the basis for the modern deterrence theory.

Deterrence by denial strategies seek to deter an action by making it infeasible or unlikely to succeed, thus denying a potential aggressor confidence in attaining its objectives. Deterrence by punishment, on the other hand, threatens severe penalties, such as nuclear escalation or severe economic sanctions, if an attack occurs.  The focus of deterrence by punishment is not the direct defense of the contested commitment but rather threats of wider punishment that would raise the cost of an attack.’

The aforementioned approaches need to be customized according to the requirement of the emerging threats. The primary focus of these deterrence approaches was to avert a nuclear conflict, but in the current era of non-nuclear conflicts these approaches can be moulded so as to ensure the same in non-nuclear domain as well.

Modern deterrence

Modern deterrence theory just like that of nuclear deterrence aims at ‘dissuading the adversary from taking aggressive actions by persuading that actor that the costs would outweigh potential gains.’ As nuclear deterrence failed to deter non-nuclear or hybrid wars, in order to prevent the aggressor from initiating a non-nuclear attack, several deterrence strategies have been proposed by Centre for Strategic and International Studies which specify:

  1. Establishing norms of behavior
  2. Tailoring deterrence threats to individual actors
  3. Adopting an all of government and society response
  4. Building credibility with adversaries, such as by always following through on threats

The modern deterrence project has been initiated by RUSI focusing on ‘blending of traditional deterrence and societal resilience against emerging forms of warfare.’ The project is aimed at integrating military, government, the civil society and the business community so as to build a resilient deterrence against the hybrid threats. The initiatives like these can contribute a lot in framing effective  modern deterrence theories.

Tailored deterrence

The concept been proposed by Dr. Barry Schnieder suggests that new threats requires tailored deterrence and that the traditional concepts of cold war deterrence might not work for modern challenges. According to his theory,

         ‘Deterrence must be tailored to

  1.  specific adversary leaders,
  2.  in specific scenarios,
  3.  utilizing a range of verbal and non-verbal communications, and
  4. cognizant of the balance of military, economic and political power between the parties.

Fundamentally, it proposes the investigation into opponents decision making process, leadership profiles, willingness to take risks and the susceptibility towards the deterrent threats. Although this theoretical approach is state-centric, it is flexible enough to accommodate non-state threats of twenty-first century.


The post-nuclear era has witnessed the dawn of non-nuclear conflicts largely dominated by hybrid and non-state threats which has added uncertainty and unpredictability to an already complex nature of warfare. The asymmetric nature of new wars and the hybrid tactics they employ has raised serious concerns about the relevance of the existing discourse of deterrence. The credibility of deterrent capabilities has been vaining since the rise of new actors in the arena of global politics. Unlike nuclear deterrence which was aimed at few nuclear weapons states with known capabilities and intentions, the contemporary enemy is the one that is not visible with hidden capabilities and intentions. Thus making it even more difficult to exercise deterrence.  

The traditional model of strategic deterrence needs reevaluation and adaptation to cope up with the emerging non-traditional challenges of the twenty-first century. The expansion of the narrow conception of deterrence is required so as to broaden the realm in order to integrate non-nuclear factors. 

Madina Ali Zamani
Madina Ali Zamani
Bachelors in Strategic Studies National Defence University, Islamabad, Pakistan.