Integrated deterrence: a coercive cold war approach

US interagency instruments, coercive strategies likely to cause more harm than good to international peace

Azhar Azam December 07, 2022
The writer is a private professional and writes on geopolitical issues and regional conflicts

In the contemporary past, states involved in serious international crises or wars have used military power and undertaken coercive strategies to punish people to force other governments to do their bidding.

As policy recurrently led to “coercive failures”, they contemplated on effectiveness of military and non-military sanctions as instruments of coercion.

Debate on coercive strategies returned in America during 1990s.

A study at US Department of Defense (DOD) website offered strategic coercion — a military strategy encompassing “art of coercion”, intimidation and deterrence — as a solution to the quandary of shirking the “cyclical” dangers of brute force.

It underlined that strategic coercion might require a fusion of both coercive apparatuses: Denial (compel the target nation to concede to “coercer demands”) and Second Order Change (“impose the threat” of high-order costs).

A subsequent paper would further discussion of how best to exploit the military as a coercive tool and inserted “coercive diplomacy” into an “effective national coercion”.

Yet efforts to change behaviour of a target state or group through threat or limited use of force failed more often than not.

Diplomacy may be anything but non-coercive to reach a solution by peaceful means; US policymakers value it only on coercive footing, using such measures to impose sanctions and military overuse.

Coercive diplomacy is part and parcel of US foreign policy in modern era.

Jake Sullivan and William Burns, now Biden’s National Security Adviser and Director Central Intelligence Agency respectively, in May 2019 called Trump’s strategy “all coercion and no diplomacy”; they stressed on careful synchronisation of both elements of approach.

Of late, the US is practising coercion in guise of deterrence.

Through 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), America changed course from terrorism to long-term strategic competition to compete, deter and win, and accused China of “leveraging” military modernisation, influence operations and predatory economics to intimidate neighbours and seek Indo-Pacific hegemony.

Still, Pentagon insisted it wasn’t a strategy of confrontation — something that recognised the reality of competition.

A congressionally mandated commission used two terms interchangeably and found deterrent or “coercive value” of DOD’s unpredictability and creativity as limited.

Clearly, America’s officials understand what coercion or deterrence is and that two concepts are different in nature.

They deliberately muddle them to describe their coercive actions as deterrents to avoid the world looking at them as coercion.

NDS 2022 primary focus is again China and great power competition remains the “defining feature” for America.

New doctrine describes Beijing as Washington’s “most consequential strategic competitor” and DOD’s “pacing challenge” for Chinese economy and defense expansion and modernisation threatens “offsetting” US advantages.

In the new NDS, DOD astutely aims to achieve its objectives through integrated deterrence: a “coordinated, multifaceted” approach, backstopped by a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent.

Guam contributes to the “overall integrity” of integrated deterrence and builds a bedrock for US intervention in Indo-Pacific and Taiwan.

Integrated (across conventional, nuclear, cyber, space and informational domains and allies and partners) and deterrence (heart of US defense policy since cold war) is the cornerstone of 2022 NDS.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called it a new way of approaching deterrence and wanted weapons to play a unique role.

Another major NDS concern is the “scope and pace” of China’s nuclear expansion.

Washington seems not to believe Beijing’s “solemn” commitment to no preemptive nuclear strike but problem is that key Indo-Pacific players don’t see nuclear submarine cooperation (AUKUS) positively, fearing it will trigger an arms race in region.

What blows the whistle for Indo-Pacific is that NDS chooses their region as a cold war theater by accusing Beijing of trying to “refashion” Indo-Pacific and describing China as “the most comprehensive and serious challenge” to US national security.

Indonesia, a leading regional economy, deciphered the veiled nod and refused to be a “pawn” in the new cold war.

NDS reasoning fares poorly after Gen Mark Milley’s recently unfolded America’s ambitions to contain China for its emergence as only country — which because of large population and growth in economy, technology and information — had power and potential to challenge the US globally.

His statement and Pentagon official’s visit to Europe to promote China as a “pacing challenge” may raise concerns in Indo-Pacific about the US intent to play up the China threat for advancing its policy goals.

DOD sees integrated deterrence as a novel vision; it is an outdated grand strategy of coercion that on several instances hasn’t come off.

This overarching focus on great power competition draws resources as well as attention away from climate change, which DOD itself characterises as a national security risk.

A US intelligence estimate predicted climate change will exacerbate risks to America’s national security.

DOD Climate Risk Analysis (DCRA) also committed to “integrate” climate considerations into strategic documents and engagements with allies by working within whole-of-government and in concert with partners.

Both White House and DCRA acknowledged that climate change was “reshaping” the world and “geostrategic environment” and had some major security implications for the US national security.

NDS too frames climate change as a threat to homeland and a transboundary challenge but doesn’t analyse DOD’s own contributions to increasing temperature, changing precipitation patterns, rising sea levels and extreme weather conditions.

The status of US military as single largest consumer of energy in the US and world’s largest institutional consumer of petroleum is a worst-kept secret.

Citing this fact, two Congressmen in January 2021 urged Biden to uphold his climate goals by requiring DOD to commit reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The US has taken initiatives to fight climate change; experts contest these are too late and it’s hard to align military expansion with climate goals.

The argument makes sense given that the US military over decades inherits an acrimonious legacy of harming environment and exposing their own people to contaminated drinking water and toxins.

Professor Neta Crawford in his latest groundbreaking research delved into human-caused climate change and found that the US economy and military had created a “deep and long-term cycle of economic growth, fossil fuel and dependency”.

She warned America faced more risk from climate change than military conflicts and saw a “lack of urgency and agency” from an institution believing it could do “almost anything”.

Almost every US president has boasted about America’s economic and military superiority.

The desire for world domination comes with a responsibility.

Interagency instruments such as economic sanctions, export controls, and diplomatic measures are neither the purview of DOD nor the right way to secure Americans, expand “economic prosperity” and defend homeland.

Integrated deterrence, the “centerpiece” of NDS, is even more dangerous for international peace considering that threats to US national security spring from climate change rather than potential foes.

Countries, including American allies, may not endorse such a lousy idea that bears resemblance to the US post-world war coercion and instills a new cold war approach.


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