NL ARMS Netherlands Annual Review of Military Studies 2020: Deterrence in the 21st Century—Insights from Theory and Practice

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NL ARMS Netherlands Annual Review of Military Studies 2020: Deterrence in the 21st Century—Insights from Theory and Practice edited by Frans Osinga and Tim Sweijs. T.M.C. Asser Press, 2021, 552 pp.

The Netherlands Annual Review of Military Studies (NL ARMS) is a peer-reviewed series issued annually since 2015. Each volume concentrates on a theme pertaining to defense studies. Previous volumes have addressed topics as diverse as officer education, coastal border control, utility of nonkinetic capabilities, and conflict termination. This particular edition, consisting of 27 articles and over 500 pages, delves into deterrence theory and practice. It examines deterrence theory’s historical relevance, current limitations, and best practices and asks whether a fifth wave of deterrence theory is emerging.

The editors are both experienced academics well versed in national security studies and military education. Air Commodore Prof. Dr. Frans Osinga is a professor of military operational art and sciences and chair of the War Studies Department at the Netherlands Defence Academy. His co-editor Dr. Tim Sweijs is a Research Fellow at the Netherlands Defence Academy and director of research at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies. Similarly, the contributors to this work have stellar academic credentials and represent collectively a variety of international perspectives, including from Russia, Iran, and Israel as well as many Western nations.

Jeffrey Knopf’s “The Fourth Wave in Deterrence Research” and Patrick M. Morgan’s “The State of Deterrence in International Politics Today”—both published in Contemporary Security Policy in 2010 and 2012, respectively—mark the point of departure for Deterrence in the 21st Century. This volume serves as an overdue and comprehensive update covering theoretical and practical developments over the past decade. One need not be familiar with these two articles because their salient points are included in the preface, which allows the volume to stand alone as a primer on current deterrence theory and practice.

Deterrence in the 21st Century’s organization has five main sections. The first is foundational deterrence concepts. The second section presents non-Western approaches to deterrence, while the third addresses the emergence of non-state actors. The fourth section investigates the instruments, or power, used to create a deterrent effect. The final section explores the rationale for deterrence and its psychological and emotional aspects. Bookending these sections is a strong introduction and a comprehensive conclusion.

While the compiled articles clearly aim to inform academics, policy makers, and strategists, the volume is accessible by general readers as well. The first two articles in the volume are Lawrence Freedman’s “Introduction—The Evolution of Deterrence Strategy and Research” and Michael J. Mazarr’s “Understanding Deterrence.” These superbly written articles lay out the entire foundation of deterrence theory without the use of jargon and with a clarity easily understandable by the average high school graduate. From there, a reader can unlock the vocabulary and ideas referenced in any of the subsequent articles.

Among the concepts emphasized in the compendium are deterrence by defense versus deterrence by punishment, escalation and de-escalation, and the distinctions between cultures and how they conceive of and pursue deterrence. The idea of systematic thinking is also highlighted. For example, while terrorists might not be readily deterred from action, a rational approach that considers the system of direct actors and their wider support networks could nevertheless be effective. Concentrating deterrent activities on those who create the system of support would undermine terrorists’ capabilities to conduct attacks.

The overall tone of the book is values neutral in that it avoids identifying good and bad actors. It speaks only to what acts are to be deterred and what factors influence how that might be accomplished. None of the articles advocates a policy recommendation—for example, NATO must do the following things to improve deterrence against Russia. That neutrality is a key feature of the volume. The authors derive deterrence theory from a multidisciplinary approach including analysis of cases, languages, culture, anthropology, psychology, and game theory. Ironically, Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping might read these articles and find some applicability toward improving their own efforts at deterring Western powers or the rise of democratic institutions.

What stands out in the articles is that practice precedes theory. Security professionals in government and the military might read these articles and find that they are already engaged in the activities studied—that there are no truly novel ideas contained in the pages. That argument misses the point, however, which is that theory looks to the past to develop ideas that inform those who shape policy so that deterrence in the present and future is more effective and efficient.

Space limitations preclude summarizing more ideas found throughout the volume. Suffice it to say, there are no weak articles here. While a reader will find some articles more compelling than others, each is worth reading in its own right for the insights provided.

A drawback of a comprehensive work such as this is that it is lengthy. A busy policy maker might not afford the time to read the entire volume. The strong conclusion mitigates this problem by using appropriate subheadings and summarizing the key ideas in each article. If you are familiar with deterrence theory, I recommend reading the conclusion first to determine which articles should become your priority. This information might have been better included up front in the preface where the reader would discover it early.

National leaders, academics, policy makers, and military professionals should read Deterrence in the 21st Century because it will enhance their understanding of a concept as simple as deterrence and educate as to why it is equally difficult to maintain. Many of the articles in this volume will likely find their way into professional military education curricula, and the book should appear on professional reading lists. Although the volume is dense, it is equally readable. The reader’s investment in time will be richly rewarded.

Dr. Phillip G. Pattee, Commander, USN, Retired
Professor, US Army Command and General Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."