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Book Review: Threats: Intimidation and Its Discontents

Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Air University Press --

Book Review: Barash
Book Review: Barash
Book Review: Barash
Photo By: Dr. Ernest Gunasekara-Rockwell
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Threats: Intimidation and Its Discontents, by David P. Barash. London: Oxford University Press, 2020.



Dr. David Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington. In his book, Threats: Intimidation and Its Discontents, Barash explores the validity of nuclear deterrence as a national defense strategy by reflecting on the use of threats in nature, in human and societal interactions, and then at the international level. In these three parts, Barash considers how the effectiveness—and inherent dangers—of threats have varied from the context of nature to that of the most extreme threat possible, nuclear deterrence.

A theme throughout the book, whether in nature or international relations, is that threats actually leave all parties worse off, as those threatened often respond with threats of their own. This dilemma leads to a spiral of threats that, when coupled with a tendency to exaggerate the level of danger present, results in unintended and unnecessary escalation. Even threats intended for defensive purposes are often received by another as a threat of attack. The rattlesnake deploys its rattle to warn an invader of its territory to stay away, but the human, who believes himself to be just enjoying an afternoon hike, perceives the snake as aggressively threatening. If not understood, threats are often interpreted incorrectly, leading to a conflict neither party intended.

After exploring the use of threats in nature, the author explores the use of, and responses to, threats in society, from criminal punishment and religious threats to gun culture and national populism. Finally, Barash turns to nuclear deterrence as the ultimate threat at the international level and reaches the same conclusion as in previous sections; not only do threats tend to be ineffective, but they also actually increase the likelihood of conflict—only in this case the risk is nuclear war.

By first describing the natural use of threats, Barash opens the reader’s eyes to the origins of threats and the existing complexity in honest or dishonest communications, real or mimic, credible or bluffing. At the most basic level, the reader cannot help but acknowledge the “discontents” existing with the use of threats. By starting with the natural world, the reader can comprehend these dynamics through real-world examples and understand what tends to happen if deterrence fails—something for which nuclear policy makers have no historical reference.

The author’s main concern is that in pursuit of an unproven and dangerous strategy—using the ultimate threat of nuclear deterrence to protect ourselves—we will actually destroy ourselves. Barash argues while deterrence has not failed, it also has not necessarily succeeded, pointing to the multiple conflicts having occurred since the development of nuclear weapons. Such conflicts include territorial confrontations between India and Pakistan, the Vietnam War, the Korean War (and relatedly, Chinese intervention), 9/11, and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Further, obtaining nuclear weapons has not been shown to embolden nations to make demands when in crisis or conflict, and if demands are made, being a nuclear-armed state does not seem to make those demands more successful. In fact, data shows nonnuclear states make demands five percent more of the time and may even be more influential in capitalizing on such demands. Barash concludes that nuclear weapons are ineffective at deterring war, aiding nuclear powers to prevail in war (e.g., the Vietnam War), or coercing other nations to behave as desired. Rather, nuclear weapons have only been effective at nuclear proliferation and increasing the risk of nuclear destruction.

Unfortunately, Barash missed a key conclusion. Rather than recognizing the historical examples as pointing toward a limited utility of nuclear weapons, the author concludes there is no utility at all, only danger (an argument undermined by the examples given). Nuclear weapons are not a one-size-fits-all solution; they do not deter all conflicts, nor can they be used to coerce for all desired gains. Indeed, the five nuclear-armed members of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) commit to a negative security assurance (NSA), meaning that nuclear weapons should not play a role in conflict among these nuclear powers and a nonnuclear power abiding by its NPT obligations.1 The remaining nuclear weapons states—North Korea, India, and Pakistan—have all made public NSAs and/or no first use (NFU) declarations, while Israel does not publicly declare itself a nuclear weapons state.2 For nuclear weapons to deter all kinds of conflicts, crises, and skirmishes would require the prospect of using nuclear weapons in any conflict, crisis, or skirmish. It is a positive thing that this is not the case.

The real significance of the correlations between nuclear vs nonnuclear nations escalating demands in crisis is not that nonnuclear nations do so more often, it is that the difference is minimal. The fact that there is only a five-percent difference is encouraging because it points to the limited role nuclear weapons have in fact played in nations’ overarching strategies, even during crises. While the author chalks this up to ineffective coercion, I suggest such coercion is not, nor should it be, intended.

Additionally, the author’s listing of previous conflicts uninfluenced by nuclear weapons actually undermines his warning of “an apocalyptic future,” as it demonstrates restraint on behalf of nuclear powers, even at the prospect of losing the war. There is a critical disconnect from identifying example after example of crises and conflicts that did not go nuclear, to then denouncing the possibility of a limited nuclear conflict, insisting any nuclear use will go uncontrolled and result in the end of humanity. How is it that, in an armed conflict a nuclear-armed nation has the wherewithal to restrain from escalating to nuclear use (again, even at the prospect of losing), but in a conflict involving limited nuclear use, that willpower vanishes, and all-out mutual destruction is the only “logical” path?

Barash contends that “the only way to repudiate an apocalyptic future is to repudiate nuclear weapons, and that requires repudiating deterrence.” However, the arguments he makes for the danger and ineffectiveness of nuclear deterrence fall short. Even so, Barash’s fresh look at the use of threats is useful for illustrating the limited role they ought to play in an overarching strategy.


Ms. Kayse Jansen

United States Strategic Command



1 For specific details on negative security assurance, see: United Nations Documents S/1995/261 – S/1995/265.

2 Marc Finaud and John Borrie, "UNIDIR," 12 June 2018, https://www.unidir.org/.

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