Contemporary Security Policy has a special issue out on ‘the future of deterrence,’ masterfully put together by our colleague John Stone, who wrote about conventional deterrence. The entire issue is somewhat King’s-dominated, with additional contributions by Tim Stevens on deterrence in cyberspace, John Gearson on deterring terrorism, and Olivier Schmitt, unrelated to the special issue’s overarching theme, on Germany’s strategic use of culture.
The text is probably my most work-intensive stand-alone article to date. Researching and writing it was a serious intellectual challenge. That’s related to what the case study is about, Israel’s experience with deterrence and political violence.
Here’s the question: Israel’s experience with deterrence is unique. It is older, more diverse, and more experimental than that of any other state. So, how did Israel’s strategy of deterrence evolve? How was it adapted to fit the non-state threat? And what is its utility?
The argument: Israel’s experience with deterrence beyond the state, as it were, can best be understood through the conceptual lenses provided by the other grand deterrence debate, that in the philosophy of law, not the one in international relations. Israel’s use of military force against non-state enemies does not fit the classic concepts of strategy. To paraphrase Clausewitz: it is not just one act of force to compel one actor to fulfill one specific political goal at one given time. Instead deterrence consists of a series of acts of force to create – and maintain – general norms of behavior for many political actors over an extended period of time. Using force, consequently, does not represent a principal failure of deterrence but its maintenance through swift, certain, but measured responses.
And why the intellectual challenge? This conflict is monumental, and writing a text that relates to it can be daunting. For several reasons.
First is the conflict’s sheer complexity. You can take the straightforward route and say, ok, two nations simply are after the same patch of land. Simple, right? Or you take politics into the equation, and history, culture, and religion, demographics, economic factors, resources, perhaps trauma and humiliation. And suddenly what appeared simple looks complex, deep, messed up, confusing. Add the neighbourhood, how it’s changing, and the region’s new geopolitics.
Some humility is therefore in order. Say you do some elevated conflict tourism: you read a bunch of books, history and fiction and what not, you learn a bit of Arabic and perhaps Hebrew, you spend a year in the country, and read Haaretz every day. And because you have a European or U.S. passport, you do what the locals can’t do: go hang out and have dinner with young and worldly Palestinians in Ramallah, the next day a trip to Ariel (a settlement in the West Bank) to meet Israeli friends. — If you do that, and you’re honest, then it just feels wrong: it’s a tad naïve to think you understand, and it’s a tad arrogant to say you understand. Just imagine, over that dinner in Ramallah, telling a 35-year Palestinian woman from Haifa who works for the PLO, a city she and her children consider home without ever having been there, that you’re the expert on deterring political violence. Or to the Israeli who describes her daily bus commute in 2002 on an Egged line that was bombed repeatedly on purpose, nervously eyeing every entering passenger.
Doing no serious research, of course, is no option. The option is to be conscious of the limitations, to be modest, precise, focused: for me this meant exploring ‘the Israeli experience,’ as the subtitle makes clear.
Deterrence, in that vexed context, is a daunting concept. For one because the average Western-educated security studies scholar will arrive with a mind contaminated by the fallout of Cold War deterrence theory. Such poisonous notions are better discarded safely at your port of departure, they won’t be of much help in and around Israel. Taking deterrence beyond the state is pushing the concept to its limits, and opens up some instructive lessons that are relevant, I think, far beyond the region — and it does so in ways that surprisingly resonate with constructivism and postmodern theory.
Next month, senior IDF officers will convene a workshop with counterparts in the Pentagon on deterrence. This text, to my great surprise, has been recommended by some in the IDF as preparatory reading to explain the evolution of the Israeli experience with deterrence. Now—for some readers, this may be reason enough to disqualify the analysis. Yet such a reaction, I’d respond, would disqualify these readers from the realm of rational debate and analysis.