Transatlantic conference establishes new theoretical framework for deterrence in the twenty-first century

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The application of ‘deterrence’ in the twenty-first century requires a greater level of understanding non-state actors, such as insurgents or Al Qa’ida, to effectively counter the threats they pose, a two day forum at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) has concluded.

‘Framing Deterrence in the Twenty-First Century’ a joint RUSI, King’s College, London and the United States Air Force Research Institute conference met in London on 18-19 May, to consider the nature of deterrence in the aftermath of the Cold War.

During the two day meeting senior figures from government, academia and the military of the United Kingdom, the United States and Europe established that the primary challenges of deterrence confronting many states in today’s multipolar world have expanded beyond the traditional state-on-state issue. The desired effects of future deterrence strategy should be examined in the context of an apparent decline in the effectiveness of existing deterrence strategies, the forum recommended.

The conference examined the evolving nature of warfare where non-state actors are not dissuaded by traditional deterrence. Unless this is realised there is a danger that deterrence concepts and strategies will be employed with unachievable results in mind.

RUSI’s Director, Professor Michael Clarke, concluded the two day deterrence discussions by saying:

‘Our understanding of deterrence was drawn from the nuclear politics of the Cold War. Those principles still exist but have limited applicability in the more complex world of the twenty-first century. But deterrence is a fact of political life and the challenge for current policy-makers is to work out when to use it, and not use it, as a technique of persuasion.

Even suicide terrorists can be deterred, but not by the threat of death; rather by the threats of failure, dishonour, ridicule or irrelevance. Nuclear weapons are a very obvious weapon of massive deterrence, but other more subtle techniques, new psychological and cognitive tools of policy, can be refined to add a deterrent dimension even to the worst terrorist threats we face today.’

Dr John Gearson, Director, Centre for Defence Studies, King’s College, London said:

'In the Cold War the language of deterrence was clearly understood by both sides. In the first quarter of the 21st century we need to find new ways of getting a deterrence message over to both state and non-state actors.

This joint Conference was a first step in crafting a new language and understanding of deterrence that can be readily understood by both state and non-state actors.

The Conference has identified a number of important research themes on which the three Conference partners will be working over the next few months.'

General John A. Shaud, PhD (US Air Force, retired), Director, US Air Force Research Institute said:

‘The US Air Force Research Institute is extremely fortunate to have had this opportunity to collaborate with our colleagues at RUSI and King’s College, London on the pressing matter of communicating deterrence in a strategically diversifying world.

The outcome of this meeting will have far-reaching influence on deterrence analysis, especially the difficult issue of deterrence relative to non-state actors. The proceedings will readily inform the continuing international security debate as we look to the impending US Nuclear Posture Review and bi-lateral strategic arms reduction treaty renewal negotiations.’

The forum’s discussions also considered the application of ‘deterrence’ theory to a number of case studies, including the Russian war in Georgia (2008), the Madrid train bombings (2004), the implications of the India/Pakistan situation and the 2006 Israeli-Hizbullah war.

To read the accompanying ‘Framing Deterrence in the Twenty-First Century’ post-conference briefing note, please visit:

For the pre-conference concept paper, click here.

Notes for editors

  1. Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) is an independent think-tank for defence and security. RUSI is a unique institution; founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington, it embodies nearly two centuries of forward thinking, free discussion and careful reflection on defence and security matters.
  2. Centre for Defence Studies (CDS) engages in research at the highest level on British, European and international defence and security issues. CDS was established at King’s College London in 1990, with a grant from the UK Ministry of Defence but is now fully independent.
  3. The US Air Force Research Institute (AFRI) officially activated as an independent, unique organization at Air University on 19 May 2008. The mission of AFRI is "to conduct independent Research, Outreach, and Engagement to enhance national security and assure the effectiveness of the United States Air Force."
  4. A ‘Framing Deterrence in the Twenty-First Century’ post-conference briefing note can be viewed online at
  5. The two day joint forum was a closed conference held at RUSI on 18-19 May 2009. The forum involved 40 invited representatives including senior officials from government, academia and the military of the United Kingdom and United States to discuss the application of deterrence theory in the twenty-first century.
  6. In the summer 2009, a joint conference report assessing deterrence in the twenty-first century will be released to inform national policies and thinking, impending international strategic weapons and non-proliferation treaty negotiations, and the United States’ impending Nuclear Posture, Quadrennial Defense, and Base Closure and Realignment Commission reviews.
  7. For any other media enquiries please contact:

Daniel Sherman, RUSI Press Office: or +44 (0)20 7747 2617 / +44 (0)7917 373 069

Dr John Gearson, King’s College, London: or +44 (0)20 7848 1983

Robert Potter, US Air Force Research Institute: or +1 334 953 1028.




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