Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Determent. Beyond Victory

Thomas Rid


Political crises and military confrontations have an end point, conventional wisdom holds. This end point is victory — or defeat. It is reached when the victor achieves a political objective. In war, that happens through the use of armed force. Deterrence, in this classic view of statecraft, has come into play when war was no real option any more, only its prevention: during the nuclear superpower standoff in the second half of the 20th century. Before the Cold War, the concept was virtually inexistent, and it has only survived at the margins after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Determent opens up a fresh view on this question: what if victory is no option any more?

Only during the first decade of the 21st century, violent conflict was more and more recognized as a permanent condition without a clear end point, most commonly in the form of transnational terrorism. But this condition is not new. At revision, the State has been facing situations where force had to be used to maintain an acceptable equilibrium of violence for centuries. In the domestic arena, in fact, the situation is seen as the customary. The State, when necessary, uses its internal monopoly of force to create and back up norms and laws that effectively limit the use of violence, although they never succeed in ending it entirely. There is no finale to the struggle between law enforcement and crime. The Cold War, in sharp contrast, never saw nuclear power actually used.

“Determent,” an expression used by Jeremy Bentham, refers to that exemplary quality of the actual use of force, not merely a threatened possibility of it. This study explores the uses of determent in the international arena, and especially against political violence. It starts by examining the theoretical foundations of deterrence, assisted by well-established debates in the philosophy of law and criminology. The inquiry then strips away the conceptual corset of the monopoly of force. What remains is the bare normative dimension of the State’s use of force entirely outside the framework of codified law. It then moves to the international arena to reconsider the major historical expressions of this idea: from balance of power, dominant in the 19th century, to the Cold War in the 20th century. But a focus on state-on-state conflicts would only be part of the picture. All along, political violence at the margins, often in the colonies, has pushed modern strategic thought and the State’s use of force to the limits of victory — and towards determent.

The project puts forward three original arguments. The first is theoretical: that the actual use of force creates norms of behavior, even below the threshold of codified law. The second adds a historical dimension: that this phenomenon can been observed for centuries, and that it evolved at the margins to envelope more and more non-state actors. The third is empirical: that political violence and terrorism, in several instances, have been limited by the threat of consequences, and occasionally demonstrating them by force. The preliminary conclusion may be read optimistically or pessimistically: for the State, an equilibrium of marginal violence can be a long-term strategic option. It cannot be for militants.