Deterrence in the 21st Century - "Conclusion: Insights from Theory and Practice"

March 1st 2021 - 07:59

"Strategists are fond of saying that the nature of war is immutable, but its character is not. Even Von Clausewitz, whose very objective was to develop a general theory of war, held that every age has “its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions, and its own peculiar preconceptions.” The same can be said for strategy. History offers ample examples of strategic concepts that guide how means are to be connected to political ends in order to defeat adversaries in particular historical contexts. Warfighting concepts have included dislocation and exhaustion to target the adversary’s will, and attrition and annihilation to deal with its capabilities. In times of relative peace such concepts have included containment, assurance and most famously deterrence. The use and utility as well as the practical application—the character—of such concepts are context bound as they are determined by a range of social, economic, (geo-)political and technological factors. Some strategic concepts wither away and are consigned to the dustbin of history; other concepts persist and are updated to address the challenges of today’s world. Deterrence belongs to that latter category. It continues to feature as a prominent concept in contemporary strategic thinking and practice. 

 On the basis of 26 Chapters in the volume Deterrence in the 21st Century - Insights from Theory and Practice from some of the foremost authors from three continents, this Conclusion examines whether a fifth wave of deterrence theory is emerging. It reviews the assortment of military-strategic, technological, and socio-political developments that pose a variety of challenges to deterrence. Great powers are modernizing their nuclear arsenals. Long-range missile systems are proliferating rapidly. Offensive cyber capabilities pose a direct threat to the integrity of nuclear C2 structures. Sensor technology and algorithms are undermining old Cold War concepts such as Mutually Assured Destruction. Non-state groups are gaining ever greater clout. And new integrated deterrence concepts from countries like Iran, China and Russia make no distinction between war and peace, military and civil, and defensive and offensive."

Read the full Chapter "Deterrence in the 21st Century - "Conclusion: Insights from Theory and Practice" by Tim Sweijs and Frans Osinga at


Five Waves

Dr. Tim Sweijs is the Director of Research at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies. He is the initiator, creator and author of numerous studies, methodologies, and tools for horizon scanning, early warning, conflict analysis, national security risk assessment, and strategy and capability development. Tim has lectured at universities and military academies around the world. His main research interest concerns the changing character of contemporary conflict. Tim is a Senior Research Fellow at the Netherlands Defence Academy and an Affiliate at the Center for International Strategy, Technology and Policy in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology.