In a new article for Contemporary Security Policy (CSP), Tim Sweijs and Samuel Zilincik outline why strategic theorists and practitioners should care about the role of different emotions that are associated with distinct denial logics, and what this means for practice and future research.
Western strategic thought about denial strategies and their effects is conceptually muddled. In our article in Contemporary Security Policy, we try to reconceptualize denial and rethink its emotional effects. In a nutshell, we argue that the expansion of military domains and the renewed emphasis on multi-domain coercion requires us to reconsider the utility of denial strategies with a pair of fresh eyes. We define denial as a strategy aimed at frustrating the adversary’s military power and we outline four different logics through which denial works: capability elimination, operational paralysis, tactical performance degradation, and strategic effect reduction.
Four logics of denial
The first logic of capability elimination seeks to render the adversary incapable of employing military power. The second logic of operational paralysis seeks to prevent the adversary from reaching its target. The logic of degradation of tactical performance is to make it more difficult for the adversary’s attack to inflict damage on the target once the adversary’s attack reaches the target. The final logic of denial works through the reduction of strategic effect. The main purpose is to make the adversary’s military power irrelevant even if the latter succeeds in harming its target.
Four types of emotional effects
But what about denial’s effects? Denial itself merely imposes a situation that, in turn, has to generate effects if it is to convert into favourable consequences. They constitute the core component of “defeat mechanisms” or “causal theories” through which denial strategies matter to the outcomes of adversarial interactions (see Frank Hoffman’s (2021) and Peter Viggo Jakobsen’s (2022) work on this). Drawing on the emotion sciences, we single out the emotions of despondency, resignation, fear, and disappointment as the key factors that mediate the effect of denial strategies.
Capability elimination provokes the appraisals of loss and these can turn into despondency, which promotes pessimism and motivates the adversary to abstain from their original objective, in this case aggression. Operational paralysis provokes appraisals of pathways to success being blocked, while resignation confirms these appraisals and motivates the adversary to eschew the aggression. Degradation of tactical performance provokes the appraisals of uncertainty and threat, while the ensuing fear amplifies these appraisals, makes the adversary more pessimistic, and motivates it to avoid the aggression if possible. The reduction of strategic effect, finally, induces the appraisal of an unexpectedly poor performance, which effectuates disappointment, and consequently dissuades from aggression.
Contribution: strategic utility & “operational code”
Our denial taxonomy can help structure assessments of the strategic utility of different denial strategies to assess issues such as effectiveness, feasibility, legitimacy, escalation potential, and costs. The focus on emotions allows professionals to better anticipate the effects of their actions in adversarial interactions. It also allows for the tailoring of all efforts, military, and nonmilitary, to increase the chances of inducing emotions that are most appropriate to the situation and lead to the desired outcomes. Our emotions typology thereby sheds light on the micro-mechanisms that are often underappreciated in extant strategic theory. The important role of emotions highlighted in this article further expands and refines previous attempts to conceptualize the role of perceptions and the “operational code” (George, 1969) of decision-makers.
Finally, we recognise that the proposed pathways of emotional effects are not mutually exclusionary. Although each denial logic can inspire a specific emotion, this does not preclude the emergence of other emotions that in turn affect the decision-making process. We also recognize that denial strategies can generate undesired emotional effects, and, therefore, meet with ditto undesired behavioural consequences on the adversary’s side and we outline future research avenues to further investigate this.
Read the (open access) article here, or download the PDF here.
Authors: Tim Sweijs and Samuel Zilincik