Some Thoughts on Deterrence

by Alan J. Vick

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Abstract

Expected value calculations figure prominently in the work of many deterrence theorists, yet the application of this methodology in nonfinancial situations can be suspect. This paper reviews conventional expected value calculations and suggests that the use of boundary conditions, such as the concept of negative infinity, more closely approximates real world decisionmaking. Finally, the paper injects the concept of uncertainty into escalation dynamics by presenting an alternative view of the classic escalation ladder. In this alternative perspective, the escalation ladder is descended; each rung of the ladder represents a more severe escalation than the one above it. The bottom of the ladder and the ultimate stage of escalation may be reached gracefully through a graduated process of escalation (one step at a time) or by taking a tumble off the ladder. It ultimately makes little difference how one reaches the bottom stage of total nuclear war. Viewing escalation in this manner emphasizes the difficulty of controlling escalation by stressing the enormous uncertainties involved.

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