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Deterrence theory: where do we stand?

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Abstract

Although deterrence theory was a central focus in the study of International Relations during the Cold War, attention has shifted away from deterrence since the end of that conflict. Nonetheless, deterrence is a general phenomenon that is not limited to any particular time or space. Moving beyond a simple focus on the US-Soviet relationship, scholars have recently begun further explorations of deterrence, through development of theory, analysis of policy alternatives, and empirical analysis. This article seeks to evaluate where deterrence theory stands today through: (1) a consideration of distinctions between different strands of theory; (2) a discussion of the assumption of rationality in deterrence theory; (3) an examination of three important distinctions in deterrence; (4) an evaluation of the difficult task of testing deterrence theory, and (5) an overview of recent theoretical developments. The primary conclusion is that perfect deterrence theory provides a logically consistent alternative to classical deterrence theory and therefore provides the most appropriate basis for further theoretical development, empirical testing, and application to policy.

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1 For example, see Krauthammer Charles, ‘The Obsolescence of Deterrence’, The Weekly Standard, 8:13 (9 December 2002) .

2 Zagare Frank C., ‘Deterrence is Dead. Long Live Deterrence’, Conflict Management and Peace Science, 23 (2006), pp. 115120 .

3 For example, Zagare Frank C. and Kilgour D. Marc, Perfect Deterrence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) ; Morgan Patrick M., Deterrence Now (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) ; Sartori Anne E., Deterrence by Diplomacy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005) ; Quackenbush Stephen L., ‘Not only Whether but Whom: Three-party Extended Deterrence’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 50:4 (2006), pp. 562583 .

4 For example, Cimbala Stephen J. (ed.), Deterrence and Nuclear Proliferation in the Twenty-first Century (Westport, CT.: Praeger, 2001) ; Manwaring Max G. (ed.), Deterrence in the 21st Century (London: Frank Cass, 2001) ; Powell Robert, ‘Nuclear Deterrence Theory, Nuclear Proliferation, and National Missile Defense’, International Security, 27 (2003), pp. 86118 ; Freedman Lawrence, Deterrence (Cambridge: Polity, 2004) ; Quackenbush Stephen L., ‘National Missile Defense and Deterrence’, Political Research Quarterly, 59:4 (2006), pp. 533541 .

5 Danilovic Vesna, When the Stakes Are High (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002) ; Quackenbush Stephen L., ‘General Deterrence and International Conflict: Bridging the Formal/Quantitative Divide’ (Ph.D. diss., University at Buffalo, SUNY, 2003) ; Signorino Curtis S. and Tarar Ahmer, ‘A Unified Theory and Test of Extended Immediate Deterrence’, American Journal of Political Science, 50 (2006), pp. 586605 .

6 Kaufmann William, ‘The Requirements of Deterrence’, in Kaufmann William (ed.), Military Policy and National Security (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956) .

7 For example, Brodie Bernard, Strategy in the Missile Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959) ; Schelling Thomas C., The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960) ; Schelling Thomas C., Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966) ; Kahn Herman, On Thermonuclear War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961) ; Kahn Herman, On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios (New York: Praeger, 1965) ; Snyder Glenn, Deterrence and Defense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961) .

8 For example, Lebow Richard Ned, Between Peace and War: The Nature of International Crises (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981) ; Zagare Frank C., The Dynamics of Deterrence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) ; Powell Robert, Nuclear Deterrence Theory: The Search for Credibility (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) ; Zagare and Kilgour, Perfect Deterrence.

9 Morgan, Deterrence Now, p. 8 .

10 Morgan, Deterrence Now.

11 Zagare Frank C., ‘Classical Deterrence Theory: A Critical Assessment’, International Interactions, 21 (1996), pp. 365387 .

12 Classical deterrence theory is a large and diverse literature spanning more than five decades. I focus here on the primary arguments, not all the nuances of individual works. For a thorough review of classical deterrence theory, see Zagare, ‘Classical Deterrence Theory’.

13 For example, Kaufmann, ‘The Requirements of Deterrence’; Bernard Brodie, ‘The Anatomy of Deterrence’, World Politics, 11 (1959), pp. 173179 ; Snyder, Deterrence and Defense; Intriligator Michael D. and Brito Dagobert L., ‘Can Arms Races Lead to the Outbreak of War?’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 28 (1984), pp. 6384 ; Intriligator Michael D. and Brito Dagobert L., ‘The Stability of Mutual Deterrence’, in Kugler Jacek and Zagare Frank C. (eds), Exploring the Stability of Deterrence (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1987), pp. 1339 ; Mearsheimer John J., ‘Back to the Future: Instability in Europe After the Cold War’, International Security, 15 (1990), pp. 556 .

14 Waltz Kenneth N., ‘The Origins of War in Neorealist Theory’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 18 (1988), p. 626 .

15 Wohlstetter Albert, ‘The Delicate Balance of Terror’, Foreign Affairs, 37 (1959), pp. 211234 .

16 Accidental war is seen as both a threat to stability and a tactic to be taken advantage of. This tactic and a more detailed discussion of accidental war are discussed below.

17 For example, Schelling, Strategy of Conflict; Schelling, Arms and Influence; Brams Steven J., and Kilgour D. Marc, Game Theory and National Security (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988) ; Powell, Nuclear Deterrence Theory; Powell, ‘Nuclear Deterrence Theory, Nuclear Proliferation, and National Missile Defense’.

18 Zagare and Kilgour, Perfect Deterrence.

19 Kahn Herman, Thinking About the Unthinkable (New York: Horizon Press, 1962) ; Schelling, Arms and Influence.

20 The movie Dr. Strangelove highlights the importance of communicating irrevocable commitments nicely.

21 Nash equilibria only require rational choices along the equilibrium path, whereas sub-game perfect equilibria require every possible decision to be rational. For a discussion of the distinction between the two equilibrium concepts, see Morrow James D., Game Theory for Political Scientists (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994) .

22 Note that this latter equilibrium is also a Nash equilibrium.

23 Schelling, Strategy of Conflict.

24 Powell, ‘Nuclear Deterrence Theory, Nuclear Proliferation, and National Missile Defense’, p. 90.

25 Powell, Nuclear Deterrence Theory; Powell, ‘Nuclear Deterrence Theory, Nuclear Proliferation, and National Missile Defense’.

26 For example, Schelling, Arms and Influence; Bracken Paul J., The Command and Control of Nuclear Forces (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983) ; Blair Bruce G., The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War (Washington: Brookings, 1993) ; Sagan Scott D., The Limits of Safety (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993) .

27 For example, Bracken states that the idea of accidental nuclear war would sound unrealistic ‘were it not for the history of the outbreak of World War I’. See Command, p. 65.

28 Trachtenberg Marc, History and Strategy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 99 . See also Zagare Frank C., ‘Explaining the 1914 War in Europe: An Analytic Narrative’, Journal of Theoretical Politics, 21 (2009), pp. 6395 .

29 Schelling, Arms and Influence; George Alexander L. and Smoke Richard, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy: Theory and Practice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974) ; Jervis Robert, ‘Introduction: Approach and Assumptions’, in Jervis Robert, Lebow Richard Ned, and Stein Janice Gross (eds), Psychology and Deterrence (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), pp. 112 .

30 Schelling, Strategy of Conflict.

31 Trachtenberg, History and Strategy; Zagare, ‘Explaining the 1914 War in Europe’.

32 Zagare and Kilgour, Perfect Deterrence.

33 Also see Lebow, Between Peace and War; Betts Richard K., Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance (Washington: Brookings, 1987) ; Smoke Richard, National Security and the Nuclear Dilemma (Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1987) .

34 For example, Selten Reinhard, ‘A Re-examination of the Perfectness Concept for Equilibrium Points in Extensive Games’, International Journal of Game Theory, 4 (1975), pp. 2555 ; Rasmusen Eric, Games and Information (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989) ; Gibbons Robert, Game Theory for Applied Economists (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992) .

35 Zagare and Kilgour, Perfect Deterrence.

36 Rasmusen, Games and Information, p. 87 .

37 Powell, Nuclear Deterrence Theory; Powell, ‘Nuclear Deterrence Theory, Nuclear Proliferation, and National Missile Defense’.

38 I focus here on complete information conditions, where each actor's preferences are common knowledge. Zagare and Kilgour also examine situations of incomplete information, where each actor forms beliefs about its opponent's preference between conflict and backing down. In that case, a state's credibility results from its opponent's belief about its type. While the details are different, the implications are quite similar. See Zagare and Kilgour, Perfect Deterrence.

39 Morgan, Deterrence Now. However, this does not mean that there are only two. For example, Arquilla and Davis develop what could be considered a separate theory of deterrence in a series of studies for RAND. See Davis Paul K. and Arquilla John, Thinking About Opponent Behavior in Crisis and Conflict, N-3322-JS (Santa Monica: RAND, 1991) ; Davis Paul K. and Arquilla John, Deterring or Coercing Opponents in Crisis, R-4111-JS (Santa Monica: RAND, 1991) ; Arquilla John and Davis Paul K., Extended Deterrence, Compellence, and the ‘Old World Order’, N-3482-JS (Santa Monica: RAND, 1992) .

40 Zagare Frank C., ‘Reconciling Rationality with Deterrence: A Re-examination of the Logical Foundations of Deterrence Theory’, Journal of Theoretical Politics, 16 (2004), pp. 107141 .

41 Morgan, Deterrence Now, p. 12 .

42 See, for example, Allison Graham T., Essence of Decision (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971) ; Lebow, Between Peace and War; Jervis Robert, Lebow Richard Ned, and Stein Janice Gross (eds), Psychology and Deterrence (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985) .

43 Morgan, Deterrence Now, p. 64 .

44 For example, Lebow Richard Ned and Stein Janice Gross, ‘Rational Deterrence Theory: I Think, Therefore I Deter’, World Politics, 41 (1989), pp. 208224 ; Lebow Richard Ned and Stein Janice Gross, ‘Deterrence: The Elusive Dependent Variable’, World Politics, 42 (1990), pp. 336369 ; Rhodes Edward, Power and MADness: The Logic of Nuclear Coercion (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989) .

45 Zagare Frank C., ‘Rationality and Deterrence’, World Politics, 42 (1990), pp. 238260 ; Quackenbush Stephen L., ‘The Rationality of Rational Choice Theory’, International Interactions, 30 (2004),pp. 87107 .

46 Luce R. Duncan and Raiffa Howard, Games and Decisions (New York: Wiley, 1957), p. 50 .

47 Morgan, Deterrence Now, p. 65 .

48 Wagner R. Harrison, ‘Rationality and Misperception in Deterrence Theory’, Journal of Theoretical Politics, 4 (1992), pp. 115141 .

49 de Mesquita Bruce Bueno and Morrow James D., ‘Sorting Through the Wealth of Notions’, International Security, 24 (Autumn 1999), pp. 5673 .

50 Zagare and Kilgour, Perfect Deterrence.

51 Senese Paul D. and Quackenbush Stephen L., ‘Sowing the Seeds of Conflict: The Effect of Dispute Settlements on Durations of Peace’, Journal of Politics, 65 (2003), pp. 696717 .

52 Morgan, Deterrence Now, p. 51 .

53 Oneal John R., de Soysa Indra, and Park Yong-Hee, ‘But Power and Wealth Are Satisfying: A Reply to Lemke and Reed’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 42 (1998), pp. 517520 .

54 Morgan, Deterrence Now, p. 53 .

55 Lemke Douglas and Reed William, ‘Power Is Not Satisfaction: A Comment on de Soysa, Oneal, and Park’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 42 (1998), pp. 511516 .

56 For a review of the literature on nuclear deterrence, see Harvey Frank and James Patrick, ‘Nuclear Deterrence Theory: The Record of Aggregate Testing and an Alternative Research Agenda’, Conflict Management and Peace Science, 12 (1992), pp. 1745 .

57 For example, Mearsheimer John J., Conventional Deterrence (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983) ; Shimshoni Johnathan, Israel and Conventional Deterrence (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988) ; Quester George H., Deterrence Before Hiroshima (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1986) ; Karsten Peter, Howell Peter D., and Allen Artis Frances, Military Threats: A Systematic Historical Analysis of the Determinants of Success (Westport, CT.: Greenwood, 1984) ; Wolf Barry, When the Weak Attack the Strong: Failures of Deterrence, N-3261-A (Santa Monica: RAND, 2001) .

58 Waltz, ‘Origins of War’, p. 625.

59 Organski A. F. K. and Kugler Jacek, The War Ledger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980) .

60 Geller Daniel S., ‘Nuclear Weapons, Deterrence, and Crisis Escalation’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 34 (1990), pp. 291310 ; Paul T. V., Asymmetric Conflicts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) .

61 Zagare and Kilgour, Perfect Deterrence.

62 Morgan, Deterrence Now, p. 133 .

63 Morgan Patrick M., Deterrence: A Conceptual Analysis, 2nd edition (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1983) , and Morgan, Deterrence Now.

64 Morgan, Deterrence, p. 30 .

65 Danilovic Vesna, ‘Conceptual and Selection Bias Issues in Deterrence’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 45 (2001), pp. 97125 .

66 Morgan, Deterrence Now.

67 See Reed William, ‘A Unified Statistical Model of Conflict Onset and Escalation’, American Journal of Political Science, 44 (2000), pp. 8493 , and especially Fearon James D., ‘Selection Effects and Deterrence’, International Interactions, 28 (2002), pp. 530 .

68 Morgan, Deterrence, pp. 42 and 45 .

69 Morgan, Deterrence Now, p. 86 .

70 Zagare and Kilgour, Perfect Deterrence, ch. 5.

71 Huth Paul K., ‘Deterrence and International Conflict: Empirical Findings and Theoretical Debates’, Annual Review of Political Science, 2 (1999), p. 63 .

72 Harvey Frank P., ‘Rigor Mortis or Rigor, More Tests: Necessity, Sufficiency, and Deterrence Logic’, International Studies Quarterly, 42 (1998), pp. 675707 .

73 Levy Jack, ‘When Do Deterrent Threats Work?’, British Journal of Political Science, 18 (1988), pp. 485512 , and Huth, ‘Deterrence and International Conflict’, provide reviews of the empirical literature on deterrence.

74 For example, George and Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy; Steinbrunner John, ‘Beyond Rational Deterrence’, World Politics, 28 (1976), pp. 223245 ; Lebow, Between Peace and War; Lebow Richard Ned, ‘Windows of Opportunity: Do States Jump Through Them?’, International Security, 9 (1984), pp. 147186 ; Jervis Robert, ‘Deterrence and Perception’, International Security, 7 (Winter 1982/83), pp. 1417 ; Jervis, Lebow, and Stein, Psychology and Deterrence; Lebow and Stein, ‘Deterrence: The Elusive Dependent Variable’.

75 Danilovic, When the Stakes Are High.

76 Schelling, Strategy of Conflict; Schelling, Arms and Influence.

77 Danilovic, When the Stakes Are High.

78 Zagare and Kilgour, Perfect Deterrence.

79 Morton Rebecca B., Methods and Models (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) .

80 Bennett D. Scott and Stam Allan C., ‘A Universal Test of an Expected Utility Theory of War’, International Studies Quarterly, 44 (2000), pp. 451480 ; de Mesquita Bruce Bueno and Lalman David, War and Reason: Domestic and International Imperatives (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992) .

81 Danilovic, When the Stakes Are High; Zagare and Kilgour, Perfect Deterrence.

82 Achen Christopher H. and Snidal Duncan, ‘Rational Deterrence Theory and Comparative Case Studies’, World Politics, 41 (1989), pp. 143169 ; Jervis Robert, ‘Rational Deterrence: Theory and Evidence’, World Politics, 41 (1989), pp. 183207 ; Lebow and Stein, ‘Rational Deterrence Theory’; Lebow and Stein, ‘Deterrence: The Elusive Dependent Variable’; Huth Paul K. and Russett Bruce, ‘Testing Deterrence Theory: Rigor Makes a Difference’, World Politics, 42 (1990), pp. 466501 .

83 Morgan, Deterrence; also see Huth Paul K., Extended Deterrence and the Prevention of War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988) .

84 de Mesquita Bruce Bueno, ‘Measuring Systemic Polarity’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 19 (1975), pp. 187215 ; de Mesquita Bruce Bueno, ‘Systemic Polarization and the Occurrence and Duration of War’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 22 (1978), pp. 241267 ; Signorino Curtis S. and Ritter Jeffrey M., ‘Tau-b or Not Tau-b: Measuring the Similarity of Foreign Policy Positions’, International Studies Quarterly, 43 (March 1999), pp. 115144 . In other words, every state threatens to respond if attacked, even though it may not actually carry out the threat if attacked (just as defence pacts are not always honoured when tested).

85 Quackenbush Stephen L., ‘Identifying Opportunity for Conflict: Politically Active Dyads’, Conflict Management and Peace Science, 23(2006), pp. 3751 .

86 Lebow and Stein, ‘Rational Deterrence Theory’; Lebow and Stein, ‘Deterrence: The Elusive Dependent Variable’.

87 Huth and Russett, ‘Testing Deterrence Theory’.

88 For example, in the Unilateral Deterrence Game (Figure 3), the only rational outcome is Status Quo if Challenger prefers Status Quo to Defender Concedes. Although Challenger's decision to not challenge the status quo in this case is not really ‘successful deterrence,’ it is predicted by perfect deterrence theory.

89 Danilovic, ‘Conceptual and Selection Bias Issues in Deterrence’.

90 Stephen L. Quackenbush, ‘General Deterrence and International Conflict: Testing Pefect Deterrence Theory’, International Interactions, 36 (2010), pp. 60–85.

91 Bueno de Mesquita and Lalman, War and Reason.

92 Senese and Quackenbush, ‘Sowing the Seeds of Conflict’.

93 Danilovic, When the Stakes Are High; Quackenbush, ‘General Deterrence and International Conflict’; Senese and Quackenbush, ‘Sowing the Seeds of Conflict’.

94 Quackenbush Stephen L. and Zagare Frank C., ‘Game Theory: Modeling Interstate Conflict’, in Sterling-Folker Jennifer (ed.), Making Sense of International Relations Theory (Boulder, CO.: Lynne Rienner, 2006), pp. 98114 .

95 Zagare, ‘Explaining the 1914 War in Europe’.

96 Zagare and Kilgour, Perfect Deterrence.

97 Werner Suzanne, ‘Deterring Intervention: The Stakes of War and Third-Party Involvement’, American Journal of Political Science, 44 (October 2000), p. 721 .

98 For example, Danilovic, When the Stakes Are High; Huth, Extended Deterrence; Kilgour D. Marc and Zagare Frank C., ‘Uncertainty and the Role of the Pawn in Extended Deterrence’, Synthese, 100 (1994), pp. 379412 ; Russett Bruce M., ‘The Calculus of Deterrence’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 7 (1963), pp. 97109 ; Signorino and Tarar, ‘Unified Theory and Test’; Werner, ‘Deterring Intervention’; Zagare Frank C. and Kilgour D. Marc, ‘Modeling “Massive Retaliation”’, Conflict Management and Peace Science, 13 (1993), pp. 6186 .

99 Kilgour and Zagare, ‘Uncertainty and the Role of the Pawn’.

100 Zagare Frank C. and Kilgour D. Marc, ‘Alignment Patterns, Crisis Bargaining, and Extended Deterrence: A Game-Theoretic Analysis’, International Studies Quarterly, 47 (2003), pp. 587615 .

101 Zagare Frank C. and Kilgour D. Marc, ‘The Deterrence-Versus-Restraint Dilemma in Extended Deterrence: Explaining British Policy in 1914’, International Studies Review, 8 (2006), pp. 623641 .

102 Crawford Timothy W., Pivotal Deterrence: Third-Party Statecraft and the Pursuit of Peace (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003) .

103 Quackenbush, ‘Not only Whether but Whom’.

104 Snyder, Deterrence and Defense.

105 Quackenbush, ‘Not only Whether but Whom’.

106 For example, Amy Yuen, ‘The Strategic Dynamics of Third-Party Intervention in Interstate Conflict’ (Ph.D. diss., Emory University, 2007).

107 Quackenbush, ‘Not only Whether but Whom’.

108 For example, Wagner R. Harrison, ‘Bargaining and War’, American Journal of Political Science, 44 (2000), pp. 469484 ; Filson Darren and Werner Suzanne, ‘A Bargaining Model of War and Peace: Anticipating the Onset, Duration, and Outcome of War’, American Journal of Political Science, 46 (2002), pp. 819838 ; Powell Robert, ‘Bargaining Theory and International Conflict’, Annual Review of Political Science, 5 (2002), pp. 130 ; Reiter Dan, ‘Exploring the Bargaining Model of War’, Perspectives on Politics, 1 (2003), pp. 2743 .

109 Werner, ‘Deterring Intervention’.

110 Langlois Catherine C. and Langlois Jean-Pierre P., ‘Bargaining and the Failure of Asymmetric Deterrence: Trading off the Risk of War for the Promise of a Better Deal’, Conflict Management and Peace Science, 23 (2006), pp. 159180 ; Langlois Catherine C. and Langlois Jean-Pierre P., ‘When Fully Informed States Make Good the Threat of War: Rational Escalation and the Failure of Bargaining’, British Journal of Political Science, 36 (2006), pp. 645669 .

111 Fearon James D., ‘Rationalist Explanations for War’, International Organization, 49 (1995), pp. 379414 .

112 Bueno de Mesquita and Lalman, War and Reason.

113 Zagare and Kilgour, Perfect Deterrence.

114 Fearon, ‘Rationalist Explanations for War’.

115 Sartori, Deterrence by Diplomacy.

116 Press Daryl G., ‘The Credibility of Power: Assessing Threats during the “Appeasement” Crises of the 1930s’, International Security, 29 (2004), pp. 136169 ; Press Daryl G., Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005) .

117 Zagare and Kilgour, Perfect Deterrence.

118 Weinberg Gerhard L., Germany, Hitler, and World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 91 .

119 Morgan, Deterrence Now.

120 Zagare and Kilgour, Perfect Deterrence.

121 Morgan, Deterrence Now, p. 8 .

122 Sartori, Deterrence by Diplomacy; in particular, see Zagare Frank C., ‘Toward a Reformulation of the Theory of Mutual Deterrence’, International Studies Quarterly, 29 (1985), pp. 155169 and Zagare, Dynamics of Deterrence, which introduce the ideas that eventually develop into perfect deterrence theory.

123 Zagare, ‘Reconciling Rationality with Deterrence’, especially Table 1.

124 For example, Powell, ‘Nuclear Deterrence Theory, Nuclear Proliferation, and National Missile Defense’.

125 Quackenbush, ‘National Missile Defense and Deterrence’.

* The author would like to thank Frank Zagare, Kate Floros, Paul Bellinger, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions.

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