OTPIC Officially Retired

As of December 2, 2005, the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict (OTPIC) has been officially retired, and is no longer open to new registrations.

The successor to OTPIC is a course called Dealing Constructively with Intractable Conflicts (DCIC). The new curriculum is built around one of our major projects, Beyond Intractability, and offers a much more extensive and informative set of learning materials than that available through OTPIC.

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International Online Training Program On Intractable Conflict

Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, USA

Deterrence, Counter-Threats, and Arms Races

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The problem with purely defensive strategies is that the technical characteristics of many conflict situations may make them unworkable. For example, in spite of the enormous resources devoted to U.S. President Reagan's Star Wars program, there is still no realistic prospect for an effective defense against a large scale nuclear missile attack. Similarly, most army, navy and air force units can be relatively easily converted from a defensive to an offensive roles. In these and countless similar situations, the parties cannot depend on defense, and must decide to employ a deterrence or counterthreat strategy instead--a strategy in which the parties promise to respond to any attack with an attack of their own which is capable of doing enough damage to offset any benefits which the threatening party might expect from their initial attack.   Thus, the assumption is made that no one will attack, because the risks are far higher than the likely benefits.  In the most extreme example, the United States and the Soviet Union both deterred nuclear attack by promising to respond to any nuclear strike with devastating counter strike. The assumption was made (and tested several times) that neither country would actually allow a conflict to escalate far enough to initiate an actual war between the two superpowers (although proxy wars were fought many times). 

The other advantage of a deterrence strategy is that is also gives a party a powerful offensive capability, should they decide to use it.  Given this, however, deterrence strategies tend to led to an uncontrolled arms race. This can be extremely costly, and can actually reduce security, rather than increase it.  In the United States, we refer to a saying called "Murphy's Law" which simply states that "if anything can go wrong, it will."  This law is a popular joke, used to explain misfortune and bad luck.  Conflict theorist Kenneth Boulding added the word "eventually"--which transformed the joke into a scientific fact -- "if anything can go wrong, it eventually will."  (This is because anything that has a finite probability of happening, will, according to mathematical laws, eventually actually happen.) When applied to deterrence and counterthreats, this law means that if a deterrent threat is at all credible, it must be possible that it could be used.   And if it is possible, eventually, it will happen.  Thus, it is inevitable, that eventually, something will happen to trigger the confrontation--potentially the nuclear confrontation--that nobody wanted. For this reason, deterrence is a highly dangerous and unstable approach to threats which, while it seems to work, actually presents a greater problem than it provides a solution.

Links to Examples:

Alexander George -- The Role of Force in Diplomacy: A Continuing Dilemma for U.S. Foreign Policy
This article reviews the pros and cons of using force as a means of defense of U.S. interests.
William Perry -- Managing Conflict in the Post-Cold War Era
This article also reviews deterrence as a defensive strategy in the current world situation.
Hugh Wyndham -- The Falklands: Failure of a Mission
In this case Britain and Argentina exchanges threats for some time before war actually broke out.
Gareth Evans -- Iraq's Invasion of Kuwait in 1990: A Failure to use Preventive Diplomacy
Iraq defied the U.S. Coalition's threats, leading to the Gulf War. This article and the following two the failure of deterrence in this case.
Dean Peachy -- Thoughts on the Failure of Negotiations in the Gulf
This is another analysis of the Gulf War and the failure of threats on either side to prevent the crisis.
Claude Rakisits -- The Gulf Crisis: Failure of Preventive Diplomacy
This is a third analysis of what went wrong in the Gulf War.
Felicity Volk  -- Kashmir: The Problem of United Nations Peacekeeping Contributing to Political Stasis
This article finds deterrence to have been the key to preventing a serious war in the Kashmir region.
Dean Pruitt and Jeffery Rubin -- Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate and Settlement "Escalation in the Cuban Missile Crisis"
This story illustrates a threat-counterthreat dynamic that almost lead to nuclear war. In this case, however, the authors suggest the escalation was intentional, leading to a stalemate short of the nuclear threshold.
Alexander George -- The Role of Force in Diplomacy: A Continuing Dilemma for U.S. Foreign Policy
This article examines different approaches to the use of force in foreign policy including the threat or use of force in coercive diplomacy and the use of threat for deterrence.
Alexander George -- The Cuban Missile Crisis
This is Alexander's description of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a situation of escalating threats and counterthreats, as discussed above.
Alexander George -- United States-Japan Relations Leading to Pearl Harbor
Rather than leading to deterrence the U.S. threat to Japan led to a quick escalation to war.

Links to Outside Readings on this Topic

India's Nuclear Gambit - Summary of a Briefing Held May 14, 1998 at the US Institute of Peace

Bjorn Moller UN Military Demands and Non-Offensive Defense Collective Security Humanitarian Intervention and Peace Support Operations

Links to Related Sections



Misunderstanding the Relationship Between Threat and Force

Failure to Anticipate Opponent Reactions and the Backlash Effect



Disarmament Strategies


Step-by-Step De-Escalation (GRIT)

Collective Security

Types of Power Other than Force

Copyright 1998 Conflict Research Consortium  -- Contact: crc@colorado.edu