The Viability of Deterrence Strategies in the 21st Century


By Anirudh Ramakrishna Phadke


In the 21st Century, world saw major shift in deterrence strategies such as from nuclear to cyber to economic sanctions. This paper is an attempt to bring out the viability of deterrence by analysing the current geopolitical happenings around the world. Further this paper brings out how non-nuclear states have developed a reliable deterrence doctrine despite lacking nuclear power. The key takeaways are;

  1. The deterrence strategies are still viable in 21st century.
  2. Cyber Deterrence is still in its infant period. Countries are adopting more reliable for of deterrence such as economic sanctions.
  3. Sir Churchill’s proclamation still holds true. By the end of day nations prefer military as a means of deterrence to achieve their goals. Thus, military deterrence stands God forever. That is why slogan of army is always apt- Always Ready, Always here.
  4. Nations’s goal is to protect its sovereignty at any costs. Thus, it leads them to bump into other nations in form of war at some given point of time. So, the most reliable instrument for protection is deterrence.

According to Bernard Brodie, famous military strategist and father of deterrence theory wrote Strategy in the Missile Age (1959), in which he outlined the framework of the deterrence theory. Brodie concluded that deterrence by second-strike capability would lead to a more secure outcome for both the parties. He stated hardening of land-based missile locations which was important for the second-strike capability force to have first strike capabilities to provide the stasis necessary for deterrence.

Sir Lawrence Freedman, the notable deterrence researcher pinned his viewpoint on deterrence theories, said that it works best when clear red lines exist, when vital interests are at stake, and when capabilities are known by the host. In simpler perspective, deterrence denotes ‘the action of discouraging an action or event through instilling doubt or fear of the consequences. For example, the latter statement when put into practical terms as ‘nuclear missiles remain the main deterrence against possible aggression.’

Subscribe to The Viyug Updates

Get exclusive contents and fresh perspectives on defence, geopolitics, international affairs, public policy, intelligence, strategic studies, and many more delivered to your inbox.

The popularity of deterrence theory saw an immense growth during the Cold War periods. During this hostile state of high global tensions, deterrence strategy was aimed at preventing aggression by the hostile communist power centres- the USSR and its allies, communist China, and North Korea. In particular, the strategy was devised to prevent a nuclear attack by the USSR or China.

In the 21st century notable military strategies from all over the world have delivered how deterrence plays a vital role in the current global order. The concept of deterrence has changed how nations convert political tensions into war and prevent the same from happening.

RAND Corporation analyst Karl Muller analyses different approaches to conventional deterrence, arguing that it will remain a major tool for prevention of war. He strongly disagreed with those scholars who argued nuclear weapons have superseded conventional deterrence. Since the threat of nuclear weapons was not justifiable with current global order, investments in conventional deterrence remained the topmost priority. Alexey Arbatov affiliated with the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow dwells upon the self-destructive tendencies inherent with nuclear deterrence. The nuclear nations involve in continuous quest for new weapon systems such as hypersonic missiles, weapons of mass destruction (MAD), and integrating new modifications in existing stockpiles which could erode strategic stability.

The best example of how nuclear deterrence holding its viability still today can be found between the geopolitical happenings of North Korea and the United States. Both the nations frequently create high tensions of possible nuclear conflicts. The communist Korea has always stricken with poverty and lack of sufficient survivable resources. Each time when the nation gets depleted of resources, North Korea tests fires its new weapon systems. This in turn raises huge security concern for US’ military stationed in Camp Humphreys, Pyeongtaek in South Korea. Thus, to nullify the effects and push North Korea towards controlled arms production environment, the United States shook hands with North Korea by providing sufficient food aids worth $800 million.

The United States proved to be the largest essential resources exporter to North Korea since the times when both the nations acted hostile to each other. Thus, North Korean leaders channelised their funds towards a sole source that is to produce nuclear missiles and force the democratic power to lend resources which the nation did not possess. Although North Korea shut down its nuclear reactors in exchange for food aids from the United States, the nuclear deterrence indeed proved viable here to achieve the objectives.

Another example of nuclear deterrence can be found between the recent geopolitical happenings of China and Japan in their Taiwan card. Mid this year, The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) aired a video in which it warned Japan of a full-scale war including a nuclear response if the island nation interferes in China’s treatment of Taiwan. The communist giant under the administration of Xi-Jinping singles out Japan as the one exception to China’s policy to not use nuclear propelled weapons against non-nuclear powers.


The video aired on Chinese media sharing platform ‘Xigua’ quoted that China will use nuclear bombs first and continuously until Japan withdraw its intervention in Taiwan. Further the video showed the Chinese intentions to use nuclear weapons against Japan, till the nation declares unconditional surrender for the second time. Although the video was deleted from Xigua, additional copies were uploaded to YouTube and Twitter. These nuclear threats were delivered due to the result of Japanese officials recognising Taiwan’s sovereignty. It is crucial for Japan to give diplomatic immunity to Taiwan for securing upper hand in the East China Sea dispute.

Japan ceded its aggressive advancements in Taiwan card as soon as the communist giant declared call for nuclear strikes against the nation. If this major incident happens, it will be a high threatening situation to both Japan and Taiwan. If that is the case, Japan and the United States must defend Taiwan together.

Meanwhile the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian urged Japan to adjust its mentality over the Taiwan’s issue. Further he conveyed that Japan must show respect for China’s sovereignty over Taiwan which is crucial for upholding regional peace and stability among the sinicized countries.

Another evolving example of nuclear deterrence can be evidenced between the two Asian powers- China, and India. Both the nations possess strong nuclear capabilities and deeply developed nuclear doctrines. While many analysts argue the nuclear deterrence failure of India against China in the backdrop of Ladakh skirmishes in 2020, it should be noted that due to much evolved nuclear technologies and doctrines between the two Asian powers, the recent Ladakh standoff subdued without any major conflict including call for nuclear strikes Both India, and China pursue defensive nuclear strategies and bureaucrats not only understand the importance of avoiding nuclear conflicts but also retain complete authority over the nuclear command control. Both the nations have remained optimistic that nuclear weapons are a stabilising factor in their bilateral relationship rather than a source for concern- even though the tempering effects of economic interdependence may be warning and the strength of both the countries’ nuclear no first-use policies is facing growing internal scrutiny.

Despite the potential for future instability and constant high political tensions between the two nations, there is a chance of holding official bilateral nuclear dialogue between Modi and Xi-Jinping soon as there is much support for expert-level engagement to discuss mutual concerns.

Although if the bilateral nuclear dialogue occurs, it does not necessary mean that China and India will turn into friends from enemies, but for sure any future conflicts that occurs between these two nations does not turn into a nuclear conflict since nuclear technologies keep rapidly evolving in both India as well as China. Thus, this example is incredibly unique in nature being a solution where both nations benefits. Thus, nuclear deterrence holds viable for China and India to escalate their political tensions into a full-scale war.


The nuclear deterrence in 21st century is very much hyped. The public floats on a notion that nuclear states enjoy a superior position than the non-nuclear states. This is not the case for every states. Even before the start of this century, where United States rested as one of the major nuclear superpowers failed to cripple the smaller non-nuclear state- Cuba. Even today Cuba does not possess nuclear, chemical, biological, or even long-range ballistic missiles. The nation is an active participant in many of the major non-proliferation treaties and regimes. The non-nuclear nations have also developed strong warfare capabilities and proved that a nation certainly does not need nuclear weapons to go against nuclear nations.

The non-nuclear nations’ main concern for developing deterrence which is not involved of nuclear weapons is because it delivers the threat of total annihilation. So, if the enemy territory used nuclear weapons as pinned down in the second-strike capability doctrine, the smaller non-nuclear states stand no chance of survival. Thus, non-nuclear states, especially smaller countries found their best interests in developing some form of conventional deterrence as war could prove catastrophic. Furthermore, the non-nuclear states have found that when employing deterrence strategies should take note not to escalate diplomatic tensions or inadvertently highlight their weaknesses in the process.

“Then it may well be that we shall by a process of sublime irony have reached a stage in this story where safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.”- Sir Winston Churchill.

The above quote indeed proves that the fear of destructive nuclear retaliation will paradoxically create a stable strategic environment where nuclear powered states are deterred from using nuclear weapons against one another. Sir Churchill’s proclamation was proven right in this regard; the Cold war ended without direct military conflict between the two competing nuclear powers- US and the USSR. Further the total destructive component of nuclear weapons paved way for emerging new security dynamics out from the Cold War era. Especially the smaller and politically weaker nations sought the help of security analysts to develop a conventional deterrence doctrine which can be pursued by them eventually. The non-nuclear states developed their doctrine from traditional deterrence strategies such as ‘deterrence by punishment’ and ‘deterrence by denial’ by opting out nuclear component.

Most of the nation’s not possessing nuclear weapons followed a common pattern in executing deterrence strategies. For example, Singapore being a smaller nation enjoyed an elevated level of national security by implementing deterrence along with diplomacy which is known as the ‘twin Ds.’ It was not feasible for a state, especially smaller one to just stick on to once aspects of twin Ds. Thus, deterrence followed by diplomacy was needed by Singapore for its survival. This pattern is also followed by many smaller nations and non-nuclear countries. Singapore had always paid attention to the balance of power rather than seeking an international power to act as a protector for extended deterrence.

There is also another notable aspect of deterrence development in the smaller non-nuclear states. These nations were separated from a larger neighbouring country or usually recognised by their larger neighbours only to make their national security concerns directed towards the acts of their parent country or neighbouring ones. For example, one of the Singapore’s long-term concerns has always been securing its sea routes from its maritime neighbour and parent- Malaysia. The example of Singapore’s deterrence is much specifically unique in nature as it is the only country to do so. Singapore keeps on strengthening its inland defence capabilities making it more powerful although being a smaller when compared to its neighbours. The nation also showed massive feats in economic accomplishments. Singapore became hub for entrepot trade making its economy more self-reliant and stronger.


Singapore also implemented good aspects of psychological deterrence. The nation’s enlistment acts which states that all the male citizens and permanent residents (PRs) of Singapore are liable to national service obligation. This in turn increased the nation’s pride and uniqueness among its larger neighbours. Thus, the nation constantly invests heavily in its defence, economic, and civil aspects making it a country not to mess with. Thus, Singapore’s inland deterrence concept can be matched with deterrence by denial. Those nations who….

Read the full article from our recent publications

Available in E-book, Paperback & Hardback
Available in E-book, Paperback & Hardback

References & Endnotes

All the views and opinions expressed are those of the author. This article was originally published by the author in his book titled “Research Papers on Defence & Strategic Studies Vol. 1”. For image credit, click here.

About the Author

Anirudh Phadke is the Founder/Editor of The Viyug. He is currently working in an international organisation based in Singapore. He holds a Master of Science (Strategic Studies) and certificate in Terrorism Studies from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University.

Share this article with your friends and colleagues on Twitter

Read this article titled “The Viability of Deterrence Strategies in the 21st Century”.

Follow us on Social


Published by The Viyug

Th Viyug (A Strategic & Defence Research Publication) is an digital and print media publication producing cutting edge analytical research papers, opinions, rebuttals and other forms of writings on various disciplines of international affairs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: