National Security & Defense

Is Deference Really Safer than Deterrence?

(Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Beware international affairs the next five months, a dangerous period for America.

Deterrence is a nation’s ability to discourage aggressors by instilling in them a credible fear of punishment far greater than any perceived gain that could be achieved by an attack.

Deterrence is quite different from deference, which is a courteous accommodation to the will of another, often one deemed superior.

Deterrence is ultimately enhanced by the possession of overwhelming military force, but it is unfortunately not thereby ensured.

France, the Low Countries, and the British expeditionary force had a combined larger army, more tanks and comparable air forces, when Germany nevertheless attacked in surprise fashion and destroyed them in six weeks in May and June 1940. What the Allies lacked were not the guns and soldiers but the credibility that they would use them with dispatch, skill, and determination.

Unfortunately, after eight years, Obama and his staff seem still confused over what deterrence is. The president believes that calm can be maintained through either apology and assurances or occasional tough but empty rhetoric — apparently on the premise that because the United States has overwhelming military force, aggressors would never logically cross it.

In contrast, the Neanderthals of the world assume that U.S. force is now becoming irrelevant and that the president is entirely predictable: occasionally eager to compromise and lecture, usually full of braggadocio, and always without credible follow-up. To be blunt and cruel, they find Obama the proverbial freshman loudmouth whom bullying seniors for sport enjoy separating from his lunch money.

Beware the next five months, perhaps our most dangerous period since the lame-duck Carter presidency of 1980.

The host Chinese rudely first ignored and then insulted the presidential entourage when it landed for the G-20 summit. The Chinese wish to remind us that they have established a global precedent that any nation can build an artificial island in the middle of commercial routes and thereby declare that new sovereign air and sea territorial rights emanate from it. They also remind the world of that achievement by juvenile taunts to a visiting American retinue. Does anyone think that one such island will not soon lead to an entire archipelago — or that a peaceful world can operate on such laws of the jungle?

Putin, in the manner of the Cheshire Cat, recently flashed a mischievous grin for cameras as he shook Obama’s hand. The president later characterized their tense private meeting: “Typically, the tone of our meetings are candid, blunt, businesslike — and this one was no different.”

Putin is close to establishing the ‘blunt’ reality that the territory of the former Soviet Empire belongs to Moscow, either to annex outright or to control by compliant dictators.

Putin is close to establishing the “blunt” reality that the territory of the former Soviet Empire belongs to Moscow, either to annex outright or to control by compliant dictators. For sport, his air forces buzz ours, and do in the air what the Iranians do at sea.

Obama’s reset has proved a veritable greenlight to Putin, who was invited into the Middle East to take ownership of the problem of Syria’s weapons of mass destruction and to deflect attention from the embarrassment of American faux red lines. He did neither — and never left.

From the get-go in 2009, Putin interpreted the Obama administration’s reset criticism — of George W. Bush’s efforts to promote missile defense in Eastern Europe and to sanction Putin over his Ossetian adventure — as an incentive for more aggression.

When Obama points to our supposed cyber-warfare offensive and defensive superiority as a veiled warning to the Russians to stop hacking and interfering with our electoral process, it becomes yet another reassurance to Putin to continue his mischief. Putin wonders why a targeted power would talk publicly of its superior capabilities to retaliate rather than privately just employ them. The answer, of course, is the eternal argument for appeasement: It is never necessary to take some immediate risks to avoid looming catastrophe.

When Obama assures the Russians and the world that the U.S. does not wish a “wild west” Internet of cyber-warfare and thus needs some sort of adult global cyber-supervision, he is again playing Chamberlain to Putin’s Hitler — vowing not to stoop to Nazi aggression and appealing to the League of Nations to create some international norms of good behavior in lieu of democratic deterrence. Tragically, the protocols of the Martha’s Vineyard waterfront do not apply to the Chinese and the Russians.

The unhinged president of the Philippines just slurred Obama with foul invectives. Rodrigo Duterte scoffed of Obama, “Who is he? . . . I am a president of a sovereign state. And we have long ceased to be a colony of the United States: Son of a b****, I will swear at you.

Why would a Philippines president who is threatened by Chinese expansionism ridicule his American counterpart? Is the fact that Duterte will talk down to a protector in a way he would never to an aggressor an intentional signal of whom to fear when rhetoric escalates to fire?

In the South Sudan, government security forces recently attacked two U.S. carloads of diplomats, in an “accident” to remind its greatest benefactor how unhappy it is with us — as if American magnanimity naturally should earn contempt rather than appreciation.

Iranian war boats show their thanks for the Iranian give-away deal by circling and interfering with U.S. ships, in hopes either of provoking or humiliating them on a world stage. Is the Iranian thinking not to deny huge American cash payoffs for ransom but to broadcast such American naïveté — and the foolishness of anyone who could be so hoodwinked by such adolescent skullduggery?

We are returning to the tenor of the 1980 hostage crisis, when Iranians chanted not just “Death to America” but also “America can’t do a thing,” not worried about inciting an unpredictable U.S. but reminding the world how predictable a pitiful helpless giant actually was.

Deterrence is not achieved by saber-rattling but certainly can be lost by braggadocio when not backed by concrete displays of force.

Perhaps if a president trades an American AWOL traitor for four terrorist kingpins, or does little when an American ship is hijacked on the seas, or sends $400 million in cash at night in foreign currencies for hostages, or, when abroad, dubs his fellow citizens “lazy” and racist, provocateurs assume he would not do much either when Iran lets off a bomb?

North Korea sends more missiles in Japan’s direction to remind the U.S. and Japan that at any time they could be nuclear-tipped and that Obama cannot do anything to stop them. Apparently, Pyongyang assumes that, should Japan shoot one of its missiles down, the U.S. would intervene with a jazzed-up version of the beer summit and thereby try to adjudicate between two equally understandable positions. A fifth North Korean nuclear device was just tested, and we may get another by Election Day.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey does not seem to appreciate the “special relationship” with America that Obama had previously said characterized his own unique outreach to the Muslim world. Instead, Erdogan has blasted American criticism of his own crackdowns of dissidents and is now settling scores with the Kurds. When the Turks hear from Obama (the open-borders and “punish your enemies” president) that sovereign borders must matter, they apparently do not know whether to laugh or cry.

Angela Merkel, who has nodded to the Obama open-borders policy as a model for her own self-generated catastrophic influx, was just wiped out in regional German elections, and is becoming the most unpopular foreign leader in Europe. Did not Merkel learn from the Brexit vote that having Obama against rather than for you is far preferable?

On his last Asian tour, Obama promised millions of dollars in aid to Laos to uncover unexploded bombs, in the course of reminding the world of the obscene tonnage dropped over a half-century ago by U.S. planes during the Vietnam War (“whatever our intentions”).

It may have been a noble Obama gesture, but the president of the United States might have at least suggested that our intention, even if misguided, had been to keep Communist autocrats from destroying a free Laos in the manner that we had done the same successfully in post-war Greece, Turkey, and South Korea. Under the Obama doctrine, I suppose, he should next apologize to France for Americans dropping bombs (many of which are likewise still unexploded) on its occupied soil in World War II  – on the “whatever our intentions” premise that the French were not necessarily better off liberated rather than living under the Third Reich’s SS.

So far Obama has opened a floodgate of petty anti-American behavior and slander throughout the world. Because it pays material if not psychological rewards, insulting or humiliating the U.S. will only escalate in the final months, as aggressors and the unhinged come out of the woodwork to manipulate what they see as a rare and nearly inexplicable opportunity.

Because Obama both apologizes and sermonizes, reminding his hosts how awful his own pre-Obama country had been and yet how they must measure up to his own current exacting moral standards, it is easy to see why he earns contempt rather than cooperation and empathy. If Obama when overseas describes fellow Americans as blinkered sloths, why would any foreigner disagree with the president of the United States or believe that Obama, as an American himself, has any moral stature?

When Daniel Noriega once went on a rant about the U.S. in Nicaragua nearly 40 years ago, a stunned Obama pled exemption, insisting that he was a mere toddler when Noriega recited his litany of American culpability. If an elected leader will not defend his own country to a tin-horn Communist dictator, or will not suggest that all Americans, especially pampered multi-millionaires like Colin Kaepernick, should at least stand up for their national anthem, then why would anyone else defend such a country? Does the president grasp that he is giving a mini-lesson to observers on the erosion of deterrence: A greenlighted Kaepernick would only encourage other pampered multi-millionaire players to the point that the anthem would be rendered a farce.

Deterrence is not achieved by saber-rattling but certainly can be lost by braggadocio when not backed by concrete displays of force. For adversaries like Putin, the Iranians, the North Koreans, and the Chinese, the more Obama brags of the cyber-warfare capability of the U.S., or reminds the world of the omnipotent U.S. military, or condescendingly laughs at Putin’s class-cut-up or macho antics, or sets empty deadlines, step-over lines, and red lines, or appears ambiguous about his own country’s history and values, then the more our adversaries are encouraged to become provocative. The combination of empty boasting and perceived weakness needlessly incites thugs — and when added to self-righteous sermonizing and petty boasting and needling, can inflame enemies to try something stupid.

Will anti-Americanism always be limited to these juvenile snubs and verbal gymnastics?

We are not so much in immediate danger from stray missiles, provocative gun boats, loud-mouthed foreign leaders, or state-sponsored hackers. But the worry is that far worse is on the horizon, given that the loonier fringes among our enemies are gaining credence and credibility and might try something stupid that they otherwise would not dare — as Obama appears unaware that deterrence is always slowly and with danger achieved, but easily and quickly forfeited and with catastrophic consequences.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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