Conflict Crisis Management Nuclear Deterrence Security & Defense
New Atlanticist March 16, 2021

A mom’s guide to coercion and deterrence

By Emma Ashford and Erica Borghard

We’ve spent the last year of the pandemic locked inside with our children, managing Zoom school and frantically trying to come up with new ideas for entertaining our increasingly bored offspring. But there’s a silver lining to parenting in a pandemic: It’s an education in the core concepts of international relations, as well as a useful reminder that whether you’re a toddler, tween, teen, grown-up, or fully fledged state, we’re all operating in a condition of anarchy. We proudly present a mom’s primer on deterrence, coercion, credibility, and reassurance.


You have been enjoying quiet, uninterrupted work time in your bedroom “office” all morning, but you harbor a strong suspicion that your second grader will barge into the room just as you are about to start a Zoom meeting. You’d like to prevent her from doing that, so you’re faced with two unpalatable options: barricade yourself in the room and tape a sign to the door instructing your child not to enter, or warn her that if she enters the room she won’t be able to play her favorite game on her tablet later (although, let’s be honest, you know that could be self-defeating because you secretly cherish the quiet that comes with some screen time). Either way, you’d really like to preserve the peaceful status quo.

Deterrence is “dissuading someone from doing something by making them believe that the costs to them will exceed their expected benefits.” It aims to prevent another state from taking some (undesirable) action that it has not yet taken. During the Cold War, for example, American troops in West Germany were intended to deter a Soviet invasion. In this sense, deterrence is about maintaining the status quo, and it’s successful when nothing happens. If the deterring state has to follow through on its threat, deterrence has failed. Crucially, what matters for the success of deterrence is the perception of the target state. That’s why communicating intent and the credibility of deterrent threats is the crux of any deterrence strategy. A threat is only credible if the target state perceives that the threatening state has the capability to carry it out (which is typically easy for a powerful state like the United States to demonstrate), as well as the political will to do so (which can be much more tricky, particularly when carrying out an action could also harm the threatening state itself). Like relativity, deterrence comes in a number of flavors (general versus specific, direct versus extended, punishment versus denial, conventional versus nuclear, and so on), but they all share this basic logic.    

Deterrence by denial

The toddler is plotting malign and nefarious acts, like drawing on the wall with crayons and arming proxies (her younger sister) with crayons as well. To prevent this from happening, there’s only one solution: All crayons now have to be stored on high shelves. The toddler will likely try workarounds–using a step stool, tricking the grandparents into providing markers–but if your resolve is firm and your strategy sound, you can deny her the ability to embark on her campaign of wall-art terror.

A strategy of deterrence by denial is simple. It requires “convincing an opponent that he will not attain his goals on the battlefield,” either by the deployment of massive force or by making it physically difficult to achieve the objective in question. And it’s not just about military force. Today’s economic sanctions regimes often employ deterrence by denial to fight terrorism, block illegal arms sales, or stop global corruption. By denying individuals access to banking services, we make it harder for them to transfer money, make arms purchases, and interact globally with other groups. Denial isn’t always possible–and you have to routinely update your tactics to account for loopholes–but when it is, it can be a powerful way to deal with your adversaries.

Deterrence by punishment

The children have engaged in food fights at dinner for three nights in a row, tossing meat, vegetables, and (on one memorable occasion) spaghetti everywhere. It’s a bitter civil war, pitting sister against sister. Negotiators have been called in; mom has tried to broker a ceasefire repeatedly. On night three, anticipating yet another dinner duel, you issue an ultimatum: If this happens at dinner tomorrow, the children will get no TV for a week. There’s just one problem: Is that threat credible enough to deter another food fight? Or will the children call your bluff, assuming that in the middle of COVID-19 TV time is as important to your sanity as it is to them?

Deterrence by punishment is the most challenging of deterrence strategies. It requires a threat–such as vowing to conduct a ruinous bombing campaign or impose damaging economic sanctions–if your adversary follows through on its plan of attack. Deterrence by punishment is typically associated with nuclear strategy, and the United States continues to reserve the right to use nuclear weapons first during a crisis. But punishment logic is also applied in other contexts. Trials at the International Criminal Court, headquartered at The Hague, comprise one such attempt to deter by punishment: War criminals around the world know that they can be tried and convicted if their crimes come to light. Deterrence by punishment is a much harder lift than coercion (more to come on that) or deterrence by denial, as it often relies not on force but on the threat of future force. If that threat is perceived as non-credible (i.e., your target believes that you won’t be able or willing to follow through on the threat), then the adversary may decide that it’s worth the risk to call your bluff. The more outlandish the threat, and the less important the issue underlying the threat is perceived to be, the harder it is to deter by threat of punishment.


You find out that even though your teenager was scrupulous about following COVID protocols in the early months of the pandemic, lately he has been hanging out in person with his friends after Zoom school without maintaining an appropriate distance or wearing a mask. You find this to be unacceptable—and dangerous—and you’d like him to immediately change his behavior and go back to being more conscientious. You’re done with making empty threats and instead employ a range of measures to compel him to change his behavior—like taking away his allowance, and then his phone, and then his car until he behaves. The problem is that your teenager seems to care more about what his friends think and doesn’t want to lose face, despite the costs you are imposing.

Coercion, like deterrence, is about manipulating a target’s perception of the costs, benefits, and risks of taking some action. However, while deterrence aims to maintain the status quo and prevent something that has not yet occurred, coercion seeks to change behavior that is already ongoing. And while deterrence involves the threat of force, coercion often includes both the threat and the limited application of force. That can involve military power or economic actions such as sanctions. Multilateral sanctions on the apartheid government of South Africa, for example, were slow but ultimately successful in coercing leaders to change their domestic policies. Successful coercion is easy to observe because it involves a public change in behavior. But often one side has greater interests at stake than the other or there’s a rally-‘round-the-flag effect, which causes coercion to fail. Post-Cold War US foreign policy is rife with examples of (typically failed) coercion, though you wouldn’t always know it because policymakers often describe coercive policies using the language of deterrence (i.e., “restoring deterrence” or “re-establishing deterrence”).  

Credibility/Red lines

After weeks of squabbling over who gets to wear the Anna dress and who gets to wear the Elsa dress, the toddler finally snaps, hitting her sister and stealing both dresses. After calming one screaming child and disciplining the other, you issue a red line: Any future hitting will result in severe consequences for the guilty party. The ultimatum is somewhat successful in the sense that there’s no further hitting. But the toddler wages a guerilla campaign against her sister, engaging in salami tactics by slowly and stealthily stealing her toys instead. When you try to repeat the success of the red-line strategy the following week–suggesting dire consequences if the children splash too much during bath time–it doesn’t work. The bathroom resembles a watery war zone.  

Red lines are often invoked in international relations, as leaders attempt to make clear what they consider acceptable and unacceptable moves from other states. The approach sometimes works, particularly on issues that are obviously important to the issuer of the red line. Sometimes, however, it can go badly wrong, as it did during the Cold War when US Secretary of State Dean Acheson drew an American defensive perimeter in Asia that did not include the Korean peninsula. Some argue that North Korea invaded South Korea shortly thereafter on the mistaken assumption that the United States was not committed to the latter’s defense. While drawing red lines can be useful, it can also encourage states to act below the threshold of the red line or seek workarounds. And when states stake out red lines that aren’t credible, other states often call their bluff. The good news for a Washington obsessed with credibility is that a red-line failure on an unimportant issue has little bearing on whether a red line will be successful on a totally different–and more important–issue.


You’ve warned your middle schooler countless times: If you catch her chatting with her friends when she’s supposed to be paying attention during Zoom school, you’ll restrict her iPhone time. The problem is that you’ve taken away her phone so many times already during the pandemic that she’s convinced you’ll do it again no matter what she does. She ignores you and continues chatting with her friends.

Discussions of deterrence and coercion tend to focus on what states can do to appear more resolved and thus enhance the credibility of their threats. The challenge, however, is that the target of deterrence or coercion must believe two things that appear to be contradictory at the same time: that a state has the capability and willingness to carry out a threat, but that they won’t do so if the target complies. This latter aspect is what the scholar Thomas Schelling called reassurance: the perception that a state will refrain from carrying out the threatened harm if its demand is satisfied. The problem is that the actions states often take to enhance the credibility of their threats—like tying their hands by taking actions or making statements that lock in their position—make it hard to walk those threats back and provide reassurance. The challenges of reassurance are apparent in former US President George W. Bush’s statement to the Iraqi government prior to the 2003 war, that it had “an opportunity to avoid conflict” if former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein complied with all of the United States’ demands. Of course, Hussein did not comply and the United States initiated a war. For more recent examples of the difficulties of reassurance, just consider the problems that the United States has had convincing adversaries that sanctions will be lifted in exchange for concessions. The threat to resort to the stick sometimes makes it harder to credibly promise carrots.

Further reading

Image: A mom's guide to deterrence. Photo via Alexander Dummer, Unsplash