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The Pentagon is the wrong agency to lead the new US deterrence strategy

If integrated deterrence is to succeed, the hammer must not be the tool of first resort.

The United States faces a fundamental deterrence problem in Taiwan. In a recent poll of more than 2,500 U.S. adults, fewer than half said they would support a direct U.S. military intervention if China invades the self-governing island. Yet to be successful, deterrence requires one’s adversary to perceive that one has both the capability and the will to carry out their threats. 

There are already questions about whether U.S. forces are equipped to defend and, if necessary, take back Taiwan. Recent well-publicized wargames have found that a U.S. victory would cost tens of lost ships, hundreds of lost aircraft, and thousands of lost U.S. servicemember lives in a matter of weeks. This may give Chinese President Xi Jinping reason to believe that America's will to come to Taiwan’s defense may be lacking—if not during the tenure of President Joe Biden, who has on multiple occasions said the U.S. would intervene militarily on Taiwan’s behalf, then perhaps as soon as his successor comes to office.

The U.S. has a variety of instruments of power available for deterrence, including expansive diplomatic connections, alliance networks, and economic and financial carrots and sticks. As such, the apparent solution to the U.S. credibility problem is the Defense Department-led concept of integrated deterrence: “the seamless combination of capabilities to convince potential adversaries that the costs of their hostile activities outweigh their benefits” via integration of efforts “across domains,” “across regions,” “across the spectrum of conflict,” “across the U.S. government,” and “with allies and partners.”

But if deterrence requires coordination across the governments of allies and partners—many of which are not interested in a fight with China—then placing the organization tasked primarily with preparing for a fight with China in the lead sends the wrong message. It also casts U.S.-China competition in a more antagonistic light than may be necessary and underemphasizes critical non-military instruments of power.

Hammer time 

That the Defense Department is in the lead of the U.S. integrated deterrence mission is no surprise. Modern deterrence theory originated as a martial concept. Even if it didn’t, in recent years many traditionally nonmilitary activities have become martial ones as “the military became everything”—a recent case in point being its lead role in the emergency airlift of baby formula

This militarization of traditionally nonmilitary activities has consequences. As the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. 

For strategic deterrence, military threats alone appear to have worked quite well. Happily, few leaders seem to be keen on global thermonuclear war. But strategic deterrence successes do not always translate well to the local, conventional level. U.S. military threats across great distances in defense of non-allied states often lack the credibility required for effective deterrence. 

The phrase "integrated deterrence" provides a useful cognitive distance from earlier notions of deterrence. It makes clear that to be most effective, deterrence requires the purposeful use of non-U.S. and nonmilitary resources. Unfortunately, the Defense Department's lead role in integrated deterrence illustrates that this cognitive distance hasn’t translated from U.S. minds to U.S. actions. 

U(S) can’t touch this

For Xi Jinping, the stakes for Taiwan involve his legacy and his party’s promise of national rejuvenation. Meanwhile, the U.S. commitment to Taiwan, as communicated to Xi, is ostensibly about democracy—except that Taipei enjoyed Washington’s support for four decades before it shook off authoritarianism with its first fully free parliamentary elections in 1992. Less idealistically, others have made the case for defending Taiwan based on the importance of free and open shipping lanes and air routes—except that, once in control of the island, China would have ample reasons to allowing shipping and air travel to resume as normal given its economy’s heavy reliance on trade for growth

Control of microchip manufacturing is a more well-founded concern, at least in the short term. But the United States and its European allies are investing heavily in the development of more robust microchip industries to reduce their reliance on the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. What happens to Taiwan’s TSMC-comprised “silicon shield” when these U.S. and European efforts are successful? 

China has also been working to wean itself off its dependence on Taiwanese microchips since at least 2020, when TSMC was banned from shipping semiconductors to Chinese telecom giant Huawei. Sooner or later, Taiwan’s “silicon shield” will begin to show cracks.

Meanwhile, Xi has other options beyond invasion. What of a blockade? Would a Berlin Airlift-style response be possible? Some flights during Operation Vittles were as short as 110 miles. The distance from Taiwan to the nearest non-Chinese-controlled airfield is about ten times that. More likely would be a non-military response—one that will be hard to communicate in advance as part of the U.S. integrated deterrence package if the Pentagon is in the lead.

Stop hammer time

To be sure, any deterrence strategy must include the hammer that the Defense Department can wield. But, beyond questions of its effectiveness in deterring a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, over-reliance on the military and securitization generally is likely to have broader deleterious effects on U.S. relations in the Indo-Pacific. Americans risk becoming the “Hessians of Asia” by taking a security-first approach in the region. 

To prevent this, integrated deterrence must give more equal weight to nonmilitary and non-U.S. components. In a recent report, my colleagues and I proposed that this be done by tying integrated deterrence to our notion of formal bilateral influence capacity, whereby the U.S. capacity to compel and deter others is the product of an array of economic, political, and security-based policymaking instruments that can be leveraged bilaterally as well as through a network of allies and partners. If successful, such an approach would provide the United States and its partners a “collective resilience.” 

Even if a U.S. deterrence-by-denial strategy with respect to Taiwan is not convincing to Xi, the U.S. and partner capacity for deterrence by resilience ought to be, especially given China’s heavy dependence on the U.S. and several of its allies for hundreds of key goods. Relatedly, substantial, sustained decreases in imports from China to the U.S. and Europe would force Chinese leadership to make hard choices: “a further increase in infrastructure investment (and in the country’s debt burden) or it will have to allow unemployment to rise.” 

China’s debt is already quite high, and many of the major debt holders—local governments wrapped up in real estate—have little ability to repay their debts. China is also in the middle of a youth unemployment crisis. As such, neither an increase in debt nor an increase in unemployment is a good option for Chinese leadership, which could face a legitimacy crisis—and even threaten Xi’s survival—if it were to face major post-invasion economic blowback.

Convincing partners and allies to join the U.S. in a coordinated response to deter an invasion of Taiwan will be difficult. A recent survey from the European Council on Foreign Relations showed that the majority of the more than 16,000 respondents across 11 European countries thought their respective countries should remain neutral in the event of a U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan. It will take substantial diplomatic efforts to turn the tide of European public opinion—efforts ill-suited for the Defense Department.

The National Security Council is an obvious candidate to lead U.S. integrated deterrence efforts given its primary mission of managing the interagency. The NSC would of course need to task organizations such as the Pentagon with implementation, but NSC coordination would allow for a larger role for the State Department as well as Treasury. Military options would remain available, just not as the tool of first resort.

2 legit 2 quit

Deterrence is an imperfect art, and any approach to integrated deterrence may fail. By deemphasizing the Defense Department’s role in integrated deterrence, it increases the chances of success by substantially increasing the credibility of U.S. threats. And if it fails to deter China—after all, economic and diplomatic threats did not stop Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—it offers a softer landing on the other side of the “brink,” should the United States, China, and Taiwan slip past it.

Meanwhile, calls have been made, and apparently heeded, to boost Taiwan’s defensive capabilities and U.S. capabilities to respond to potential hostilities across the Taiwan Strait. These are important and necessary steps. But questions around the will to use these capabilities are likely to remain. By taking the Defense Department out of the lead for the U.S. integrated deterrence strategy and instead treating its metaphorical hammer as one tool among many, the U.S. will to act—and ability to act in a coordinated fashion that uses its suite of national power instruments—will be much less in question. 

Collin Meisel is associate director of geopolitical analysis at the University of Denver’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He is also a geopolitics and modeling expert at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, and a nonresident fellow with The Henry L. Stimson Center’s Strategic Foresight Hub.