A ritual approach to deterrence: I am, therefore I deter

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How can ritual help to understand the practice of deterrence? Traditional deterrence scholarship tends to overlook the active role of deterring actors in creating and redefining the circumstances to which they are allegedly only reacting. In order to address the weight of deterrence as a symbol, collective representation and strategic repertoire, this article proposes to rethink deterrence as a performative strategic practice with ritual features and critical binding, releasing and restraining functions. I posit a ritual account of deterrence to better grasp the performance, credibility and the presumed effect of this central international security practice. An understanding of deterrence as a ritual-like social practice probes the scope of rational deterrence theory, replacing its ‘I think, therefore I deter’ presumption with a socially and politically productive ‘I am, therefore I deter’ logic. Drawing on the example of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s enhanced Forward Presence, the proposed conceptualization of extended deterrence as an interaction ritual chain in allied defence, solidarity and community-building offers novel insights about the deterrence and collective identity nexus. Extended deterrence has much more than deterrence at stake: how an alliance practices deterrence tells us more about the alliance itself than about the nature of threats it responds to. The tripwire posture of the enhanced Forward Presence highlights the instrumentality of ritualization for mediating ambiguity in extended deterrence.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEuropean Journal of International Relations
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)53-78
Number of pages25
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021

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