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  • Pivotal Deterrence: Third-Party Statecraft and the Pursuit of Peace
  • Jeffrey W. Knopf
Timothy W. Crawford, Pivotal Deterrence: Third-Party Statecraft and the Pursuit of Peace. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003. 275 pp.

During the Cold War, strategic theory focused on two situations in which states would rely on deterrence: direct deterrence, in which a country seeks to prevent an attack on its homeland; and extended deterrence, in which a country seeks to prevent an adversary from attacking a third party. In this highly original and valuable study, Timothy Crawford points out that states might also have an interest in relying on deterrence in a third situation: when they seek to deter two adversaries from attacking each other. Crawford describes the deterrer in this scenario as a "pivot" between the other parties, leading to the label "pivotal deterrence."

Crawford points out that this concept is contrary to conventional wisdom. Mainstream strategic thought holds that states must clearly take a side in a dispute if they want to be effective in influencing its outcome. Hence, part of the contribution made by Pivotal Deterrence is in showing that in some situations a state is likely to have a clear interest in this type of deterrence and that efforts at pivotal deterrence can in fact succeed. The United States, for example, has sought to deter conflicts between Greece and Turkey, India and Pakistan, and China and Taiwan. Having a label to attach to such efforts will make it easier for policymakers to think of it as an option in their toolkit. It also creates a category of similar cases, which analysts can then compare to develop a general understanding of pivotal deterrence.

Crawford explains the logic of pivotal deterrence clearly and persuasively. For pivotal deterrence to be feasible, the pivot state must have enough power to affect the outcome of a military conflict between the two other parties, and those two parties must fear each other more than they fear the pivot so that each would be willing to cooperate with the pivot. The pivot can then exert leverage by threatening to alter its alignment. The pivot's reliance on threats is what makes this strategy a form of deterrence and distinguishes it from other conflict-prevention tools, such as mediation. In practice, two different threats might be employed. If one of the states in a potential conflict (State A) wants the pivot's active support before starting a war, the pivot's threat to stay neutral can dissuade State A from using force. But if State A is willing to go to war in the expectation that the pivot will remain neutral, deterrence requires the pivot to threaten to back State B. The tricky aspect of pivotal deterrence is that the [End Page 126] pivot must give one or the other of these deterrent threats to both parties while ensuring that the signal to one party does not undermine the message being given to the other.

Crawford argues that making both messages credible requires ambiguity. Pivotal deterrence works if the pivot creates sufficient uncertainty in the minds of both State A and State B about what the pivot will actually do if one of them starts a war. This again challenges conventional wisdom, which suggests that clarity of commitments is a key to deterrence success. Pivotal Deterrence emphasizes instead that sometimes strategic ambiguity is preferable to a clear, firm commitment. Determining the conditions under which clarity or ambiguity is better will require further research, but Crawford is right to see this as still an open question.

The book contains four detailed case studies—two that are deemed successes and two that are deemed failures. Crawford convincingly demonstrates that pivotal deterrence worked in the two successes: Bismarck's efforts to prevent war between Austria and Russia in the 1870s, and U.S. efforts to prevent war between Greece and Turkey as a result of crises over Cyprus in the 1960s. The most interesting case study, however, is one of the failures: Britain's efforts to keep France and Germany from going to war in 1914. Sir Edward Grey has been widely criticized for not making a firmer deterrent commitment to aid...