In a dangerous world, what is the best way to keep the peace? Deterrence is the name of the game. But what exactly is it?

Air Force General Curtis Lemay, who, among other things, presided over the U.S. strategic bombing campaign in the Pacific during World War II, once defined the concept succinctly:

A deterrent force is one that is large enough and efficient enough that no matter what the enemy force does, either offensively or defensively, he still will receive a quantity of bombs or explosive force that is more than he is willing to accept.

Given Lemay’s past, however one judges it, his words carried weight around the world.

Now we have another pathway to deterrence from Rose Gotemoeller, assistant secretary of State, speaking last week at a Deterrence Symposium sponsored by the U.S. Strategic Command:

Our strategic direction for the future will entail the use of Smart Power to pursue foreign policy priorities by reaching out to friends and foes; elevating development as a core pillar of American power; further integrating civilian and military efforts; and leveraging U.S. economic strength and the power of our democratic example.

Admittedly, it’s just a snippet from a single speech by a mid-level appointee in the Obama administration – but it’s also representative of national security thinking that is not thinking at all.

The “vision thing” was President George H. W. Bush’s famous phrase for his own inability to formulate a coherent view of the world. Smart Power, an interlocking system of empty clichés, sounds far more sophisticated—but it is little better. It will certainly not make our adversaries tremble.

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