Ritual Action:
Making Deterrence Matter in International Security and Memory Politics

Deterrence is not a relic of the Cold War, but a newly urgent feature of contemporary international relations, as Russia’s war against Ukraine highlights only too well. But how is deterrence made to matter in international politics and what does deterrence do politically for the communities that practice it? How are credible threats and commitments accomplished in international security and memory politics, for example by international alliances (such as NATO), and national memory laws? How do we know whether our attempted dissuasion of an opponent has actually worked, if the proof of deterrence’s success is nothing much happening – for the would-be challenger is refraining from the feared action? What explains the persisting political appeal of deterrence as an international conflict management strategy despite its indeterminate success rate and exorbitant material and political costs – particularly in case of nuclear deterrence?

The EU-funded RITUAL DETERRENCE project investigates deterrence through the lens of ritual theory, to understand its political and psychological effects in international relations. It explores the role of ritual action in making deterrence effective, affectively charged and credible in the eyes of its practitioners. The research will be based on a set of in-depth qualitative case studies investigating historical and contemporary contexts: nuclear deterrence in NATO-Warsaw Pact relations during the Cold War, NATO-Russia deterrence dynamics in the post-Cold War era; USA-Russia cyber and hybrid deterrence relations; USA-China deterrence relationship in the post-Cold War era, and memory-political deterrence in Eastern Europe.