Dr. Brooke Mitchell is a George Washington University Nuclear Security Working Group Fellow. She works on Capitol Hill for a member of the United States Congress and leads appropriation portfolios for defense, energy and water, and military construction and veteran’s affairs. Dr. Mitchell also serves as manager for the Congressional Nuclear Working Group. In addition, she is the Chief Academic Officer for the Small Business Consulting Corporation and principal investigator for Air Force Global Strike Command’s (AFGSC) National Nuclear Strategy and Global Security Workshop for Practitioners. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessing Contemporary Deterrence Parallel to Netflix’s Squid Game
Date Originally Written: November 17, 2021.
Date Originally Published: November 22, 2021.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The United States Department of Defense (DoD) has placed an increased emphasis on the present era of strategic competition with Russia and China. The author uses the Netflix show Squid Game as a metaphor to draw attention to the value of understanding the players’ motivations as central to define the rules of the game in order to create clear focus around contemporary deterrence.
Summary: DoD’s view of deterrence is reminiscent of Netflix’s hit show, Squid Game. Deterrence traditionally focuses on nation states implementing military actions which may deter adversary action. Deterrence fails when the adversary proceeds anyway. Both deterrence and Squid Game involve players executing their free will to compete against the other players. Deterrence becomes complicated today as players and game rules remain undiscovered.
Text: It has historically been assumed that the strongest parties (i.e. individuals, groups, countries) have an advantage and can thus deter the weaker. Deterrence can be measured in terms of nuclear deterrence (including both weapons and weapons systems), along with conventional sources of warpower, and include additional forms of diplomatic, economic, or social variables that enhance one party’s ability to deny undesirable outcomes.
The question remains though: how, in an era of strategic competition, do traditional deterrence theories or concepts hold true when many leaders, military strategists, and subject matter experts view the United States as facing near-peer competition with both Russia and China? If deterrence is still simply the ability to strategically maneuver strength, or capabilities, to the other parties than by this token the United States won this competition long ago. Yet, despite the present conundrum Russia and now China continues to grow their nuclear arsenals; are far outpacing the United States on the research, development, and fielding of hypersonic technologies; and exceed the United States in the militarization of space and other non-terrestrial warfighting domains.
In Squid Game players execute their free will to compete against the other players. The idea is that these individuals have nothing to lose but their life and are gambling to both preserve their life and receive tangible gain. This idea pushes the competition to the brink. The game only ends if the majority agrees to stop playing. The psychological tug-of-war between the barbaric nature of the rules and then sentimental connection to the “fairness” of such a competitive (and lawless society made out to be equitable for all) by Squid Game leaders such as the Front Man, further exacerbates the rapidly shifting conclusions of the viewers. By the characters later chasing the money trail to the evil people funding the game, then pursuing the very master mind both controlling and holding the purse strings the viewer is left questioning, “How could I not see that coming?” or “Why did I miss that?” Only when there is crystal clear clarity around the rules and players of Squid Game can action in pursuit of strategically deterring the extreme nature of the game be confronted.
The characters in Squid Game needing crystal clear clarity around the rules and players is very similar to the 21st century conditions surrounding deterrence. The United States and her allies are attempting to deter Russia and China in their respective activities that are nefarious to the well-being of the world. However, in this pursuit the convoluted, interwoven, sentiment to separate the motivations of how Russia and China are now playing the game from their priorities in how they are choosing to do so is vague and unclear. The money trail can certainly be traced and the United States’ ongoing efforts to modernize military capabilities and enhance its diplomacs capability with adversarial counterparts remains an option. Whether military and diplomatic modernization remain a viable, sustainable option against Russia and China in a contemporary context is a different question altogether. It is certainly feasible to continue building deterrence around existing frameworks but then again, if those frameworks were fool proof, then how on the United States watch did Russia and China gain both power and speed in their respective nuclear arsenals and in the contested domains of cyberspace and space?
United States efforts to conduct thoughtful analysis and study the “game” within this era of strategic competition, will fail if it does not unpack the relationships and motivations of the players in order to effectively deter unwarranted outcomes on the homeland and abroad. While the conditions of strategic competition may appear intuitive, it is only by understanding the players, and their respective worldviews, that the rules can be effectively established and the turnabout path to maintaining a democratic, truly free, and just society preserved, as demonstrated in the Squid Game.
 Garamone, J. (2021, September 17) “DOD Policy Chief Kahl Discusses Strategic Competition with Baltic Allies,” https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Articles/Article/2780661/dod-policy-chief-kahl-discusses-strategic-competiton-with-baltic-allies.
 Mazaar, M.J. (N.D.), “Understanding Deterrence,” RAND, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/perspectives/PE200/PE295/RAND_PE295.pdf.
 Congressional Research Service (19 October 2021), “Hypersonic Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress,” https://www.crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R45811.
 N Series, “Squid Game,” Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/title/81040344.