On Escalation, De-Escalation, And “Deterrence”

Caitlin Johnstone
4 min readSep 19, 2023


Listen to a reading of this article (reading by Tim Foley):

A very confused and distressed young man wandered into our home on Sunday and began acting erratically. He was clearly suffering from a severe mental illness, probably schizophrenia, and from his nice clothes yet disheveled appearance I’m guessing he had a home somewhere but had been on the street for a few days.

My husband Tim began talking to him and trying to figure out how to help him, but when Tim tried walking with him outside the man slammed the door on him and started raving about “recruiters” and saying Tim was a pedophile.

The man was too confused to figure out how to lock the door, so he was just leaning against it to keep Tim out. Tim’s a big guy and a trained martial artist and could have forced his way back in and overpowered the man, but he also worked at a psychiatric facility for years and understood that this would needlessly escalate a situation that could probably be peacefully de-escalated.

Tim went around the back where I had just encountered the man and explained the situation to me in a calm and friendly way that would be sure not to agitate our unexpected houseguest. My family talked to him for a minute and he relaxed a bit, and then he left without a fuss.

It was an interesting insight into this dynamic of escalation and de-escalation we see play out all around the world in various ways, from individual police interactions with the public to large-scale conflicts between world powers. A cop uses force on someone in the name of neutralizing a threat, the person becomes agitated by this escalation, starts fighting back, and gets killed by the cop. A superpower begins amassing war machinery near the border of its geopolitical rival in the name of deterring that rival from behaving aggressively, and the rival responds aggressively to that threat.

Anyone, regardless of their level of mental health, is going to feel threatened when weapons are pointed at them or violence is directed at them. The person pointing the weapons or directing the violence may sincerely feel that they are only defending themselves, but the other party will feel the same way, and may react with aggression to this escalation because they feel they’ve been put in a fight-or-die situation.

We know that’s what happened with Ukraine. We know that’s what’s happening again with Taiwan, as we receive news of China ramping up its air force presence around the island in response to Taipei’s increasing military intimacy with the United States. It’s no longer seriously debatable that the strategy of surrounding a powerful nation with war machinery in the name of “deterrence” is actually extremely escalatory and leads to war.

The facts are in and the case is closed: amassing threats near the borders of powerful nations has an escalatory rather than de-escalatory effect. This is true of Russia and China, and history has shown us that it’s true of the United States as well; the last time a credible military threat was placed near the US border, the US responded so aggressively that the world almost ended. If you still support this false “deterrence” strategy at this point after all the evidence is in, you’re just a warmonger who wants a war.

There is a time and a place for violence, but that line is very, very far back from where most people tend to draw it. Violence and the threat thereof should always be a last resort, used only in self-defense, but we see police shooting people who move a little funny and the most powerful empire ever to exist waging constant wars of aggression and amassing more and more war machinery on the borders of its top two geopolitical opponents.

This isn’t what should be happening. What should be happening is diplomacy, de-escalation and detente, with the ultimate goal being a world where governments work together for the good of everyone. There’s no valid reason that can’t happen.

It’s usually possible to de-escalate tense situations just by talking it through. It can happen between global powers, it can happen in police interactions, and it can happen if a mentally ill person accidentally wanders into your home.


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Featured image via Adobe Stock.