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?

“Die, Dog”. Edward von Lõngus graffiti in Palamuse, Estonia.
“Die, Dog”. Edward von Lõngus graffiti in Palamuse, Estonia. Photo: Private archive of Maria Mälksoo.

RITUAL DETERRENCE 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 mnemopolitical deterrence in Eastern Europe.




The goal of the project is to foster the understanding of ritual action in international politics through the case of deterrence. Empirically, the project pursues systematic cross-cultural and cross-domain research on deterrence as a multi-modal social practice. In delivering a new description of the practice of deterrence and an overhaul of the theory of deterrence, the project seeks to offer a comprehensive rethinking of the performance, credibility and the presumed effect of deterrence. Tracing and historicising the interaction ritual chains of deterrence will generate crucial knowledge about how deterrence performances enact and legitimise political communities.

RITUAL DETERRENCE aims to provide a systematic, sociological and comparative research on deterrence as a social practice across different dimensions (military, political-diplomatic, legislative) and types of deterrence (conventional, nuclear, cyber, hybrid) on crucial contemporary (NATO-Russia, US-Russia, US-China; memory laws in Eastern Europe) and historical cases (NATO-Warsaw Pact).

The study combines discourse and practice analysis with expert interviews, participant observation of military exercises and wargaming, encompassing both direct and extended deterrence along traditional and emerging domains of deterrence. Data will be collected through in-depth interviews with experts and practitioners (diplomats, military, and policy-makers). There will be participant observation of summits and bilateral meetings, large-scale military exercises, public ceremonies, force posture shifts, military training and war simulations, content analysis of contextual data. In addition, there will be discourse analysis of pertinent documentation, debates and archival evidence.










ERC RITUAL DETERRENCE Inaugural Workshop with the Advisory Board, University of Copenhagen, 12-13 Oct 2023

Maria Mälksoo participates at the 16th EISA Pan-European Conference on International Relations (EISA PEC2023), University of Potsdam, Germany, 5-9 Sept 2023:

1) Invited speaker at the main plenary session ‘Democratizing the construction of future orders’;
2) Convenor and speaker at the roundtable ‘Authors Meet Critics: Handbook on the Politics of Memory’;
3) ‘Ritual and the limits of the everyday’, co-authored paper with Jorg Kustermans in the panel ‘The Practice Turn in IR and Its Critics’;
4) Invited contributor to the roundtable ‘Let’s talk about war!’;
5) Invited contributor to the roundtable ‘Wartime Heterarchy -- Exploring the Nodes and Layers of the West-Russia-China relations’. 

Maria Mälksoo’s invited lecture ’What's Deterrence Got to Do with Ritual? Tales from the Eastern Flank of NATO, at the PhD Summer School in Economics and Management, Political Science, Law and Public Administration, a partnership between University of Tartu, Tallinn University of Technology, Estonian University of Life Sciences, Estonian Business School, Tallinn University and Bank of Estonia, Pühajärve, Estonia, 27-29 June 2023. 

Maria Mälksoo’s keynote ’NATO's New Front: Allied Deterrence Goes East’ at the workshop ’Critical Perspectives on NATO’, Newcastle University, United Kingdom, 25-26 May 2023

Maria Mälksoo’s presentation ’The long and winding road to an ERC Consolidator grant’ at the University of Copenhagen Faculty of Social Sciences Grant Day 2023, Copenhagen, 10 May 2023

Maria Mälksoo’s invited guest lecture ‘NATO and deterrence’ at the CEU/Invisible University (online), 30 Mar 2023. 

Maria Mälksoo participates at the ISA Annual Convention 2023, Montréal, Quebec, Canada, 15-18 March 2023:

1) Writing and Publishing Practices: Rethinking Conventional Wisdoms and Cultivating Alternative Conversations: invited RT participant (organised by ISA Professional Development Committee);
2) HIST Distinguished Scholar Panel Honouring Beate Jahn: invited RT participant (organised by Historical International Relations section);
3) Writing Deterrence Differently: paper presented at the panel 'The Ritual Moment in International Relations');
4) Defending Memory: Exploring the Relationship between Mnemonical In/security and Crises in Global Politics (panel discussant) 

Maria Mälksoo presents a paper ’The Sorcery of Leaving Something to Chance: Ritual Action in International Security Politics’ at the CMS Research Day, University of Copenhagen, 27 Feb 2023.

Mälksoo’s talk ‘The Logic of Ritual Action in International Security Politics’ at the University of Gothenburg seminar on international politics

Mälksoo’s invited lecture ‘Deterrence by Other Means: The International Politics of Domestic Memory Laws’ in the NORMEMO series, University of Tromsø, Norway

Mälksoo at the Genealogies of Memory Roundtable, Warsaw, Poland

Mälksoo at the IMAGINE Conference, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Mälksoo’s keynote ‘The Looking Glass War: Memory and Identity Politics in Russia’s War on Ukraine’ at the 33rd Meeting of the German Peace Psychology Forum, Philipps University Marburg, Germany

Mälksoo at the ISA Global International Studies (GIRS) “Situation Room” on the Russia-Ukraine War

Mälksoo at the EISA PEC2022, Panteion University, Athens, Greece

















The symbolic space of the sea: mythologising a nation, performing an alliance
Mälksoo, Maria, 26 Jul 2022, The Sea and International Relations. de Carvalho, B. & Leira, H. (eds.). Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceeding › Book chapter › Research › peer-review.

A ritual approach to deterrence: I am, therefore I deter

Mälksoo, Maria, Mar 2021, In: European Journal of International Relations. 27, 1, p. 53-78 25 p.

Contribution to journal › Journal article › peer-review.

Ritual Reverence to Deterrence in Cyberspace
Mälksoo, Maria, 15 Feb 2021, 3 p. Brussels : EU Cyber Direct.

Other contribution › Commissioned.

Rituals of world politics: on (visual) practices disordering things

Aalberts, T., Kurowska, X., Leander, A. & Mälksoo, Maria, 1 Sep 2020, In: Critical Studies on Security. 8, 3, p. 240-264 24 p.

Contribution to journal › Journal article › peer-review.









RITUAL DETERRENCE will host two post-doctoral scholars for 4 years each and a PhD student (for 3 years). The team will be recruited by September 2023.

Deadline for applications: 2 April 2023
Postdoctoral position in Extended Nuclear Deterrence During the Cold War /ERC RITUAL DETERRENCE
Read more about the position and apply

Deadline for applications: 2 April 2023
Postdoctoral position in US-China Deterrence Politics in the post-Cold War Era /ERC RITUAL DETERRENCE
Read more about the position and apply

Deadline for applications: 1 March 2023
PhD scholarship at the Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen (UCPH)/ /ERC RITUAL DETERRENCE
Read more about the position and apply



Prof. Thierry Balzacq, Sciences Po, Center for International Studies, Paris, France

Dr Xymena Kurowska, Central European University, Department of International Relations, Vienna, Austria

Dr Jorg Kustermans, University of Antwerp, Department of Political Science, Antwerp, Belgium

Dr Amir Lupovici, Tel Aviv University, School of Political Science, Government and International Affairs, Tel Aviv, Israel

Prof. Jennifer Mitzen, Ohio State University, Department of Political Science, Columbus, Ohio, USA

Prof. Iver B. Neumann, Fridtjof Nansens Institute, Oslo, Norway

Prof. Juha A. Vuori, Tampere University, Faculty of Management and Business, Tampere, Finland

Prof. Harald Wydra, University of Cambridge, POLIS and St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, UK





Funded by

European Research Council

RITUAL DETERRENCE is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant (ERC-2021-COG)
Project number: 101043468
Project period: 2022-2027

Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Research Council. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.


Principal Investigator

Dr. Maria Mälksoo
Associate Professor.
Department of Political Science
Øster Farimagsgade 5, Building 4, 2nd floor, office 04.2.34A
Mail: maria.malksoo@ifs.ku.dk
Phone: +45 35 33 11 57