Coercive threats, in their definition, generally resolve around relatively minor disputes where nuclear usage would be overkill given the stakes, the international costs (via sanctions or military response) are likely too high to be worth a relatively small gain, and signaling nuclear resolve remains difficult. While that may be the case now, they do point out that these international norms and repercussions may not always exist, and it is not hard to imagine a world where the military utility of nuclear weapons outweighs the cost of their usage.5
Examining the historical record quantitatively, Sechser and Fuhrman look at the effectiveness of compellent threats by nuclear and nonnuclear states.6 Through their analysis, they determine that nuclear states have no better success rate than nonnuclear states in issuing successful compellent threats or in territorial negotiations. While their quantitative analysis shows that nuclear states do not have a better success rate than nonnuclear states in coercive diplomacy, their first set of analyses does not directly measure the success rate of nuclear threats. To account for this, Sechser and Fuhrmann conducted a detailed analysis of the 19 cases of explicit nuclear threats throughout the nuclear era, ranging from nuclear alerts to overt nuclear threats. Again, they find success in only 10 of the 19 cases studied which, although higher than the success rate for general compellent threats, does not demonstrate much coercive advantage for nuclear weapons. Through their analysis, they additionally expose some broader definitional and signaling issues. In one particularly illustrative case of failed coercion, President Nixon deployed nuclear bombers to signal resolve against North Korea, but that signal that was totally missed by both the Soviet Union and North Korea. They also identify that of their 19 nuclear threat cases, a good number of them could be viewed as a deterrent success, vice a coercive action. The most significant of these cases was the Cuban Missile Crisis, commonly viewed as validating nuclear coercion but that could also be seen as a deterrent and bargaining success.
Additionally, Sechser and Fuhrmann acknowledge that many leaders believe, at least at first, that they have gained some coercive benefits from nuclear weapons. While the case of Pakistan demonstrates nuclear powers may learn that nuclear weapons have limitations, that does not necessarily mean a young nuclear power will not initially act aggressively. The authors make a compelling case that nuclear coercion is no more effective than nonnuclear coercion, but that does not mean the transition period until new nuclear states learn their coercive limitations will not be dangerous. Thus, a note of caution is in order since just because none of the nuclear states to date have used nuclear weapons in a coercive attempt, that does not mean future ones will not.
Despite those criticisms, this study opens a relatively neglected sector of nuclear scholarship and many promising avenues for future research. A variation of this study would be to compare the utility of nuclear coercion for conventionally weak and conventionally strong states, since for a conventionally weak state (for example, North Korea) nuclear weapons may not be redundant. Another relevant research topic would be to determine if the coercive utility of nuclear weapons changes as nuclear weapons change in size or precision, since nuclear overkill was one of their causal mechanisms. Even though nuclear coercion is not effective in the scenarios they analyzed, that does not mean it is without utility under changing conditions.
5. An important caveat is that this is only true today because in most coercive situations nuclear weapons are largely redundant to conventional forces and because the overkill caused by nuclear usage in a low-stakes coercive situation would undoubtedly invoke significantinternational backlash.
Although deterrence remains vital, current policy and scholarly debates about nuclear weapons tend explicitly or implicitly to revolve around coercion. It is said that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it will be able to impose its will on its neighbors; that Russia is using nuclear threats to coerce its neighbors and NATO; that the United States needs to augment its nuclear arsenal to restore its international power; and so on. In these situations and others, deterrence also could be at play. A state could intervene in neighboring states and create new facts on the ground, as Russia did in Ukraine, because victims would be deterred from resisting for fear of triggering escalation that could lead to nuclear use. Sechser and Fuhrmann assess these arguments as part of their overall project.
The results contradict conventional wisdom. Of the 210 compellent threats in the data set, nuclear-weapon states succeeded just 10 times. Indeed, nuclear-armed states, whether they made nuclear threats or not, were less successful at coercion than states without nuclear weapons: 20 percent of the time versus 32 percent. Further, having a nuclear monopoly over the state one is trying to coerce provided statistically no advantage. To the contrary, nuclear monopolists prevailed just 16 percent of the time, compared to the 33 percent success rate of states without nuclear weapons.
In chapter 4, the authors ran a different set of regressions, analyzing 348 territorial disputes between 1919 and 1995. These disputes may or may not have involved the making of explicit coercive demands. The question is whether nuclear-armed states extracted concessions in negotiations over territorial disputes at a higher rate than non-nuclear-armed states and whether they succeeded more in gaining disputed territory after using force. The analysis shows that possessors of nuclear weapons do not win territorial concessions at a higher rate than non-nuclear-armed states (35 percent versus 36 percent).
Sechser and Fuhrmann respond effectively to each of these points. The few, most dangerous nuclear crises on which scholars often focus may themselves be more anomalous than others. Including and examining nonnuclear crises provide a useful basis for comparison, much as studies of medicinal drugs wisely compare the effects of placebos with the effects on subjects given the drug. Including disputes that did not involve overt nuclear threats helps assess the argument that the possession of nuclear weapons creates a background effect even when specific nuclear threats are not made. Regarding the coding of cases, Sechser and Fuhrmann have made their data set openly available and invited others to review it, recode cases, and run their own regressions.
In these historical analyses, as in their statistical analyses, the authors display great methodological care. They recognize that governmental records and memoirs may reflect more or less than the truth. Memoirists, of course, are inclined to make themselves look good and their adversaries not so much. Early in the nuclear age, memoirists tended to exaggerate the impact nuclear weapons had on events. For example, U.S. President Harry Truman, in his memoirs, suggested that his threat to drop the bomb compelled Soviet leaders to withdraw their troops from Iran in 1946. Yet, Truman never made such a threat. As the taboo against initiating use of nuclear weapons has strengthened, memoirists tend to downplay or omit nuclear threats they signaled when in office. Classification requirements no doubt precluded then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger from mentioning what he and President Richard Nixon did during the so-called madman nuclear alert in 1969, but it is difficult to imagine he was eager to discuss the episode. Governmental records are not immune from artifice either.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to imagine that high-level policymakers in any country will read this book or any book like it. Even if they did read and draw the proper cautionary conclusions, every nuclear crisis is new. Knowledge of the historical record and probabilities that may be derived from it will not prevent decision-makers from concluding that a new crisis is different. What rarely worked in the past might well work now. This possibility heightens the importance of reinforcing the taboo against first use of nuclear weapons because, of any single variable Sechser and Fuhrmann cite in explaining the difficulty of nuclear coercion, the most important is the sense of the international cost that would be imposed on the actors who use nuclear weapons first.
Dr. Sechser's research interests include coercive diplomacy, nuclear security, political violence, and foreign policy. He is coauthor of the book Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy (Cambridge University Press, 2017), and his research has appeared in academic journals such as International Organization, the American Journal of Political Science, International Studies Quarterly, the Journal of Conflict Resolution, and the Non-Proliferation Review. His writing on policy issues has been published in media outlets such as the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and the Christian Science Monitor, and he regularly consults for several government and military agencies. He is also the principal investigator of the Program on Strategic Stability Evaluation, a multi-university working group studying the effects of nuclear weapons and emerging technologies on international security. His work has been supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Stanton Foundation, and the U.S. Air Force.
Todd S. Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann have written an essential book on nuclear coercion. In it, they show beyond doubt that nuclear weapons are not reshaping the political map. On average across past crises, countries that possess these weapons are about as successful at coercing their adversaries as countries that do not.
The authors address a strikingly broad range of specific questions to establish their point. Are nuclear armed states more likely to get their way in crises? Are these states more successful when they face adversaries that have fewer nuclear weapons or do not have nuclear weapons at all? Are nuclear states greater risk takers who are more willing to demonstrate their willingness to engage military forces? Are they more successful at wringing territorial concessions? Are they more likely to use military force generally? In every case, the answer is no. Thus, the limited coercive record of nuclear powers is not the result of their selecting themselves into more crises where the conditions for success are less favorable. Territorial disputes are a particular focus because these are thought to be the most likely to escalate and thus perhaps those in which the nuclear factor may be most salient. Sechser and Fuhrmann have looked high and low and any place a coercive effect of nuclear weapons might go. They show that it just isn't there, at least not in the types of disputes in which states regularly engage. 2b1af7f3a8