Michael KreponClapton & Co. on Deterrence

No section in my shoeboxes filled with 4×6 cards is fatter than the one devoted to nuclear deterrence. Lots of smart people have offered conflicting assertions on this topic. Everybody’s right, so far, since nuclear weapons haven’t been used in warfare since 1945. Conversely, as Eric Clapton has sagely noted, “Nobody’s right till somebody’s wrong.” Slowhand’s song, ‘It’s in the Way That You Use It,’ belongs in the deterrence canon.

In contrast, nuclear weapons have not proven to be that helpful in deterring conventional warfare, including two instances of limited wars between states possessing nuclear weapons. Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann argue that nuclear weapons are even less useful for compellence.

After assessing 200 cases, using methodology that will help with their academic advancement but that baffles me, they conclude in the Winter 2012 issue of International Organization that,

Compellent threats are more likely to be effective under two conditions: first, if a challenger can credibly threaten to seize the item in dispute; and second, if enacting the threat would entail few costs to the challenger. Nuclear weapons, however, meet neither of these conditions. They are neither useful tools of conquest nor low-cost tools of punishment.

Another reason for failures in deterrence and compellence is that decision makers are often in the dark about their adversaries. These lacunae are usually filled in with policy preferences. Here’s a sampler of some of my favorite quotes on deterrence, including a few I’ve no doubt used in previous posts:

“In its most general form, deterrence is simply the persuasion of one’s opponent that the costs and/or risks of a given course of action he might take outweigh its benefits.” — Alexander George and Richard Smoke (1974)

“When dealing with the absolute weapon, arguments based on relative advantage lose their point.” – William T.R. Fox (1946)

“Deterrence after all depends on a subjective feeling which we are trying to create in the opponent’s mind, a feeling compounded of respect and fear.” — Bernard Brodie (1959)

“The very purpose of threat and counter-threat is to prevent the test of actual performance from taking place.” — Hans Morganthau (1964)

“’Assured destruction’ fails to indicate what is to be destroyed; but then ‘assured genocide’ would reveal the truth too starkly.” — Fred Charles Iklé (1973)

“If [deterrence] were really stable… it would cease to deter. If the probability of nuclear weapons going off were zero, they would not deter anybody.” – Kenneth Boulding (1986)

“The [first] Persian Gulf war showed that if you are going to take on the United States, you had better have a nuclear weapon.” — K. Sundarji (1993)

“Our leadership will evaporate if we turn deterrence into a hollow incantation.” — Alexander Haig (1990)

“Deterrence is easier to contrive than most strategists have believed.” — Kenneth Waltz (1990)


  1. Janet Simons (History)

    I believe it’s the Winter 2013 issue of International Organization.

  2. Magpie (History)

    “The [second] Persian Gulf war showed that if you are going to take on the United States, you’d better embrace the tactics of asymmetrical warfare, and bleed them until they get sick of it and go home. Preferably in someone else’s country…” Magpie (2013)

  3. Denis (History)

    MK, not classic Clapton, but good. There is no such thing as bad Clapton. I would be fascinated to know how you made the association. Anyone who appreciates Clapton should be too long in the tooth to be making recondite associations like that. “I shot the sheriff” would be all I would be capable of.

    Ever the skeptic, I read Sechser & Furhmann to be saying, “There’s no point in trying to use the ole’ nuke extortion gambit to get Iran to turn up the lights, because it ain’t gonna’ work according to our data.”

    Their choice of examples is indicative of ulterior objectives:

    “The debate continues today, as policymakers speculate whether nascent nuclear states such as Iran will be able to bully their neighbors if they acquire nuclear weapons.”

    As a clarifying note: By “if they acquire” S&F must be referring to Iran and not to “neighbors.” Grammatically the “they” refers to the antecedent noun “neighbors.”

    Pedantic grammar aside, the more pertinent question is why would they pose an example in uncertain future tense when they could use a real-life example posed in present tense? They would simply need to re-write that line as:

    “The debate continues today, as policymakers speculate whether a covert, illegal nuclear power like Israel can continue to bully its neighbors into refraining from enriching uranium even within the scope of the NPT.” I mean, this is the point of the article: whether or not the use of nukes as an agent of extortion, as opposed to deterrence, is efficacious.

    The huge flaw in this analysis in my view is that it ignores the most common form of “nuclear compellance.” It’s not nuke states using nuke threats to back up coercive demands. It’s nuke states using implicit nuke threats to leverage out-of-the-blue aggression by conventional weapons, and we’re back to Israel, a master of this tactic.

    Israel doesn’t use its nukes to back up a demand; it attacks out of the blue knowing that the target won’t retaliate out of fear of getting radiated. Examples: Osirak reactor in 1981, Deir ez-Zor reactor in 2007, Mavi Marmara in 2010, Syria last week, the continuing invasions of Lebanese airspace even as I type this – none of these illegal acts of war could have or would have been carried out against a country with nuclear parity.

    I guess you could add all of the US’s acts of aggression to this list. It’s implicit threat of nuclear reprisal gives the US pretty much cart blanche to attack any country it wants (save two) so long as the country getting beat up on doesn’t have a big nuclear brother. No need to make demands, as with Israel, the US policy of “nuclear compellance” via nuclear-backed conventional aggression seems to work just fine judging by how it’s used on such a depressingly regular basis.

    And this line caught my eye: “However, we cannot evaluate this question empirically: to our knowledge, no leader has ever explicitly threatened the use of nuclear weapons in support of a compellent threat.”

    Well, . . . hang on. There’s the interesting three-party example of Party A threatening Party B that it (Party A) will nuke Party C if Party B doesn’t do what Party A tells Party B to do. I am referring to, of course, Meir’s very explicit threat to the US in 1973 that Israel would nuke Cario if the US didn’t take out Egypt’s MiGs.

    Another example that apparently lies outside the knowledge of S&F is Khrushchev’s famous letter to JFK of October 24, 1962 saying the blockade constituted “an act of aggression propelling human kind into the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war”. That is certainly one leader explicitly threatening use of nukes in support of a “compellant” threat. How much more explicit can it get?

    Finally, I wonder about the words “compellant” and “compellance”. Can’t find them in the dictionary. Did S&F make them up or are they terms of the art? Would love to see Eric work them into a lyric in 4/4 time.

    • krepon (History)


      My all-time favorite Clapton: Let it Rain. Love the guitar pyrotechnics. I’m also a sucker for his compact, understated forms, like Badge and I Can’t Stand It. Must admit though, that his concerts in the last five years or so have been pretty formulaic. I doubt if I’ll see him again.

      As for Israel, I don’t see much conviction in the belief that compellance, a la Schelling, works. The UN and IAEA don’t function very well in this regard, and Washington tends to be a reluctant party. Thus the Israeli strikes against nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria.

      The Iranian case is different in that it is much harder — and perhaps not possible to do “well” — solo, and hence Netanyahu’s periodically intense effort to lobby Washington to take the plunge.


  4. Todd Sechser (History)

    Denis, thanks for the feedback. A couple of thoughts, with the caveat that I speak for myself and not necessarily my coauthor.

    To summarize our article briefly: we investigate whether nuclear-armed states make more successful compellent threats. Schelling coined the term “compellence” to describe threats designed to provoke an adversary to act. Deterrent threats, by contrast, aim to prevent the adversary from acting. The key distinction is whether one wants the adversary to act (compellence) or abstain (deterrence).

    We argue that even if nuclear weapons are useful for deterrence (which, to be sure, is by no means obvious), they are not useful for compellence. We examined a dataset of more than 200 compellent threats and found that nuclear challengers were no more successful than nonnuclear challengers, even after controlling for other relevant factors (stakes, resolve, etc.). In other words, having nuclear weapons doesn’t make one’s compellent threats more effective.

    Denis raises two good questions.

    1. Can nuclear-armed states use force with impunity?

    Even if nuclear states don’t make more effective compellent threats, it could be the case that they can “attack out of the blue knowing that the target won’t retaliate out of fear of getting radiated,” as Denis suggests. This is an intriguing possibility, but unfortunately we did not have the data to address it. It could (and should) be done, but it wasn’t the focus of this article.

    That said, it would be strange if nuclear weapons don’t make compellent threats more effective but do deter target states from retaliating. When states reject threats from nuclear challengers, presumably they doubt that the challenger is willing to use nuclear weapons. Why would they suddenly believe the opposite? Further, why risk a war (by rejecting a demand) when you know that you won’t be able to fight, and therefore are certain to lose? I don’t doubt that nuclear states often use force, but I’m not convinced that their nuclear weapons prevent targets from retaliating.

    2. Has any leader ever made an explicit nuclear compellent threat?

    Not that I know of. Leaders have sometimes alluded to nuclear weapons using suggestive but imprecise language (“grave catastrophe” or some such thing), but I am unaware of any case in which a leader made a compellent threat and then stated outright “comply or we will attack you with nuclear weapons.” Undoubtedly leaders have tried to imply that nuclear weapons might be used, but their language generally is not so clear-cut.

    Denis suggests that Israel’s 1973 alert might have been one such case: during the darkest days of the Yom Kippur War, Golda Meir ordered the assembly of several nuclear weapons, prompting Nixon to initiate a month-long airlift to replace Israeli supplies and weapons. Nixon seems to have been influenced by worries about Israeli escalation, but I’m not aware of any explicit threat in this case. In any case, this is rather far afield from Schelling’s idea of compellence, which involves a threat of force against State X in order to make State X act.

    Even though explicit nuclear compellent threats are rare/nonexistent, a few studies argue that simply possessing nuclear weapons — even without mentioning them — constitutes a perpetual implicit threat that makes coercive diplomacy more effective. Our study shows that this is not true, at least in the context of compellent threats.

    • Denis (History)

      Todd, thanks so much for responding to my confusion. I’m going to demonstrate here how deep that confusion is, and why.

      You note “imprecise language” used by powers to signal a potential of a nuke dust-up. Seems to me the whole field could use some semantic tightening-up.

      “Deterrence” for instance. You suggest it means “prevent the adversary from acting,” and no one with a half a brain would refute that, which gives me license to try.

      The issue is not deterrence generally, which is what your definition addresses, but nuclear deterrence, a subset. What is true of deterrence generally (preventing an action), is not necessarily true of nuclear deterrence (preventing an attack).

      I would define nuclear deterrence as the explicit or implicit threat of nuclear retaliation to dissuade an enemy from attacking.

      To my mind, your definition of preventing an enemy from “acting” is too broad and blurs the distinctions between nuclear deterrence and nuclear compllence.

      Threatening Iran with a nuclear attack to prevent them from closing Hormuz (i.e., prevent them from acting) would be deterrence generally, but would not be nuclear deterrence. It would be nuclear compellence even though an action is being prevented and not compelled. What is being compelled is the foregoing of an action, in legal lingo. The legal analogy of extortion can occur when the target is threatened with violence to make them do some act (pay up or we’ll break your knees) or to keep them from doing something (keep you mouth closed or the cat’s gonna’ get it).

      Threatening Iran with a nuclear reprisal to keep them from attacking would be nuclear deterrence. Threatening Iran with a nuclear attack to prevent them from obtaining HEU is nuclear compellance.

      I guess my point is that using nukes to force an enemy to take some action is nuclear compellence, but using nukes to force an enemy to refrain from taking some action is also compellence unless the prohibited action is attacking, in which case it becomes nuclear deterrence.

      The further confusion is over the meaning of “attacking.” With respect to the “attacking” that is prevented by the nuclear threat of retaliation, is that “attacking” restricted only to a nuclear attack?

      Can’t be, because your paper clearly discusses nuclear deterrence in the context of preventing conventional attacks. But some people see nuclear deterrence as essentially synonymous with MAD — a nuclear state dissuading another nuclear state from making a preemptive nuclear attack.

      When you think about it, “attacking” is really quite a complex concept in the context of what is being prevented by the nuclear threat. I can see at least 5 types of “attacking” in the definition of nuclear deterrence as dissuading an enemy from attacking. Let me restate the definition with each version of “attacking.”

      Nuclear deterrence is using the threat of nuclear retaliation to prevent a. . .
      1. . . . preemptive conventional strike by a nuclear enemy.
      2. . . . preemptive nuclear strike by a nuclear enemy. (MAD)
      3. . . . preemptive conventional strike by a non-nuclear enemy.
      4. . . . conventional response to a preemptive conventional strike made by the deterring party.
      5. . . . nuclear response to a preemptive conventional strike made by the deterring party.

      Each one of these definitions of the attack being deterred leads to a different conclusion as to whether deterrence “works.” Looking at Ward’s fascinating analysis on the failure of deterrence and the equally intriguing paper you and Matthew Furhmann, it’s easy to see how deep the semantic complexities are. Wherever complex semantics and complex human behavior meet, there’s bound to be a bog.

  5. Tom Nichols (History)

    Michael: I love the phrase “using methodology that will help with their academic advancement but that baffles me.” I have sat through many of these presentations — I knew Matt briefly at the Harvard MTA Project, and he’s a smart and nice fellow — but the insistence of doctoral committees and journals on comparative cases has gotten just ridiculous.

    In one case, I recall a presentation at the Kennedy School where a young scholar (now teaching) talked about why states choose nuclear doctrines, and used comparative cases going back to, like 1812 or something. I said: “I assume we’re only interested in the cases since, you know, 1945.” You’d think I’d have said: “Let’s do this in Pig Latin.”

    I don’t blame the young folks, who are responding to the demand signals being sent by their committees. But at this rate, we are going backwards: every dissertation or article seems to tells us *less* about deterrence than we knew 50 years ago.

    And the very first concert I was allowed to go to, in 1975, was Clapton. Opening act: Santana. General admission, Springfield, MA Civic Center, for $7. He was in his “I don’t give a crap” phase, so it was kinda dull.

  6. Bradley Laing (History)

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