Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy- Book Review


In Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy, Todd S. Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann create both a thorough qualitative and meticulous quantitative analytical study on the practicality and effectiveness of using nuclear weapons for coercive diplomacy. Sechser and Fuhrmann believe that there exists a growing consensus between nuclear scholars, or, as the authors have dubbed them, members of the Nuclear Coercionist school, who are under the impression that “countries armed with large nuclear arsenals can bully other states into submission by raising the prospect of large nuclear punishment.” However, Sechser and Fuhrmann, self-proclaimed members of the Nuclear Scepticism school, advance the hypothesis that nuclear-armed states are in fact not better at coercion than their non-nuclear counterparts. They argue that in the vast majority of cases conventional weapons have sufficient capabilities, that the political and economic costs of deploying nuclear weapons are incredibly severe, and that the stakes are rarely high enough to justify nuclear weapons. Thus, the threat of deploying nuclear weapons simply becomes not credible. To test this hypothesis the authors break it down into manageable subproblems by asking more specific questions such as, but not limited to, “do nuclear weapons make coercive threats more effective?”Do nuclear arsenals give states advantage in wringing territorial concessions?”“Do nuclear arsenals influence military escalation?”and finally, “are nuclear states more engaged in nuclear risk taking during crises than their non-nuclear counterparts?”. To address these sub-hypotheses the authors use a two-pronged approach by conducting “statistical analysis to identify broad trends in nuclear coercion” and by discussing “history’s most serious coercive nuclear crises”. 

The strengths of the book lie in its historical unprecedentedness, its rigorous analytical approach, and its transparency. First, it is historically unprecedented because there had yet to be a book that discusses the issue of nuclear coercion at its core and in such depth. Nuclear diplomacy theory is mainly focused on the deterrence aspect and its coercive potential is not as thoroughly debated. There have been prominent nuclear authors, such as Robert Pape and Thomas Schelling, that have written on the utility of nuclear coercion. But this book is the first work that relies on large data sets and a large amount of qualitative case studies, rather than in-depth research of merely a handful nuclear crises case studies, to make cohesive arguments. Consequently, the book is a solid addition to nuclear coercion theory.

 Second, debates regarding geopolitical topics often revolve around intellectuals using case studies to refute or corroborate existing theories, rather than letting the (large amounts of) data decide and create theories, rules, or observations out of the emerging trends. Sechser and Fuhrmann don’t take such an approach, and using different datasets create a dispassionate, empirically grounded argument to test their hypothesis, which is retrospectively strengthened by qualitative case studies. The studies  used, such as the Militarized Compellent Threats dataset, are exhaustive and carefully picked so that the multivariate regressions are statistically sound and provide grounds to draw solid conclusions from. 

Third, the strongest quality of the book is the complete transparency the authors demonstrate throughout their thought and decision-making processes. For example, in the chapter Roadmap for Part II Sechser and Fuhrmann give a very comprehensive set of arguments against and in favor of statistical analysis so that the reader can evaluate for themselves whether they think such an analysis is a useful tool to tackle the hypothesis. Later, the authors provide their own thought process and arguments as to why they have chosen to use this type of analysis despite the existing counterarguments against such a method. This transparency of showing the reader the authors’ thought processes is incredibly consistent throughout the book and is used in every single chapter to explain the choices Sechser and Fuhrmann make. This is an extremely honest and clever way of supporting their claims without imposing themselves onto the reader because it leaves room for the reader to be critical with the authors’ methodology since they fully understand the academic choices made and the thought processes behind these choices. To illustrate this point further, in the chapter Roadmap for Part III, the authors explain how the qualitative side of the book, namely chapters 5 and 6, addresses the quantitative side’s deficiencies. The quantitative chapters of the book show that nuclear powers are indeed not more effective at coercive diplomacy compared to non-nuclear states. Chapters 5 and 6 add to the quantitative analysis by explaining that the weak performance of nuclear states in coercive diplomacy has to do with either the nuclear skepticism theory or possible exogenous factors; and qualitative analysis can test for this. Furthermore, the case studies in these chapters can explain the outliers from the quantitative models, thus giving a more salient conclusion. As the authors explain, some nuclear crises are given more importance than others by academics and this way the authors can test how nuclear skepticism theory fares in these cases.

Aside from its plentiful merits, the book has several weaknesses: it focuses solely on past and present geopolitical realities as opposed to thinking about potential future crises, its nuclear brinkmanship argument is weak, and the book is sometimes guilty of confusing correlation with causation. The book builds its case on past and present geopolitical realities that nuclear weapons are rarely a probable solution for the coercer because the resolve of the coercing actors is never high enough. This is the case because coercion usually revolves around a policy change or territorial dispute, often something the coercer can still live without. Hence, nuclear coercion does not work. However, the book does not address possible future scenarios that can seriously impact the stakes for the coercer. For example, vital primary resources could make nuclear coercion a possible effective form of diplomacy. Imagine a future scenario where China, after  constructing a string of dams, has exclusive control over the Tibetan Plateau, “the source of the largest collection of international rivers, including the Mekong, the Brahmaputra, the Yangtse and the Yellow river.” India, likely already to become water scarce in the near future, is dependent on much of the water from the Himalayas who’s rivers are the tool to allocate water among its citizens. In the event of a conflict between the two nations, and China severely slowing down the stream of these rivers, India’s people will be suffering extreme water shortages. The need for water, the most important resource for sustaining human life, could make way for very credible nuclear coercion in the future. Such a reality seems more plausible with climate change causing increased droughts and water scarcity issues. The authors are limited by their reliance on precedent and fail to conceive of future situations that could lead nations to employing strategies of nuclear coercion.

Second, the authors argue that nuclear brinkmanship does not work because there are examples of leaders, namely Nixon and Khrushchev, following “the brinkmanship script” without achieving their goals. The leaders’ policies of nuclear signalling were never picked up by their adversarial counterparts rendering the nuclear brinkmanship ineffective, according to Sechser and Fuhrmann. The writers’ prime example of this is Khrushchev moving nuclear missiles north of Berlin during the 1958-1958 Berlin Crisis. They explain that Khrushchev moved the missiles covertly and failed to alert his American counterpart resulting in no reactions from the United States and hence a failed attempt at nuclear brinkmanship. This is a weak argument at best, because it does not undermine the theory of nuclear brinkmanship, instead it explains that signalling is difficult. Although the latter is indeed true, as the authors have shown in several examples in the book, it does not equate to nuclear brinkmanship not being feasible. Furthermore, the fog of war regarding troop movements, resource extraction, and infrastructure building is decreasing because of expanding and improving surveillance technology and exponentially new available signal intelligence. Consequently, nuclear signalling will become much easier over time and can make nuclear brinkmanship a much more viable policy strategy. 

Third, as social science is an amazingly complex interwoven set of variables giving altering sets of outcomes, it is incredibly difficult to establish causation between variables and effects. The book tries to do this but either leaves out or glosses over certain key aspects of international relations and nuclear diplomacy, which should have been addressed. For example, the authors show that nuclear states are not more successful, on average, in making compellent threats than their non-nuclear counterparts and use this to strengthen their argument. However, the quality of cases is not taken into account. Nuclear states could gain much more favorable outcomes during regular diplomacy because of their nuclear arsenal, which would mean more of their core interests are accounted for. As a result, nuclear states might throw their weight around for interests that are either harder to obtain or less important. This is not reflected in the data and shows how quantitative analysis in social sciences can be misleading.

Overall, the book makes some strong arguments against the effectiveness of nuclear coercion and brings up  hard-hitting questions for staunch nuclear coercionists. The combination of quantitative and qualitative analyses complement each other well and build a strong case for nuclear skepticism. However, when looking below the surface the authors can’t seem to refute the underlying logic of nuclear coercion and remain stuck in explaining the ineffectiveness of nuclear coercion in specific situational contexts. The research, scope, and nicheness of the book make it an attribution to nuclear diplomacy theory but its, at times, feeble logic does not make it a future mainstay.


Sechser and Fuhrmann, Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy.

Snyder, “Water In Crisis – Spotlight India.”

Vidal, “China and India ‘water Grab’ Dams Put Ecology of Himalayas in Danger.”

Moos Hulsebosch
Moos Hulsebosch
Moos Hulsebosch is currently pursuing a MPhil degree in Latin American Studies and has previously obtained a MA in international Security at Sciences Po Paris focusing in Diplomacy and Intelligence. He has knowledge on geopolitics, Latin American politics, China’s foreign affairs, grand strategies, and United States’ politics and foreign affairs.