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date: 21 September 2017

Nuclear Weapons in Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

This essay reviews academic research on the role of nuclear weapons in foreign policy. It begins by discussing the “Theory of the Nuclear Revolution,” which holds that nuclear weapons revolutionized world politics due to their overwhelming destructive capacity. The article then identifies several ways in which this theory has been challenged in scholarship. The article focuses in particular on four big debates in the literature on nuclear weapons and foreign policy: Does nuclear proliferation promote international peace and stability? Are nuclear weapons useful for coercive diplomacy? Do nuclear weapons make countries more assertive? How does nuclear strategy influence deterrence and security? After discussing these debates, the article concludes by calling for more research on the implications of dual-use nuclear technology for foreign policy and international security.

Keywords: nuclear weapons, nuclear proliferation, nuclear posture, deterrence, coercive diplomacy, strategy, foreign policy

Military technology has long been central to the study of international relations. Why do countries adopt military innovations? How does the spread of military capabilities influence international peace and stability? Many books and articles have addressed these questions by focusing on a diverse set of technologies including aircraft carriers, armored vehicles, battleships, cyberwar capabilities, and drones (e.g., Horowitz, 2010; Sechser & Saunders, 2010; Gartzke, 2013; Fuhrmann & Horowitz, 2017). One military technology—nuclear weapons—has received more attention in scholarship than any other.

The U.S. nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 transformed the study of international security. After learning about the Hiroshima attack, which instantly killed an estimated 80,000 people,1 the influential strategist Bernard Brodie said to his wife, “Everything that I have written is obsolete” (quoted in Kaplan, 1991, p. 10). Analysts and policymakers soon began trying to make sense of a world with such a terrifyingly destructive weapon. As the Cold War unfolded, the issue of strategy in the atomic age figured prominently in many books and articles. When the Soviet Union collapsed, some assumed that nuclear weapons were no longer relevant for world politics—and this view led to a decline in academic work on the subject. This trend was temporary, however. The Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests in 1998, North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, and the Iranian nuclear crisis served as reminders that nuclear issues were still exceedingly important in the post–Cold War era. During the last decade, there has been a sharp increase in nuclear weapons research among scholars.

This article reviews academic research on the political effects of nuclear weapons. It begins by discussing the so-called Theory of the Nuclear Revolution (hereafter TNR), which shaped thinking about nuclear weapons and strategy for many years. It then identifies several ways in which scholarship has challenged the TNR and discusses more recent trends in research on nuclear weapons. The focus here is on four big debates in the literature on nuclear weapons and foreign policy: Does nuclear proliferation promote international peace and stability? Are nuclear weapons useful for coercive diplomacy? Do nuclear weapons make countries more aggressive? How does nuclear strategy influence deterrence and security? After discussing these debates, the article concludes by identifying unanswered questions and avenues for future research.

Theory of the Nuclear Revolution

The notion that nuclear weapons alter the fabric of international politics is widely accepted (Gavin, 2012, p. 158). The TNR stems from a simple observation: nuclear weapons are tremendously destructive. In the aftermath of the Second World War, scientists, military leaders, and politicians focused on the sheer destructive capacity of nuclear weapons.

The famous Truman–Attlee–King statement of November 15, 1945, exemplifies the view that nuclear weapons revolutionized war: “We recognize that the application of recent scientific discoveries to the methods and practice of war has placed at the disposal of mankind means of destruction hitherto unknown” (Truman et al., 1945). Dunn (1946) echoes this sentiment: “[The nuclear bomb] was so far ahead of other weapons in destructive power as to threaten to reduce even the giants of yesterday to dwarf size … It was a revolutionary development which altered the basic character of war itself” (p. 4). It is not just that nuclear weapons could wipe out entire cities that made them unique—it is also the speed with which they could do so. As Brodie (1946) put it, “The power of the present bomb is such that any city in the world can be effectively destroyed by one to ten bombs” (p. 158) meaning it is possible to wipe out entire cities and industrial structures in a single day, a feat that would have been much more difficult before nuclear weapons.

The speed with which nuclear destruction can occur does not just make the weapon itself more shocking. Rather, it fundamentally changes the political process of war by centralizing the power to kill with a single individual, decreasing the amount of time leaders have to consider other options, and removing the human element from war once a nuclear attack is ordered (Schelling, 1966). Nuclear weapons also change the relationship between victors and losers. In the past, only victors had the power to hurt their adversaries once victory was achieved. In the nuclear era, both winners and losers in war have the power to hurt: “Nuclear weapons make it possible to do monstrous violence to the enemy,” Schelling (1966) writes, “without first achieving victory” (p. 22).

Defense against nuclear weapons is impossible, given their destructive power (Brodie, 1959, p. 225).2 In the pre-nuclear era, a state could mount an effective defense on the battlefield. But, as Kissinger (1957) wrote, in the nuclear era, “Even the strongest states were faced with the prospect that they might no longer be able, by their own strength, to save their cities from destruction” (pp. 4–5). When an opponent possesses nuclear weapons, a state cannot be safe from annihilation—regardless of its conventional military capabilities.

Rather than considering how to win wars—which was a central focus in the pre-nuclear era—strategists turned their attention to preventing superpower conflicts. As Brodie (1946) puts it in an oft-cited passage, “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them.” Schelling (1966) made a similar argument two decades later: “Military strategy can no longer be thought of, as it could be for some countries in some eras, as the science of military victory. It is now equally, if not more, the art of coercion, of intimidation and deterrence. The instruments of war are more punitive than acquisitive. Military strategy, whether we like it or not, has become the diplomacy of violence” (p. 34). Mirroring these sentiments, a central goal of scholarship in the nuclear era has been to consider the peacetime applications of atomic weapons for deterrence and coercion (e.g., George & Smoke, 1974; Waltz, 1981; Bueno de Mesquita & Riker, 1982; Powell, 1990).


Proponents of the TNR are united in the view that nuclear weapons have transformed international politics. Yet they do not always agree on how exactly the nuclear revolution changed interstate relations. Moreover, scholars often focus on some implications of nuclear proliferation while neglecting others. There is no single theory of the nuclear revolution from which universally agreed upon predictions follow. The clearest and most comprehensive discussion of the TNR’s implications, in our view, comes from Robert Jervis in his 1989 book The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution. It is important to reiterate, however, that proponents of the TNR may accept some of these predictions and reject others.3Schelling (1960, 1966), for example, could be classified as a TNR proponent, but he nonetheless emphasizes the ways in which countries can use nuclear arsenals for offensive purposes through brinkmanship, a view that others in the TNR school do not share. According to Jervis (1989, pp. 23–45), the TNR leads to five main implications:

  1. 1. Peace among superpowers. Given that nuclear weapons raise the costs of war, the TNR expects that superpowers armed with nuclear arsenals will not fight. Nuclear proliferation therefore promotes peace through deterrence.

  2. 2. Crises should be rare. Countries usually instigate military disputes because they believe that doing so will help them better achieve political goals. When an opponent possesses a nuclear arsenal, however, the prospects of prevailing in a crisis decline considerably. Anticipating this, countries should refrain from starting crises with nuclear-armed adversaries.

  3. 3. Changing the status quo is difficult. Nuclear weapons are useful for defensive purposes but may not be helpful for changing the status quo.4 The TNR expects that the status quo will generally persist.

  4. 4. Increase in bargaining tactics. It is difficult to use the threat of war to gain a political advantage when an opponent possesses nuclear weapons, since war in that case would be exceedingly costly. Credibility problems therefore loom large in the nuclear age. The TNR expects, then, that when states bargain in the presence of a nuclear shadow, they will be more likely to use commitment devices to demonstrate their resolve.

  5. 5. The nuclear balance is unrelated to political outcomes. Just one nuclear strike would have catastrophic consequences for the target. Thus, as long as a country has a survivable second strike capability, they can threaten to inflict considerable pain on an opponent. Having a greater number of nuclear weapons than an adversary does not provide an advantage in peacetime because nuclear superiority “cannot provide much assistance in terminating the war” (Jervis, 1989, p. 43). More often than not, based on the logic of the TNR, the balance of resolve determines the outcomes of crisis—not the balance of military power.

Although many accept the core tenets of the TNR, some of its propositions have been widely debated in scholarship, and scholars increasingly recognize that the superpower environment from which the TNR grew no longer characterizes the international system (e.g., Narang, 2014; Sechser & Fuhrmann, 2017). We focus on the implications of nuclear proliferation for (1) deterrence and stability, (2) coercive diplomacy, (3) foreign policy emboldenment, and (4) strategy. Debates in these areas have played a key role in shaping the literature on nuclear weapons over the last several decades. However, these are by no means the only ways in which nuclear proliferation affects international relations.

Deterrence and Stability

One of the most widely accepted tenets of the TNR is that nuclear weapons bolster stability by increasing the costs of war. This argument has become widely associated with the work of Kenneth Waltz, who represents a school of thought known as “nuclear optimism.”5 Nuclear optimists hold that states will be able to deter war once they possess a secure second strike capability. As Waltz (2008) put it, “Although the possibility of war remains, nuclear weapons have drastically reduced the probability of its being fought by the states that have them” (p. 291). Waltz argues there is almost no chance of major war among nuclear weapon states, and the gradual spread of nuclear weapons to other states should not be feared (and indeed should be welcomed). He suggests, for example, that Iran should get the bomb to balance against Israel and make the Middle East more stable (Waltz, 2012). Even new nuclear states, Waltz claims, will be driven by the same interests and therefore exhibit the same rationality and control over nuclear weapons as the early nuclear weapon states.

The idea that nuclear weapons promote peace and stability finds support in much of the literature on nuclear deterrence published during the Cold War (e.g., Bueno de Mesquita & Riker, 1982; Jervis, 1989; Mearsheimer, 1990). However, more recent scholarship challenges this claim. The notion that nuclear proliferation is stabilizing has been attacked from several angles.

Assumptions of Nuclear Deterrence

The notion that nuclear weapons bolster military deterrence hinges on several key assumptions. In an influential debate with Waltz, Scott Sagan underscores three of these assumptions (Sagan & Waltz, 1995). First, for nuclear proliferation to be stabilizing, there can be no preventive war during the transition to a secure second strike capability. Second, both sides must have a second strike capability. Third, nuclear arsenals must not be prone to accidental nor unauthorized use. Drawing on organization theory, Sagan calls these assumptions into question. Like other so called “nuclear pessimists,” he suggests that while leaders intend to behave rationally, key barriers to rationality may impede the development of a secure second strike capability (see also Sagan, 1993).

In particular, Sagan (1994) argues that large organizations, such as states, have “inherent limits on calculation and coordination and use simplifying mechanisms to understand and respond to uncertainty in the outside world” and that “the process by which objectives are chosen and pursued is intensely political” (p. 51). These two ideas—that states function based on bounded rationality and that the choice among competing goals is intensely political—implies that even though leaders likely anticipate high costs from war with nuclear states, they may not always behave in a self-interested, rational manner (Sagan 1994, p. 50).

According to Sagan, the asymmetry between expected interests and state behavior is likely to be especially large for new nuclear weapon states, many of whom rely on strong professional military organizations for nuclear command and control. These organizations, “because of common biases, inflexible routines, and parochial interests—display organizational behaviors that are likely to lead to deterrence failures and deliberate or accidental war” (Sagan, 1994, p. 47). The organizational structure of new and future nuclear weapon states is thus expected to negate interests for stability and cost reduction. Although new nuclear states may not make the same mistakes as their predecessors, they are nonetheless likely to make serious errors that lead to accidents and to the failure of nuclear deterrence (Sagan, 1994, p. 157). Although Sagan offers the most comprehensive argument in the nuclear pessimist school, he is not alone in focusing on the dangers of miscalculation, command and control problems, and the possibility of inadvertent war and accidents in nuclear states (see also Feaver, 1992a, 1992b; Blair, 1993).

More recently, Lieber and Press (2017) have mounted a challenge to the survivability assumption embedded in the TNR. It is much more difficult to develop a survivable second strike capability, they argue, than the TNR implies. This is because improvements in both remote sensing and weapon accuracy over time have made it easier for states to carry out “counterforce” attacks that cripple the adversary’s ability to respond. Countries with nuclear arsenals, therefore, are not nearly as secure the conventional wisdom suggests, based on this line of thinking. Long and Green (2015, p. 65) reach a similar conclusion: even submarines and mobile missiles—technologies that are widely seen as invulnerable to a disarming first strike—may not ensure that states have a reliable second strike. More generally, research by Lieber and Press (2017) and Long and Green (2015) suggests that nuclear powers—especially the Soviet Union and the United States—sought to escape mutually assured destruction (MAD). Nuclear weapons, therefore, may not induce stalemate, as the TNR implies.

The Nuclear Taboo

Other scholars question the idea that nuclear weapons promote stability on the grounds that a “taboo” on nuclear first use renders them poor instruments of deterrence. Tannenwald (1999) argues that nuclear weapons are seen as abhorrent, which results in inhibitions and constraints on their use. The normative prohibitions on nuclear use, according to this line of thinking, limit the credibility of nuclear deterrence. Paul (2010) argues, by contrast, that the nonuse of nuclear weapons since 1945 amounts to a “tradition” rather than a “taboo.” The difference between a taboo and a tradition, he argues, is a matter of degree: “Traditions like the non-use norm are not so strong that humans accept them blindly to the degree they do for taboos” (Paul, 2010, p. 854). In this view, states might use nuclear weapons if the circumstances warrant doing so. In any case, to the extent that leaders believe that nuclear weapon use cannot be credibly threatened, the logic of deterrence weakens.

More recent work, however, casts doubt on whether normative prohibitions against nuclear weapons are strong enough to prevent nuclear use. Avey (2015) argues that leaders in non-nuclear weapon states do not discount the possibility of nuclear use by nuclear-armed opponents. Employing a survey experiment, Press et al. (2013) argue that the American public considers the military utility of nuclear weapons when forming opinions about nuclear use. Their analysis shows that Americans are largely against nuclear use if conventional and nuclear weapons offer the same benefits. However, if nuclear weapons offer greater effectiveness than conventional firepower, the public is more likely to approve of nuclear use. The authors take this as evidence that “the logic of consequences, not the logic of appropriateness, dominates in this issue area: Even when contemplating nuclear use options—where normative prohibitions are believed to be powerful—norms create only weak constraints on behavior” (Press et al., 2013, p. 3). These results imply that the norm against nuclear non-use is not as strong as has been previously argued, and may be weakened even further when leaders and political elites provide rhetorical cues to shape public opinion (Post & Sechser, 2016).

Lack of Empirical Evidence

Some scholars challenge the deterrence-related claims from the TNR on empirical grounds, arguing that history fails to support the claim that nuclear weapons lower the risk of major war. Mueller (2009), for example, argues that countries can often deter military conflict with conventional capabilities alone. He challenges the notion that nuclear weapons explain the long period of relative peace and stability following the Second World War. Rather, he argues the long peace emerged due to a variety of other factors, including war weariness, contentment with the status quo by the postwar victors, a fear of escalation, and a Soviet preference for lower levels of violence and warfare (see also Wilson, 2013). There is simply not enough evidence overall, according to Mueller (2009, p. 31), to substantiate the claim that nuclear weapons have revolutionized international politics.

In the last decade there has been a movement toward quantifying the debate about nuclear stability, with the goal of reaching more generalizable conclusions. This body of work has produced mixed findings (e.g., Asal & Beardsley, 2007; Gartzke & Jo, 2009; Rauchhaus, 2009; Horowitz, 2009; Sobek et al., 2012; Bell & Miller, 2015; Fuhrmann & Sechser, 2014b).6 Based on published empirical research, then, there is not yet consensus about the deterrent effects of nuclear weapons.

Role of Non-State Actors

In the post-9/11 world, scholars and policymakers are focusing more on potential nuclear instability arising from non-state actors. In particular, some scholars argue that if new nuclear states have inadequate command and control capabilities, it may be easier for terrorists to gain control of nuclear materials. Matthew Bunn, for example, argues that complacency over nuclear material control could permit terrorists to get materials from the former Soviet Union, or from nuclear reactors around the world (Bunn & Martin, 2009). Even if the TNR is correct about the stabilizing effects of nuclear proliferation on interstate relations, the spread of nuclear weapons is still dangerous, according to this line of thinking.

There is variation in the degree to which nuclear terrorism is seen as threatening in scholarship. Some analysts are relatively sanguine about this danger on the grounds that the barriers to nuclear terrorism are high. First, nuclear forensics and accountability make it likely that any nuclear use by non-state actors could be traced back to a state patron (Lieber & Press, 2013). Nuclear powers therefore have incentives to secure their own weapons and materials. Second, there is not clear evidence that terrorist groups are interested in using nuclear weapons, and even if they were, it is unlikely that a non-state actor would be capable of obtaining and deploying a nuclear weapon (Mueller, 2009).

Coercive Diplomacy

Schelling (1966) draws a distinction between deterrence and compellence. Whereas deterrent threats are designed to preserve the existing status quo, compellent threats are intended to change it. As Schelling (1966) put it, “The threat that compels rather than deters often requires that the punishment be administered until the other acts, rather than if he acts” (p. 70). Are nuclear weapons useful for offensive diplomatic purposes?

As discussed previously, the TNR holds that nuclear weapons usefully preserve the status quo but they do not allow states to engage in compellence more effectively. The main reason, according to the TNR, is that states face bargaining disadvantages when they seek to use military threats to compel an adversary to change its behavior (Jervis, 1989, p. 29–35). However, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many scholars argued that nuclear weapons do, in fact, strengthen a country’s ability to engage in coercive diplomacy.

Beardsley & Asal (2009), for instance, argue that nuclear weapons increase the expected costs of conflict for the target and therefore make the challenger more likely to succeed in crisis bargaining. Underlying their argument is idea that “opponents facing higher costs of conflict will find more alternatives that are preferable to fighting—there is more room for concession and there is less incentive to push their own demands at risk of greater escalation” (Beardsley & Asal, 2009, p. 281). They therefore expect that nuclear weapon states can extract concessions more effectively than non-nuclear countries. Many other scholars share this view (e.g., Pape, 1996; Horowitz & Reiter, 2001; Gartzke & Jo, 2009; Bracken, 2012; Dittmeier, 2013; Kroenig, 2013; Thayer & Skypek, 2013). Indeed, the notion that nuclear weapons help states achieve ambitious foreign policy objectives has emerged as the conventional wisdom in scholarship.

Sechser and Fuhrmann (2017) challenge this view (see also Sechser & Fuhrmann, 2013). Their argument—which they call “nuclear skepticism theory”—holds that nuclear weapons are poor instruments of coercive diplomacy, despite their destructive power. Military technologies can bolster coercive diplomacy if they allow countries to (1) impose their will more effectively or (2) punish opponents at a relatively low cost. Nuclear weapons are ill suited for either of these objectives, according to nuclear skepticism theory.7 First, they generally do not help states seize territory or other disputed objects. Second, carrying out a coercive threat would be exceedingly costly for the coercer. These costs might be worth paying if a state’s vital interests were on the line, but this leads to a third point: in coercive diplomacy—as opposed to deterrence—the stakes are rarely critical for the attacker. Thus, while nuclear weapons undoubtedly offer the potential to punish an opponent, coercive nuclear threats will often lack credibility.

Brinkmanship and the Manipulation of Risk

Theorists have long suggested that states can overcome the credibility problem in nuclear bargaining. They can do so by engaging in what Schelling (1966) called “brinkmanship.” By making a “threat that leaves something to chance,” Schelling contends, a government can make seemingly incredible threats believable. Brinkmanship works, based on this line of thinking, by raising the possibility that events will spiral out of control, leading to disaster. Alerting nuclear forces is one example of brinkmanship. When a leader readies nuclear weapons for potential combat, which often results in the pre-delegation of launch authority to local commanders, the leader raises the possibility that further escalation could result in nuclear use—even if the leader would not rationally choose to go down that path. Brinkmanship tactics are well known to researchers in the TNR school. As noted previously, given the credibility problems inherent in nuclear bargaining, the TNR expects that these tactics should be especially common in the nuclear age (Jervis, 1989, pp. 38–41).

But does brinkmanship work? The TNR, like the work of many other nuclear deterrence theorists (Schelling, 1966; Powell, 1990), implies that brinkmanship helps states use their nuclear arsenals to advance their foreign policy interests when nuclear threats lack credibility. According to nuclear skepticism theory, however, nuclear brinkmanship is far less useful than it may appear (Sechser & Fuhrmann, 2017, pp. 51–56). First, leaders often lack the will to generate nuclear risk. The very reason that brinkmanship is potentially effective—namely, that it raises the possibility of an accident that results in disaster—also makes leaders reluctant to use it. Leaders usually want to maintain control of events in a crisis, not leave events to chance. Second, even if leaders attempt brinkmanship, nuclear signals are often undetected or misinterpreted. During the 1958–1959 Berlin crisis, for example, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev moved nuclear missiles into East Germany, presumably to make his threat to destroy cities in western Europe more credible. It does not appear, however, that the United States detected the missile deployment until Khrushchev had already withdrawn his ultimatum over the presence of Western forces in Berlin (Sechser & Fuhrmann, 2017, pp. 135–136).

Foreign Policy Assertiveness

It has become relatively common to make far-reaching claims about the ways in which obtaining nuclear weapons causes countries to adopt more assertive foreign policies. To cite one example, Kapur (2007) argues that weaker revisionist states—for example, Pakistan—become more aggressive when they get nuclear weapons. Sechser and Fuhrmann (2017), by contrast, find that nuclear states are not systematically more aggressive than their non-nuclear counterparts; they do not seem to push harder in crises, nor do they instigate military challenges over territorial disputes at a higher rate.

Another possibility is that the effects of nuclear weapons on conflict behavior are different through time, since nuclear weapon states may learn through the experience of others. Horowitz (2009) finds that while new nuclear weapon states are more likely to engage in conflict, over time this effect diminishes. Experienced nuclear weapon states, he finds, are less likely to engage in conflict. Along similar lines, Narang (2017) shows that states are especially likely to experience conflict immediately following and immediately prior to nuclear acquisition. New nuclear weapons states therefore seem to be more likely to engage in risky behavior in the international arena.

If new nuclear states are more aggressive in their foreign policy, then nuclear proliferation should be even more concerning to the international community. Recognizing this implication, Bell (2015) examines how acquiring nuclear weapons changes states’ foreign policy behavior. Bell (2015) notes that while many scholars have claimed nuclear weapons change state behavior, the idea of emboldenment has not been carefully defined in prior research: “Emboldenment is a convenient catch-all term, but it conflates conceptually distinct behaviors and misses other effects that nuclear weapons might have” (p. 118). To address this concern, Bell creates a typology of possible behaviors and actions that could occur post-weaponization, including aggression, expansion, independence, steadfastness, and compromise.

Looking at the British case of nuclear acquisition, Bell finds that obtaining nuclear weapons changed British foreign policy. In particular, the British government used nuclear weapons to bolster alliances and act more independently in international politics with less support from the United States. The British case shows that while nuclear weapons did alter foreign policy, the changes that took place were more specific than just general emboldenment or assertiveness. In addition to shedding new light on the question of how nuclear weapons affect foreign policy, Bell’s analysis highlights the importance of thinking critically about differences among nuclear states, a topic explored in more detail below.

The “Stability-Instability Paradox”

According to some scholars, system-wide stability based on mutual second-strike capabilities induces the possibility of more prevalent violence at lower levels of conflict (e.g., Snyder, 1965). Under this logic, both superpowers know that total military victory is impossible, so some lower level conflict is permitted because both states know that they cannot rationally enter a war with full resources. Jervis (1984) summarizes this paradox as, “To the extent that the military balance is stable at the level of all-out nuclear war, it will become less stable at lower levels of violence” (p. 31). This paradox was discussed and recognized in the early days of the Cold War, with Liddell Hart noting in 1954, “To the extent that the H-bomb reduces the likelihood of full-scale war, it increases the possibilities of limited war pursued by widespread local aggression” (quoted in Freedman, 2003, p. 100). Snyder (1965) goes on to argue that this paradox undermines the logic of extended nuclear deterrence, since neither superpower can credibly threaten to use nuclear weapons to protect their allies from threats by another nuclear power.

More recently, scholars have focused on the stability-instability paradox in the regional context of South Asia (e.g., Ganguly, 1995; Krepon, 2003). Continued crises between India and Pakistan under the shadow of nuclear weapons have led to greater debate about conflict escalation and limitation in the presence of nuclear weapons. Ganguly (1995), for example, argues that while the presence of nuclear weapons has lead to more caution by Indian and Pakistani leaders in escalating inter-state conventional crises, it has also led to the promotion and exploitation of internal conflicts like insurgencies, which leaders see as being both “controllable and calculable” (p. 326).

Statistical studies offer limited empirical support for the stability-instability paradox. Rauchhaus (2009) finds that dyads with two nuclear-armed states are more likely to experience low-level disputes but less likely to fight wars. However, after addressing some limitations of this study, Bell and Miller (2015) show that there is little evidence for either of these claims.8

Nuclear Strategy

Much of the scholarship discussed thus far has focused on nuclear weapons in black-and-white terms: states either possess a nuclear arsenal or they do not. However, scholars and policymakers have long recognized the importance of nuclear strategy, rather than the mere possession of nuclear weapons, for deterrence and security (e.g., Brodie, 1959; Glaser, 1990; Freedman, 2003; Lieber & Press, 2009). Henry Kissinger noted in 1957 for example, “It is the task of strategic doctrine to translate power into policy. Whether the goals of a state are offensive or defensive, whether it seeks to achieve or to prevent a transformation, its strategic doctrine must define what objectives are worth contending for and determine the degree of force appropriate for achieving them” (Kissinger, 1957, p. 8).

The TNR assumes that the requirements for deterrence are relatively minimal: a survivable second strike capability, according to this perspective, is sufficient to deter military conflict. Yet many other scholars have challenged this notion. We previously discussed some of the arguments along these lines, including Long and Green (2015) and Lieber and Press (2017). The next section focuses on other issues addressed in the literature on nuclear strategy.

Nuclear Superiority

A key question in the literature on nuclear strategy is whether states need a superior nuclear arsenal to reap bargaining-related advantages. The TNR says no (see especially Jervis, 1979). But others disagree. Some critics argue that states need a large advantage in capabilities so that they can neutralize an opponent’s ability to retaliate, especially in the case of compellence. As Pape (1996) put it, “Nuclear coercion can work … only when the coercer enjoys superiority so great that it need not fear retaliation in kind” (p. 173). According to other scholars, however, states can use nuclear weapons to advance their foreign policy interests even against other nuclear powers—as long as they have a superior arsenal. Bueno de Mesquita and Riker (1982) exemplify this view: “Whenever an asymmetry in nuclear war-making potential exists, the risk of war or blackmail is high. Whenever that asymmetry is removed … the prospects of peace are enhanced” (p. 301). To substantiate this claim, analysts often point to the American-Soviet Cold War rivalry. During the period when the United States had overwhelming strategic superiority, these scholars argue, Washington was able to use its nuclear arsenal to advance its goals internationally. Once Moscow achieved strategic parity in the 1970s, however, the United States did not enjoy the same advantage (see Betts, 1987).

The literature offers conflicting evidence about the role of nuclear superiority in crisis bargaining. In an analysis of 20 crises between nuclear-armed opponents, Kroenig (2013) finds that states with larger nuclear arsenals prevail at a higher rate than states with smaller ones. Sechser and Fuhrmann (2013, 2017), by contrast, examine more than 200 coercive threats, about 1,500 rounds of negotiations over disputed territory, and all of the most dangerous nuclear crises to date and find a consistent pattern: nuclear superiority is not associated with prevailing in international disputes. The debate about nuclear superiority will remain important moving forward, especially if the United States continues to enjoy nuclear primacy (Lieber & Press, 2006).

Platforms and Deployments

A key consideration in thinking about a state’s nuclear strategy is the method and balance through which weapons are deployed in air, on sea, and on land. Scholars have thought about weapons deployment and force structure by focusing on individual weapons systems such as submarines (e.g., Sapolsky, 1971; Ball, 1985; Spinardi, 1994) and missiles (e.g., Barkley, 2008; Mettler & Reiter, 2013), and by examining bureaucratic interests for weapons development (e.g., Allison & Morris, 1975; Halperin & Clapp, 2006). More recently, Gartzke, Kaplow, and Mehta (2014) have studied the determinants of nuclear force structure using a new dataset of platforms adopted by nine nuclear weapons states. While all states seek diverse capabilities for deterrence, their analysis shows that countries are partially constrained by resource and organizational limits.

Deployment-related decisions may also be consequential for foreign policy. Fuhrmann and Sechser (2014a) argue, for instance, that countries forward-deploy nuclear weapons in part to bolster extended deterrence. In the end, however, having a formal defense commitment from a nuclear power lowers the likelihood that a protégé will be targeted in military disputes to a greater degree than hosting foreign nuclear forces (Fuhrmann & Sechser, 2014b).

No First Use

Another aspect of nuclear strategy that has received considerable attention both among policymakers and scholars is the debate surrounding no first use (NFU). The United States maintains a declaratory first use policy—that is, it retains the option to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict—but there has long been debate about the wisdom and effectiveness of such a policy (see, for example, Bundy, Kennan, & McNamara, 1982). Following President Obama’s Prague speech in 2009, there was speculation that the commitment to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same,” would usher in a new era of nuclear strategy (Obama, 2009).

Writing shortly after the Prague speech, for example, Sagan (2009) argued that Washington should reconsider its first use policy. America’s first use policy was necessary during the Cold War in the face of massive conventional and nuclear threats from Warsaw Pact states. However, according to Sagan, the new landscape in the post–Cold War world should cause policymakers to think seriously about both the costs and benefits of maintaining a first use policy. In particular, he argues that politicians should think beyond the implications of first use on deterrence and also focus on how this policy affects nuclear proliferation and considerations about nuclear use by both states and non-state actors. Gerson (2010) takes the argument a step further by suggesting that the absence of an NFU pledge is dangerous. While a declaratory first-use policy increases the likelihood of nuclear escalation during crises due to the fear of a preemptive first strike to disarm adversaries, a NFU policy would “enhance crises stability, bolster conventional deterrence, and provide the United States with renewed political legitimacy and leverage as the leader of the global nonproliferation regime” (Gerson, 2010, p. 47). Nuclear strategy, however, has remained remarkably consistent after President Obama’s Prague speech (for alternative points of view and further discussion, see Halperin et al., 2009).

Regional Nuclear Powers

Much of the discussion about nuclear strategy has traditionally been focused on the superpowers—especially the United States. Even after the Cold War, scholars continued to focus on different aspects of U.S. nuclear policy (see, for example, Glaser & Fetter 2001, 2005). Recognizing that the superpower framework is not necessarily relevant for regional nuclear powers, scholars have also examined the postures of other countries such as Britain (Freedman 1980, 1985; Wheeler & Clark, 1989) and China (Goldstein, 2005; Fravel & Medeiros, 2010).

Narang (2014) offers the most comprehensive treatment of regional nuclear postures to date. Recognizing that these states face unique constraints and opportunities, he asks: What nuclear strategies do regional nuclear powers adopt? What effect does this choice have on their ability to deter? Narang describes three postures held by regional nuclear powers: catalytic, assured retaliation, and asymmetric escalation. The goal of a catalytic strategy is to compel superpower intervention on the nuclear state’s behalf. Assured retaliation is designed, by contrast, to threaten retaliation in the event of a nuclear attack. The most ambitious posture, asymmetric escalation, involves threats of nuclear first use to deter conventional conflict. One of the most interesting implications of Narang’s argument is that the ability to successfully deter conventional attacks depends on the type of nuclear posture deployed. He shows, in particular, that the asymmetric escalation posture creates “a powerful deterrent effect on the initiation and escalation of armed conflict,” while the other postures do not (Narang 2014, p. 224).

Directions for Future Research

This essay reviewed many of the debates in the literature on nuclear weapons in world politics. While scholars have devoted considerable attention to this issue since 1945, there is still much that we do not fully understand about the political effects of nuclear weapons. The study of nuclear politics, therefore, is likely to remain vibrant in the years and decades ahead.

This article focused on the Theory of the Nuclear Revolution, which holds that nuclear weapons fundamentally transformed international politics. This school of thought generates a number of predictions: there should be peace among the superpowers, crises should be rare, it should be difficult to change the status quo, countries should resort to bargaining tactics with greater frequency, and the nuclear balance and political outcomes should be unrelated. The political environment in the Cold War—when two superpowers dominated international politics and many assumed that a secure second-strike capability was both attainable and sufficient for deterrence—heavily shaped these expectations.

As more countries developed dual-use nuclear technology and obtained nuclear weapons, however, new debates arose in the literature on nuclear weapons and foreign policy. We have focused on debates relating to deterrence and stability, coercive diplomacy, foreign policy emboldenment, and nuclear strategy. Within each of these debates, there is both support for and challenges to the TNR. While few people contest the idea that nuclear weapons affect international politics, work that moves beyond the superpower rivalry that characterized the Cold War underscores the importance of reassessing core ideas about nuclear weapons and foreign policy. No unified theory has emerged to replace the TNR in the modern era, but the individual studies discussed throughout this essay contribute to a wider understanding of nuclear politics. These works demonstrate the importance of considering the interactions of a wider number of actors—not just nuclear-armed superpowers—as well as the necessity of considering different levels of nuclear technology.

In closing, this article will highlight one potentially promising area for further research based on the recognition that different levels of nuclear technology may have differential effects on international politics. While there has been much attention devoted to nuclear weapons in scholarship, we know relatively little about the implications of dual-use nuclear technology for world politics. The TNR implies that countries reap benefits from nuclear technology once they possess a survivable second-strike capability. There is growing recognition, however, that nuclear programs may be consequential even if states do not go on to obtain a nuclear arsenal.

Having the capacity to build nuclear weapons—a condition known as “nuclear latency”—may influence foreign policy (Sagan, 2010; Fuhrmann & Tkach, 2015). Some have argued, for instance, that having nuclear latency may allow states to reap certain benefits from governments interested in non-proliferation as a reward for staying non-nuclear (e.g., Benson & Wen, 2011; Volpe, 2017). In addition, latent nuclear powers—for example, Japan—appear less likely to be targeted in military disputes (Fuhrmann & Tkach, 2015). Nuclear latency may therefore offer deterrence related benefits (but see Mehta & Whitlark, forthcoming). At the same time, nuclear programs could make countries vulnerable to preventive military actions, as underscored by Israel’s 1981 attack of the Osiraq Nuclear Research Center in Iraq (Fuhrmann & Kreps, 2010). This evidence seems to cut against the TNR and suggest that scholars should take a broader view of nuclear technology in world politics.

Nuclear latency also seems to be increasingly relevant in the real world. The Iranian nuclear crisis suggests that the mere possession of nuclear technology can provoke serious concerns internationally, even if a state’s intentions are at least somewhat ambiguous. Moreover, other countries in regions such as East Asia and the Middle East seem determined to obtain a latent nuclear capability.

It would be useful, therefore, for scholars to devote more attention to what happens before states obtain nuclear arsenals—or even before they make a political decision to militarize their nuclear programs. There are already several interesting studies along these lines (e.g., Narang, 2017; Bas & Coe, 2017). Additional work in this area could further advance knowledge about the role of nuclear programs in international relations, and provide further insight into the tenets of the TNR that are applicable in the 21st century.


We thank Mark Bell and Vipin Narang for helpful feedback on this essay.


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(1.) Estimates vary. This figure is from

(2.) This was especially true with the development of the hydrogen bomb (see Trachtenberg 1991, p. 5).

(3.) For another articulation of the TNR and its key assumptions, see Lieber and Press (2017).

(4.) Jervis (1989) does not explain why nuclear coercion—as opposed to military coercion in general—is difficult. He nonetheless identifies the preservation of the status quo as one of the implications of the TNR. See Sechser and Fuhrmann (2017) for a more recent take on using nuclear threats to overturn the status quo.

(5.) Note, however, that in his earlier work Waltz (1959) states that nuclear weapons do not affect international politics any more than weapons of the past: “The fear of modern weapons, of the danger of destroying the civilizations of the world, is not sufficient to establish the conditions of peace” (p. 236).

(6.) These works are indicative of a larger movement towards quantifying the study of nuclear weapons (see Gartzke & Kroenig 2016).

(7.) Paul (2009) also argues that nuclear weapons are not useful for coercive diplomacy. Because of the tradition of nuclear non-use, he argues, “The threat of nuclear weapons use for anything other than supreme national interests may not be credible to a weaker target of coercive diplomacy” (Paul, 2009, p. 206).

(8.) For a recent formal treatment of the stability-instability paradox, see Powell (2015).