Hostname: page-component-77c89778f8-vpsfw Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-07-18T23:11:49.711Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Crisis Bargaining and Nuclear Blackmail

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 January 2013

Todd S. Sechser
University of Virginia, Charlottesville. E-mail:
Matthew Fuhrmann
Texas A&M University, College Station. E-mail:
Get access


Do nuclear weapons offer coercive advantages in international crisis bargaining? Almost seventy years into the nuclear age, we still lack a complete answer to this question. While scholars have devoted significant attention to questions about nuclear deterrence, we know comparatively little about whether nuclear weapons can help compel states to change their behavior. This study argues that, despite their extraordinary power, nuclear weapons are uniquely poor instruments of compellence. 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. Using a new dataset of more than 200 militarized compellent threats from 1918 to 2001, we find strong support for our theory: compellent threats from nuclear states are no more likely to succeed, even after accounting for possible selection effects in the data. While nuclear weapons may carry coercive weight as instruments of deterrence, it appears that these effects do not extend to compellence.

Research Note
Copyright © The IO Foundation 2013

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Alperovitz, Gar. 1994. Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam. 2d ed. New York: Pluto Press.Google Scholar
Art, Robert J. 1980. To What Ends Military Power? International Security 4 (4):335.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Art, Robert J. 2003. Coercive Diplomacy: What Do We Know? In The United States and Coercive Diplomacy, edited by Art, Robert J. and Cronin, Patrick M., 359420. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace.Google Scholar
Beardsley, Kyle, and Asal, Victor. 2009. Winning with the Bomb. Journal of Conflict Resolution 53 (2):278301.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Betts, Richard K. 1987. Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.Google Scholar
Black, Samuel. 2010. The Changing Political Utility of Nuclear Weapons: Nuclear Threats from 1970 to 2010. Washington, D.C.: Stimson Center.Google Scholar
Brecher, Michael, and Wilkenfeld, Jonathan. 1997. A Study of Crisis. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bundy, McGeorge. 1984. The Unimpressive Record of Atomic Diplomacy. In The Choice: Nuclear Weapons Versus Security, edited by Prins, Gwyn, 4254. London: Chatto and Windus.Google Scholar
Bush, George W. 2002. Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union, 29 January, Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
Downes, Alexander B., and Sechser, Todd S.. 2012. The Illusion of Democratic Credibility. International Organization 66 (3):457–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fearon, James D. 1994. Signaling Versus the Balance of Power and Interests: An Empirical Test of a Crisis Bargaining Model. Journal of Conflict Resolution 38 (2):236–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fearon, James D. 2002. Selection Effects and Deterrence. International Interactions 28 (1):529.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Finer, Herman. 1964. Dulles over Suez: The Theory and Practice of His Diplomacy. Chicago: Quadrangle.Google Scholar
Foot, Rosemary J. 1988. Nuclear Coercion and the Ending of the Korean Conflict. International Security 13 (3):92112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fuhrmann, Matthew, and Kreps, Sarah E.. 2010. Targeting Nuclear Programs in War and Peace: A Quantitative Empirical Analysis, 1941–2000. Journal of Conflict Resolution 54 (6):831–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fuhrmann, Matthew, and Sechser, Todd S.. 2012. Signaling Alliance Commitments: Hand-Tying and Sunk Costs in Extended Nuclear Deterrence. Presented at the 53d Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association, April, San Diego, Calif.Google Scholar
Gaddis, John Lewis. 1987. The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Gavin, Francis J. 2004. Blasts from the Past: Proliferation Lessons from the 1960s. International Security 29 (3):100–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gelpi, Christopher, and Griesdorf, Michael. 2001. Winners or Losers? Democracies in International Crisis, 1918–94. American Political Science Review 95 (3):633–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Halperin, Morton H. 1987. Nuclear Fallacy: Dispelling the Myth of Nuclear Strategy. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger.Google Scholar
Heckman, James J. 1979. Sample Selection Bias as a Specification Error. Econometrica 47 (1):153–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Jervis, Robert. 1989. The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
King, Gary, Keohane, Robert O., and Verba, Sidney. 1994. Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kirshner, Jonathan. 1995. Currency and Coercion: The Political Economy of International Monetary Power. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kissinger, Henry A. 1956. Force and Diplomacy in the Nuclear Age. Foreign Affairs 34 (3):349–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kroenig, Matthew H. 2009. Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve: Explaining Nuclear Crisis Outcomes. Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, September, Toronto.Google Scholar
Lewis, Jeffrey G. 2007. The Minimum Means of Reprisal: China's Search for Security in the Nuclear Age. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lilienthal, David E. 1964. The Journals of David E. Lilienthal. Vol. 2, . New York: Harper and Row.Google Scholar
Lyall, Jason, and Wilson, Isaiah. 2009. Rage Against the Machines: Explaining Outcomes in Counterinsurgency Wars. International Organization 63 (1):67106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Maoz, Zeev. 2005. Dyadic MID Dataset, Version 2.0.Google Scholar
McNamara, Robert S. 1983. The Military Role of Nuclear Weapons: Perceptions and Misperceptions. Foreign Affairs 62 (1):5980.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mueller, John. 2009. Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to al-Qaeda. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Narang, Vipin. 2009. Posturing for Peace: Pakistan's Nuclear Postures and South Asian Stability. International Security 34 (3):3878.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Narang, Vipin. Forthcoming. What Does It Take to Deter? Regional Power Nuclear Postures and International Conflict. Journal of Conflict Resolution.Google Scholar
Norris, Robert S., and Kristensen, Hans M.. 2006. Global Nuclear Stockpiles, 1945–2006. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 62 (4):6466.Google Scholar
Pape, Robert A. 1996. Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
Pape, Robert A. 1997. Why Economic Sanctions Do Not Work. International Security 22 (2):90136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Paul, T.V. 2009. The Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Petersen, Walter J. 1986. Deterrence and Compellence: A Critical Assessment of Conventional Wisdom. International Studies Quarterly 30 (3):269–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Podhoretz, Norman. 2007. The Case for Bombing Iran. Commentary (June):17–23.Google Scholar
Rusk, Dean, McNamara, Robert, Ball, George W., Gilpatric, Roswell, Sorensen, Theodore, and Bundy, McGeorge. 1982. The Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Time, 27 September:89–92.Google Scholar
Sagan, Scott D. 1994. The Perils of Proliferation: Organization Theory, Deterrence Theory, and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons. International Security 18 (4):66107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sagan, Scott D. 2004. Realist Perspectives on Ethical Norms and Weapons of Mass Destruction. In Ethics and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Religious and Secular Perspectives, edited by Hashmi, Sohail H., 7395. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schelling, Thomas C. 1960. The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Schelling, Thomas C. 1966. Arms and Influence. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Sechser, Todd S. 2010. Goliath's Curse: Coercive Threats and Asymmetric Power. International Organization 64 (4):627–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sechser, Todd S. 2011. Militarized Compellent Threats, 1918–2001. Conflict Management and Peace Science 28 (4):377401.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Singer, J. David, Bremer, Stuart A., and Stuckey, John. 1972. Capability Distribution, Uncertainty, and Major Power War. In Peace, War, and Numbers, edited by Russett, Bruce M., 1948. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
Singh, Sonali, and Way, Christopher R.. 2004. The Correlates of Nuclear Proliferation: A Quantitative Test. Journal of Conflict Resolution 48 (6):859–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Snyder, Glenn H., and Diesing, Paul. 1977. Conflict Among Nations: Bargaining, Decision Making, and System Structure in International Crises. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Tannenwald, Nina. 2007. The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Nonuse of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Trachtenberg, Marc. 1991. History and Strategy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Truman, Harry S. 1955. Memoirs by Harry S. Truman. Vol. 1: . Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.Google Scholar
Walt, Stephen M. 2000. Containing Rogues and Renegades: Coalition Strategies and Counterproliferation. In The Coming Crisis: Nuclear Proliferation, U.S. Interests, and World Order, edited by Utgoff, Victor A., 189226. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.Google Scholar