Nuclear strategy can be a difficult subject to study. In the end, our main preoccupation is understanding why there has not been a thermonuclear war, and what we can do to continue this streak. It is close to impossible to craft definite statements about an event that never happened. We have a strong hunch that nuclear deterrence prevents other states from using their weapons. Deterrence, however, is based on characteristics—fear, resolve, assurance—that are psychological in nature, and hard to observe or measure except after deterrence has failed. Nuclear proliferation and nonproliferation can be equally confounding. Given the benefits that nuclear possession supposedly conveys upon states—more or less securing their independence and protecting them from invasion—the fact that the number of states possessing the bomb is in the single digits, far fewer than anyone would have predicted a half century ago, is surprising.
Category: Article Reviews
At the heart of effective statecraft lies the burden of ascertaining the best available truth about the capabilities and intentions of a state’s allies and adversaries. Equal to the high stakes of intelligence performance is the difficulty of the tasks involved. The importance of knowing one’s enemies confronts the enemies of intelligence in a contest that often enough favors the latter. Because intelligence failure is inevitable over time, intelligence agencies are subject to intense external and internal scrutiny. Feeling burned by previous intelligence failures, political leaders may question, sometimes repeatedly, the veracity of the conclusions their intelligence analysts provide; in the extreme, whole-scale organizational and procedural reforms can be imposed so to avoid the commission of similar mistakes in the future. One under-studied form of internally-derived correction that comes in the wake of major intelligence failures is the degree of urgency with which intelligence judgments are rendered.
We find it somewhat unusual to have a book review essay reviewed by another scholar. But we are pleased that H-Diplo chose to accord our piece “Is Grand Strategy a Research Program? A Review Essay,” this honor. We are also pleased that Dr. Nina Silove chose to devote the time and effort to this task.
Thierry Balzacq, Peter Dombrowski, and Simon Reich (BDR) enquire whether grand strategy is a field of study or a mature research program. This is an important question, answers to which would be of tremendous interest to scholars of grand strategy and pivotal for the future of this ever-expanding field of study.
How does a democratic (U.S.) government wield secrecy? This is the core question of Andris Banka and Adam Quinn’s “Killing Norms Softly: US Targeted Killing, Quasi-Secrecy and the Assassination Ban,” which advances a theory of how norms of secrecy can be changed to serve executive needs. Focusing on the case of targeted killing under both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, the article provides context for the case by explaining how norms develop. The authors challenge the assumption that a change of norms requires public advocacy by arguing that official secrecy can play “an instrumental role in the process of normalizing potentially controversial shifts” (666).
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the American media paid little attention to the fact that the U.S. was about to end hundreds of years of Sunni supremacy in one of the Middle East’s most important countries. Among the farthest reaching consequences of America’s introduction of democracy to the Shiite-majority country was the fact that it removed a powerful bulwark from Iran’s path to wider regional influence. The most important long-term change after the invasion was not the adoption of a democratic system in ‘the land of the two rivers,’ it was the fact that Iraq had become a weak state susceptible to foreign influence.
Canadian military export policies came to unusual public attention following Canada’s 2014 agreement to sell $15 billion worth of armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia. The deal was negotiated under the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and was subsequently given official approval, through the granting of export permits, by the Liberal Government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was elected in 2015. In the debate that ensued, the greater indignation was reserved for the Liberals, who had come to power on the promise of a return to multilateralism and re-engagement with the United Nations—a posture that raised expectations of a renewed exercise of Pearsonian internationalism  rather than of record-breaking arms sales to one of the world’s most egregious violators of global human rights standards.
Geoffrey Chapman, Hassan Elbahtimy, and Susan B. Martin test a framework for assessing the security implications of chemical weapons (CW) use in the twenty-first century in their recent Security Studies paper. The authors state that they were motivated by the erosion of a norm of disuse, commonly known as the chemical weapons taboo. In this context, they assess the strategic and tactical utility of CW by the Syrian state as part of its ongoing civil war. Two incidents of CW use are analyzed in detail; one in which a nerve agent was used and another in which gas chlorine was employed. Overall this work has important implications for a more rigorous and better understanding of the use of unconventional weapons in modern warfare.
What factors would propel a conventional war into a nuclear one? Would leaders know whether their military operations were driving the other toward a decision to use nuclear weapons? If we can identify potential escalation flashpoints in peacetime, what unilateral or cooperative steps can the United States and other countries take to minimize the risks of nuclear catastrophe? These are tough questions of increasing salience as competition between the United States and Russia and China intensifies. We cannot meaningfully reduce nuclear risks among the major powers if we do not understand them. Fortunately, a number of scholars and practitioners are tackling this set of issues.
“Divided priorities: why and when allies differ over military intervention” by Ronald R. Krebs and Jennifer Spindel is an important piece of research. The authors challenge the validity of the claim that weaker allies value their patrons’ hawkish postures in distant conflicts. This claim, first put forward by Glen Snyder in Deterrence and Defense (1961), reasons that a patron’s limited foreign interventions make allies feel reassured of their own defense commitment with their patron state: if their benefactor is willing to fight for places of trivial intrinsic and strategic importance, it will surely also be willing to fight for them if the necessity arises.