NATO’s enlargement after 1999 to include fourteen new member-states from Central and Eastern Europe remains among the most consequential and controversial policies of the post-Cold War era.  In an effort to deepen the debate over enlargement, we edited a special issue of the journal International Politics that included twelve articles by leading scholars representing a diverse array of thinking on the merits of expansion.[1]  A subset of those authors have written for this H-Diplo/ISSF roundtable, highlighting the continued interest in the topic.

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Nuclear weapons are fundamentally different from other military tools.  The technology is familiar and yet still exotic; the ability to split nuclei and fuse them together remains one of the most extraordinary technical milestones of the last century.  And the yields of nuclear explosions are orders of magnitude greater than those of conventional weapons, making the effects of a hypothetical nuclear war hard to comprehend.  In a clash between nuclear-armed states, the devastation might overwhelm the value of any imaginable political goals.  Such a conflict may not be unthinkable, but it is hard to think about.

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In his review of Fred Kaplan’s The Bomb, Marc Trachtenberg reminds readers that “it is important to see the past for what it was.”  This, as both Trachtenberg and Robert Jervis agree, is the overwhelming merit of The Bomb, a remarkable history of one of the wonkiest niches of U.S. national security strategy—the operational planning of nuclear wars.  In the book, Kaplan takes readers across six decades of nuclear planning and, in doing so, reveals a remarkable consistency throughout America’s nuclear history: despite numerous attempts by many presidential administrations, U.S. nuclear strategy has never been able to escape the impetus for first strike.  Kaplan makes a compelling argument that the U.S. has been imprisoned by its own operational planning requirements, unable to draw down its nuclear arsenal largely because of path dependencies that were set in motion by service cultures which Kaplan traces back to World War II.

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The participants in this roundtable had planned to discuss Xiaoyu Pu’s Rebranding China at the 2020 meeting of the International Studies Association in Honolulu, Hawaii.  COVID-19, however, intervened to cause the cancellation of the conference.  We are grateful that we still have this opportunity to have an online conversation on Pu’s book in the form of this H-Diplo/ISSF roundtable.

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Why do states choose to intervene covertly in a conflict, when more overt efforts are likely to be more successful?  Even more puzzling, why do states sometimes treat covert interventions as ‘open secrets,’ where states—even enemies—decide not to recognize the intervention, even when it is common knowledge?  These are the critical questions Austin Carson poses in his outstanding book, Secret Wars.  The answer, he argues, lies in fears of escalation.  On the one hand, by intervening covertly, a state hopes to reduce the risk of escalation by keeping the intervention out of sight from hawkish publics, actors at home that might push for increased offensive action, even at the risk of catastrophic war. On the other hand, a covert intervention can be read as a sign by other states that the action will remain limited and, by keeping the intervention covert, ensure that more hawkish actors abroad will demand an escalatory response.  Indeed, at times, major powers—even entrenched enemies like the United States and Soviet Union—will collude in order to keep the intervention a secret, and reduce the risk of war.

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Alexander Lanoszka’s Atomic Assurance is about the alliance politics of nuclear proliferation.[1]  It centers on an elementary security relationship—between the quality of protection a country gets from others and its impulse to secure itself by arming. In this instance, the ‘protection’ is a guarantor’s policy of extended nuclear deterrence; the self-arming alternative is a nuclear weapon (or steps to obtain one).  The contemporary policy relevance of Atomic Assurance is hard to exaggerate.  It helps us to understand the extent to which superpower alliance guarantees did (or did not) curb allies’ proliferation during the Cold War, and whether they may do so (or not) in years ahead.

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It is not typical for H-Diplo to publish a roundtable on an article.  But Daniel Bessner and Fredrik Logevall’s “Recentering the United States in the Historiography of American Foreign Relations” is not a typical article.  Before it was published, it was already provoking hallway conversations at conferences.  The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) scheduled a rare debate-style panel for its 2020 conference on the still-unpublished article.  Surely the attention has been helped by the fact that both Bessner and Logevall are prominent figures: Bessner an up-and-coming young scholar with a polemical social media presence who helped advise the Bernie Sanders campaign on foreign policy; Logevall a recent past president of SHAFR and winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in History for his book, Embers of War.[1]

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Robert Trager’s Diplomacy: Communication and the Origins of the International Order focuses on the role of communication in diplomacy with emphasis on the role of costless exchanges such as private discussions between two foreign policy ministers versus costly signaling such as moving troops to the frontier of an adversary or a drone strike on a hostile paramilitary force. Trager makes use of two related datasets from the Confidential Print of the British Foreign Office’s communications between 1855 and July of 1914 with emphasis on detailed case studies on significant historical events including the negotiations leading to the outbreak of World War I.

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Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann’s book Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy provides a sustained case against the use of nuclear weapons as a tool for compelling actors to do something they would not otherwise want to do. In their reviews, three eminent scholars, Kyle Beardsley, Dan Reiter and Nina Tannenwald, are united in their praise, calling the book “important,” “powerfully argued,” and “compelling.” They diverge significantly in their critiques, however.

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