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of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) scheduled a rare debate-style panel for its 2020 conference on the still-unpublished article.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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Some 30 years have passed since signal constructivist insights entered the international relations canon.[1] In those three decades, scholarship informed by constructivism has shed light on fundamental questions of global politics—from the foundational principles defining international order, to the rise and fall of international norms such as human rights, to the sources and productive effects of the legalization of global politics.[2] In response to early critiques that constructivist scholarship focused on ‘low’ politics and ‘good’ norms, constructivists have shown how the politics of meaning—manifest in ideas, discourse, legitimation, rhetoric, narrative, and the like—have shaped, among other topics, international intervention, territorial conflict, alliance politics, and the making of national security policy.[3]

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In an age of information overload, H-Diplo/ISSF roundtables help you decide which books to add to your reading list and which to leave aside. Robert Mandel’s Global Data Shock is itself a book about information overload, and it does provide readers with a lot of information. For a book about strategic ambiguity, deception, and surprise, however, it may or may not be surprising that the experts in intelligence affairs gathered together here offer ambivalent reviews. All praise the relevance of Mandel’s topic, as well as his skepticism for technocratic solutions to the problem, but they also highlight numerous conceptual and empirical shortfalls. Much as policymakers continue to struggle to make sense of a flood of data in global politics, it seems we still lack clarity on these important matters.

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Books on Chinese military issues have traditionally been of interest to a small and inward-looking community of security-minded China-focused academics and policy analysts far from the mainstream of their disciplinary fields and professions. But with China’s growing prominence on the global stage, interest in Chinese defense and strategic matters has also become more widespread. This roundtable on M. Taylor Fravel’s examination of contemporary Chinese military strategy underscores the gradual coming of age of Chinese security studies as an important and relevant component of the general security studies field, and in the process draws attention to a book that is both timely and highly significant.

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The debate about contemporary geopolitics, and American grand strategy, is shaped by two competing narratives: unipolar stability vs. rising China. The unipolar stability narrative holds that the distribution of power in the international system remains unipolar, and will remain so for a very long time.1 The rising China narrative holds that American power is in relative decline, and that the primary reason for this is China’s ascent.2 By some metrics, China has vaulted over the U.S. to become the world’s largest economy. In 2014, for example, the International Monetary Fund announced that, measured by purchasing power parity (PPP), China’s GDP had surpassed that of the United States.3 Many analysts expect that, even in terms of the market exchange rate (MER), China’s GDP will overtake America’s in a few years’ time.4 Viewing this trend line, some scholars have warned that the U.S. and China are locked in a power transition dynamic, which could lead to a war between them in the coming decades.5

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