International Organization

Research Note

Crisis Bargaining and Nuclear Blackmail

Todd S. Sechsera1 and Matthew Fuhrmanna2

a1 University of Virginia, Charlottesville. E-mail: [email protected]

a2 Texas A&M University, College Station. E-mail: [email protected]


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.

Todd S. Sechser is Assistant Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Matthew Fuhrmann is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University, College Station.


  Portions of this research were conducted while the authors were Stanton Nuclear Security Fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations. For helpful comments on previous drafts we thank Graham Allison, Daniel Altman, Robert Art, Victor Asal, Kyle Beardsley, Robert Brown, Albert Carnesale, Christopher Clary, Alexandre Debs, Bryan Early, Lynn Eden, James Fearon, Benjamin Fordham, Erik Gartzke, Charles Glaser, Michael Horowitz, Paul Huth, Gregory Koblentz, Matthew Kroenig, Michael Levi, Keir Lieber, James Lindsay, Steven Miller, Nuno Monteiro, Alexander Montgomery, Vipin Narang, Jonathan Pearl, Barry Posen, William Potter, Daryl Press, George Quester, William Reed, Dan Reiter, Bruce Russett, Anne Sartori, Karthika Sasikumar, Adam Stulberg, seminar participants at MIT, and the members of the Program on Strategic Stability Evaluation, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Thanks to Lauren Corbett for expert research assistance. Data, replication commands, and an associated appendix for this article are available at