The latest round of North Korean “measured madness” has prompted me to consider just what good nukes do for a country. Does a nuclear arsenal provide deterrent capability, or even the license to compel, revisionist powers, like North Korea, to back down or change its ways? Tensions on the Korean peninsula have spiked recently, although the average South Korean, and even I, don’t seem to mind, in terms of what I do everyday. No one here is spending her day in a subway tunnel fearing nuclear death from above. The stores are still well-stocked. Most importantly as an indicator, my wife went shopping an hour ago.
The United States, however, did make a show of its nuclear-capable B-2s. And then Pyongyang, after cutting only one of a number of hotlines between it and South Korea, ordered its “rocket forces” to prepare strike targets in the Pacific and continental United States.
The question is, can a major power such as the US, with all its nukes, compel the North Koreans, with perhaps a handful, to see the light of less provocative madness and rejoin the international system. According to Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrman, no. And, North Korea isn’t going to get what it wants either.
Are nuclear weapons useful for coercion and intimidation?
We recently conducted a study that found a surprising answer. Our study, published in the journal International Organization, investigated whether nuclear states enjoy more coercive success than other states. We found that they do not: nuclear weapons have little impact on the effectiveness of coercive threats. (Note that we use the term “coercive” to refer to attempts to persuade an adversary to change its behavior or give up something valuable. This is distinct from deterrence, where the goal is to preserve the status quo, not change it.)
Our conclusion challenges conventional thinking about nuclear weapons, which holds that nuclear weapons are useful for coercion – and not just deterrence – simply because they are so destructive. This view argues that nuclear-armed states can more easily compel others to make concessions in international crises – and that they can do so without actually going to war. But the conventional view fails to fully appreciate two important limitations of nuclear weapons.
First, nuclear weapons are not very good for seizing disputed objects, like territory. It would make little sense, for example, for Pakistan to try to take Kashmir by launching an offensive nuclear attack against Indian forces there. Doing so would kill ethno-religious kin and could render portions of the land uninhabitable.
Instead, Pakistan would be more likely to say (or insinuate) something like “Give us Kashmir or we will attack New Delhi.” But this brings us to a second point: carrying out a coercive nuclear threat would be tremendously costly. A state that launched a nuclear attack to achieve a coercive objective – that is, to obtain something it didn’t have already – would provoke an enormous international backlash. The consequences could include economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, efforts by neighbors to acquire their own nuclear weapons, and even military interventions against the coercer.
After looking at more than 200 compellent threats, we found that nuclear states issue successful threats just 20 percent of the time, while nonnuclear coercers succeed more than 30 percent of the time. These results also hold when we apply more advanced statistical techniques and control for confounding variables. This is not the pattern we would see if nuclear weapons are useful tools of coercion.
(I don’t consider myself qualified to jump into this symposium, to challenge anyone, but there is an opposing view.)
So, all this drama ensuing on the Korean peninsula is much ado about something designed to waste money, shore up allies, and make domestic constituencies happy, but its not very useful for overcoming the diplomatic impasse between the two Koreas. At the end of the shopping day, South Korea still exists, California is safe, and, alas, the Kim clan still rules in Pyongyang. What to do – nothing, lest we miscalculate and fumble towards war.
None of this means that what’s happening on the Korean peninsula now is trivial. This is, per square mile, the planet’s most militarized place. A war there would be calamity. But that’s the point. Rising to Pyongyang’s bait simply aggravates the periodic crises. That in turn increases the odds that one party might do something rash—accidentally, or deliberately, to show its mettle—that then spirals into a war that nobody wanted. So when Beijing tells Washington that the American decision to bolster missile defenses will merely add to the tension, it has a point.
The best reaction to Kim is no reaction. Continuing the old tit-for-tat pattern simply perpetuates it. Note to Seoul and Washington: Don’t just do something, stand there.
Now, that’s what we pay professors for- do as little as possible.