- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Reid Pauly: If I Stop Will You Shoot?: Diagramming Coercive Assurance

  • Jonathan Edel-Hänni
| Summer 2018

Managing the Atom/International Security Program Research Fellow Reid Pauly is “on loan” to the Belfer Center from MIT, where he is developing a thesis on coercive bargaining over nuclear weapons programs for his PhD. In response to concerns that the trans-Cambridge trip from MIT to Harvard is borderline treasonous, Pauly simply asks, “Why wouldn’t you stop by Belfer if you’re studying nuclear issues?”

At the Belfer Center, Pauly is doing a deep dive on credible coercive assurance with nuclear states. To do so, he is analyzing the nuclear histories of Iran, Libya, North Korea, and South Africa.

“You can’t say ‘Stop or I’ll shoot’ without implying that if you comply, I won’t shoot,” Pauly explains, referencing Tom Schelling’s Arms and Influence. This analogy illustrates the concept of coercive assurance—the idea that agreeing to demands will guarantee one’s safety.

“I picked nuclear weapons programs because they should be the hardest cases for credible assurance...if it works here, the concept should travel,” he explains. “As we would say in political science, it allows for greater external validity.”

Coercive bargaining presents particular challenges when the back-and-forth is over nuclear arms. Most of the countries Pauly is analyzing sought nuclear weapons to deter foreign threats, making assurances especially difficult to develop.

“One interesting thing about assurance is it’s always really hard, and yet people strike coercive bargains anyway,” Pauly explains. Iran, for example, was willing to strike a coercive bargain even in the aftermath of Western intervention in Libya. “Maybe reputation is not as important as we may think or at least as Washington thinks.”

Pauly’s research at Belfer covers more than coercive assurance. At the International Security Program, he is analyzing political-military wargames to gauge the willingness of political elites to use nuclear arms. 

Pauly’s approach is groundbreaking: it is one of the first studies of the culture of nuclear non-use through the examination of wargames.

For an upcoming paper on the subject, Pauly writes that while surveys and survey experiments generally get to the question of “What would I support you doing,” wargames put the decision-makers in a position of answering the more apt question, “What would I do?”

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Edel, Jonathan. "If I Stop Will You Shoot?: Diagramming Coercive Assurance." Belfer Center Newsletter. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School (Spring 2018).

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