Tweet by Tweet: Trump’s Nuclear Musings

Dr. Heather Williams

In a recent article titled ‘The nuclear education of Donald J. Trump’, Dr. Jeffrey Michaels and I catalogued almost all of President Trump’s statements regarding nuclear issues over the past thirty years. This catalogue included sources ranging from Playboy to Presidential debates. The study’s findings were both surprising and concerning.

The research revealed that Trump has been thinking and talking about nuclear weapons for a sustained period of time. In a 1984 interview, Trump revealed that he had a “fantasy” of becoming an arms control negotiator, something he has been publicly discussing ever since. The 2016 Presidential campaign focused more so on Trump’s personal character than on the substance of his views, which are now shaping national strategy and policy. His own biographical ghost-writer, Tony Schwartz, commented that if Trump became President and had access to the nuclear codes “there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.” So how worried should we be about Trump in charge of the US nuclear arsenal?

The biggest source of surprise in our study was how consistent Trump has been in his views on nuclear weapons. Since the 1990 Playboy interview, he has been concerned about the status of the nuclear arsenal and whether or not it is truly credible due to a lack of investment and infrastructure problems. He has consistently been interested in arms control to showcase his negotiating skills, whilst simultaneously remaining sceptical of deep reductions, disarmament, and any no-first-use declarations, as this would be “taking options off the table.”

In many ways, Trump’s views on nuclear weapons are nothing particularly new. Obama increased investment in the US nuclear infrastructure, which indeed is in need of attention. Additionally, Obama called for increased burden-sharing among NATO allies, though perhaps more delicately compared to Trump’s label of NATO members benefiting from a “free ride.” Furthermore, previous Republican presidents expressed scepticism about limiting America’s strategic options, including arms control.

Of course, Trump’s nuclear policies will also be shaped by those around him. For example, while Trump has consistently accused China of failing to “solve” the problem of North Korea’s nuclear development, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has stated that working with China would be preferable to any military actions. Mattis has also been a strong advocate of American leadership abroad and recently visited US allies in Asia and Europe, including a stop at the Munich Security Conference where he stated, “security is always best when provided by a team.”

But there is also cause for concern about Trump’s statements on nuclear weapons. In one very important way, Trump significantly differs from his predecessors, shuns the constraints of his advisors, and presents a nuclear risk: his use of Twitter. Many of Trump’s nuclear-related tweets raise important questions about social media as a disruptive technology. For example, recent scholarship has highlighted the importance of “audience costs” in strategic signalling, whereby if a leader fails to deliver on a threat, he/she will suffer a loss of credibility in the eyes of allies and adversaries. But what is the audience cost of a tweet? Tweets are often off-the-cuff remarks without the benefit of expert advice or fact-checking. Should tweets be interpreted as credible policy statements?

Additionally, nuclear signals are often misinterpreted, particularly in times of crisis when tensions are high and decision-making time is short. Are tweets more prone to misperception than other means of signalling? It is extremely difficult to communicate such signals in 140-characters or less- Trump has offered plenty of recent examples to help prove this point. Our study did not find any clear answers to these questions, but rather highlighted the need for further research and scholarship into these policy issues.

One example of this was on December 22, 2016, when Trump tweeted, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” This could be interpreted as reinforcing Trump’s pre-established views: he is not interested in nuclear disarmament and wants to increase investment in the US nuclear infrastructure. At the same time, it suggests an arms race, which Trump later confirmed in a discussion with Mika Brzezinski, a journalist and presenter on Morning Joe, and potentially undermines America’s commitment to organizations such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and agreements such as the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia.

After attempting to decipher Trump’s statements on nuclear weapons, our study raised three big questions. First, how committed is Trump to providing nuclear security guarantees to America’s allies? The early days of the Administration have suggested it will indeed be committed to allies as demonstrated in the actions and statements of General Mattis, in particular.

Second, is there a future for US-Russia arms control? Ultimately, this will remain unclear until Putin meets Trump. While there are limited prospects for further arms control, Trump has a thirty-year-old fantasy of being an arms control negotiator and he might not want to miss the opportunity. Instead, arms control may have to get creative.

Lastly, how does social media interact with traditional means of strategic signalling? This remains to be seen. But an additional cause for concern is that of an unpredictable nature: a strategic shock. This could be positive, such as the rise of Gorbachev which offered Reagan an opportunity to pursue arms control and reduce Cold War tensions. But strategic shock can also be negative, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, which significantly shaped the Presidency of George W. Bush. Trump remains untested in his role as a crisis leader, but when the time comes, his instinct to take to Twitter may sow more confusion than security.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Institutional Complexity and the Fight against the Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

Dr. Benjamin Kienzle

When future historians will look back at the late 20th and early 21st Century, one of the most remarkable features of the international system that they will note is the exponential growth of international institutions. At the beginning of the 20th Century there were only slightly more than 30 international intergovernmental organizations in the world and in the first decade after the end of World War II this number was still relatively low, with slightly more than 100 organizations. Yet, in 2016 the total number of international intergovernmental organizations has risen to a staggering 7,657 organizations! And this still excludes international agreements, conventions, informal groups of states and international non-governmental organizations. So, the total number of ‘international institutions’ – broadly defined – is even higher. All in all, today’s international system is characterized by a puzzling maze of thousands of international organizations, treaties, agreements, conventions, protocols and informal arrangements.

One way to make sense of this institutional maze is to examine international institutions in specific issue areas such as climate change, international trade or the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. In fact, a closer look at international institutions reveals that they tend to cluster around certain issue areas. In other words, there are usually several international institutions designed to address the same global issue or problem. The big question is, of course, if this matters at all. Maybe the growth of the number of international organization is merely a reflection of nation states learning that cooperating on certain issues or problems is more effective than trying to deal with them in isolation or, even worse, in competition? After all, intuitively, few people would doubt that international organizations or agreements are inherently a good thing. The more organizations and agreements there are at the international level, the easier it is to solve certain global issues or problems! Or is it?

In recent years, International Relations scholars have developed a new concept to come to grips with the maze of international institutions in different issue areas: ‘regime complexity’. This concept helps researchers to go beyond the traditional piecemeal approach of analysing individual organizations and agreements individually. Rather, it assumes that sets of international organizations and agreements in a certain issue area such as climate change or nuclear non-proliferation form a single system or ‘complex’ of interlinked organizations and agreements. In this way, the concept of regime complexity offers a comprehensive view of international organizations and agreements, which may provide new insights into the impact that international organizations and agreements have on solving global issues and problems. As Karen J. Alter and Sophie Meunier, two of the leading scholars on regime complexity, point out, ‘Scholars who study complexity note that within complex systems, knowledge of the elementary building blocks—a termite, a neuron, a single rule—does not even give a glimpse of the behavior of the whole, and may lead to faulty understandings of the building blocks themselves’.

In a recent paper that I presented at the Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, I examined to what extent the concept of regime complexity actually helps us to understand the implications of international organizations and agreements in a concrete issue area, namely the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, which is widely recognized as one of the most serious global security issues. Nuclear non-proliferation is also a conceptually very useful issue area, as it is regulated by over 40 international organizations, agreements, conventions and protocols. Even experts lose easily count of organizations and agreements as diverse as the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials, the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, the Nuclear Suppliers Group or the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

As can be expected from a system of international organizations and agreements as complex as the one that addresses nuclear non-proliferation, the impact of that system on the fight against the spread of nuclear weapons is complex, too. On the one hand, there exists strong evidence that the increasing complexity of international non-proliferation organizations and agreements has strengthened non-proliferation. Most notably, new institutions have often closed loopholes in the previously existing institutions. For example, the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), one of the international key agreements in the fight against nuclear proliferation, does not address the issue of exports of sensitive nuclear technologies or items to countries with potential nuclear weapon programmes. Yet, in 1974, only a few years after its entry into force, it became known that India was able to test a nuclear device using a civilian nuclear reactor that was built with technical expertise imported from Canada. Thus, India’s test, codenamed ‘Smiling Buddha’, triggered the establishment of a new non-proliferation institution to prevent the use of exported civilian nuclear technology and expertise for military purposes: the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Another important advantage of complex sets of international organizations and institutions is that they can increase the commitment of nation states to an issue such as nuclear non-proliferation. Usually, the commitment of a state to an issue is seen as being stronger if it has signed up to several relevant international organizations and treaties rather than just one. In other words, one thing is to sign and ratify just the NPT, another thing is to sign and ratify the NPT, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the so-called Additional Protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

On the other hand, however, it is forgotten all too often that complexity also creates a number of institutional problems. In my paper for the Annual Convention of the International Studies Association I highlighted three in particular: First, the system of international non-proliferation organizations and agreements has grown in such a way that it has only strengthened non-proliferation in a strict sense. Originally, however, the international non-proliferation commitment was seen as a ‘grand bargain’ between nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states. As part of this bargain, nuclear weapon states committed also to nuclear disarmament and the uninhibited access to peaceful nuclear energy. Yet, only very few of today’s relevant international organizations and agreements address either nuclear disarmament or nuclear energy promotion. Hence, the current system of international non-proliferation organizations and agreements undermines the basis of the ‘grand bargain’. At some point, frustrated non-nuclear weapon states may well conclude that the ‘grand bargain’ has failed.

Second, a complex system of organizations and agreements inhibits the free flow of crucial information. For example, the International Atomic Energy Agency may have sensitive information that is relevant for the Nuclear Suppliers Group – and vice versa. But they usually do not share their information. Third, if there are many organizations and agreements addressing in one way or another the same global issue or problem, nation states tend to cherry pick those organizations and agreements that are most suitable for their narrow national gains rather than for addressing the global issue in the most effective way. In other words, by facilitating cherry-picking (or ‘forum-shopping’ in academic parlance) complexity undermines, once more, the ultimate goal of international organizations and agreements, in this case the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

All in all, while the increasing complexity of nuclear non-proliferation organizations and treaties has strengthened the regime as a whole so far, it has also caused new or exacerbated existing problems that should not be ignored. These problems may still get worse in the coming years and have the potential to undermine the very foundations on which international non-proliferation efforts are built.

Image: The IAEA in Vienna. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Three Questions for Indian Nuclear Policy


India’s nuclear forces are growing in diversity and technical capability. Unprecedented new nuclear posture options are being placed in the hands of Indian defence planners. India today stands ready to field the first of an indigenous fleet of nuclear-armed submarines; ICBM-range ballistic missiles; and a new generation of short-range ballistic missiles. The triad of nuclear forces deliverable from land, air and sea that was first envisioned in India’s 1999 draft nuclear doctrine is therefore finally coming into operational view. With a growing range of technical choices for how it wishes to structure its nuclear force, India must soon select from among these its preferred posture.

This notable technical progress coincides with a strategic environment that is growingly complex. China’s defence outlook is increasingly assertive, and it is fielding a new generation of SSBNs and restructuring its nuclear force governance in order to strengthen deterrence. Pakistan is estimated to have one of the fastest-growing nuclear arsenals in the world and is developing 60km-range tactical nuclear missiles in order to immediately threaten nuclear consequences at any level of future conventional conflict with India.

Combined with the new technical force options available to India, these shifts in the strategic environment create conditions that merit a review of India’s nuclear doctrine and posture. Some factors that should be integrated into this review can be summarised into three questions.

  1. What role should India’s nuclear force play in deterring new threats in the land domain?

Since 2003, India has articulated a no-first-use nuclear doctrine, but one promises massive retaliation to any adversary nuclear attack. Indian strategists have been frustrated by the ability of Pakistan conventional forces and by militant groups operating from Pakistan, undeterred by Indian nuclear weapons, to launch subconventional and limited conventional attacks. Slow Indian military mobilisation in reaction to these attacks have weakened the potential Indian response. Propelled by these frustrations, the Indian Army developed a “Cold Start” concept in 2004. This concept intends to quickly mobilise and launch integrated battle groups to seize and hold limited tracts of Pakistan territory within 72 to 96 hours. While the Army and Indian government have denied that the concept represents actual military doctrine, recent Army exercises involve manoeuvres similar to Cold Start thinking.

Pakistan announced the development of a 60km-range “Nasr” nuclear missile in 2011, and claims that this new nuclear capability is intended to deter any Indian Cold Start-like operation. Combined with a new nuclear concept of “full spectrum deterrence”, Pakistan now intends to threaten immediate nuclear escalation of almost every level of potential conventional conflict with India.

India simultaneously faces new land-based threats from China. China’s nuclear and conventional military technology is at least one generation ahead of that of India. Beijing has long held the ability to hold the entirety of the Indian mainland at nuclear risk. However, recent developments include the restructuring of Chinese nuclear forces under a new Rocket Force, strengthening their governance; heavy investment in ballistic missiles, presenting difficulty for Indian defence planners to distinguish between their potential nuclear or conventional missions; and logistics advancements close to the disputed border with India. While India struggles to raise enough forces along the border to generate an effective conventional deterrent, concerns about perceived Chinese dark intentions and conventional superiority has led to calls to end India’s no-first-use policy.

  1. How should India manage regional seaborne nuclear deterrence?

India, China and Pakistan are all currently working on fielding nuclear-armed naval forces. India’s first indigenous SSBN, the Arihant, was reported as ready for service on February 23. China is developing a Jin-class SSBN fleet, while Pakistan agreed in October to purchase 8 diesel-electric submarines from China. The latter boats are widely viewed as intended to be assigned nuclear missions in future. These three states have little operational experience of managing seaborne nuclear forces, and will naturally gain this experience partly through incidents that are learned from.

These nuclear-armed vessels join already fierce conventional naval competition. Pakistan is focusing particularly on anti-access/area denial capabilities, including submarines, fast missile boats, and anti-ship ballistic missiles, in order to challenge India’s carrier-based naval forces. Chinese submarines were suspected to be exploring waters close to a major Indian military command last month, and have previously docked in Colombo, Gwadar and Karachi. With virtually no maritime dialogue among these states and little shared understanding of naval and nuclear intentions, the risk grows of misperceiving an adversary nuclear-armed vessel as a conventional boat, with inadvertent escalatory implications.

  1. How should a nuclear doctrinal review be conducted?

Calls for a review of Indian nuclear doctrine are growing, and have recently been made by a retired External Affairs minister, a former Strategic Forces Command chief, a retired Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff, and a former National Security Advisor among others. The election manifesto of the BJP government, elected in 2014, appeared to accede to this pressure, promising to “revise and update” the doctrine “to make it relevant to challenges of current times”. However, this prompted robust international concerns that any doctrinal revision could end the no-first-use policy and generally assign nuclear weapons a greater role in Indian defence than at present. This furore erupted as India continues to seek acceptance as a “responsible nuclear power” as a full member of global nuclear order institutions, such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group and Missile Technology Control Regime.

Facing these pressures, newly elected Prime Minister Modi declared in August 2014 that “we are not taking any initiative for a review of our nuclear doctrine.” However, this still leaves unaddressed the issue that the doctrine has not been publicly reviewed since 2003 in light of the evolving challenges detailed above. With Indian nuclear force advancements one of the few bright spots of general Indian military modernisation, there is a worrying tendency for Indian analysts to occasionally suggest that new nuclear platforms have a relevance to conventional challenges. This occurs due to the absence of a recent iteration of nuclear doctrine that addresses the new strategic environment and clearly structures the roles of Indian conventional and nuclear forces within this environment.

Given the pressures against India revising its stand-alone nuclear doctrine, India should instead conduct a broader public official defence review. This review would incorporate assessments of the above strategic challenges and assign conventional and nuclear forces to each challenge as necessary. Crucially, it would reiterate that nuclear forces only obtain credibility as a last-resort tool to safeguard national survival and that other challenges should be met by building and deploying strong conventional defences.

Whether or not this official defence review is conducted, the future of Indian nuclear policy and regional stability will depend to a great extent on how New Delhi answers these three questions. Those interested in Asian security should watch closely.

Dr Frank O’Donnell is Lecturer in Strategic Studies at Plymouth University at the Britannia Royal Naval College, specialising in Indian and Asian security issues. He obtained his PhD from the Defence Studies Department in 2015. You can follow him on Twitter @frank11285.

Image: Construction site of the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Iran’s Regional Interests

P5+1 Talks With Iran in Geneva, Switzerland

This is the first post in a series of posts to come out of the ‘Regional Study Day: The Middle East’, held at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom on 13 May 2015. This study day was organized by the Defence Culture and Languages Centre (DCLC) and the Defence Studies Department’s  Regional Security Research Centre.


The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) has often been portrayed as having aggressive and expansionist intentions in its Middle Eastern neighbourhood. However, by observing the country’s pragmatic reactions to Islamic State or DAESH and the domestic political competition in Iran, it is clear that a more nuanced Iranian course of action is being played out in the region.

In a recent workshop on the Middle East at the Defence, Culture and Language Centre (DCLC), I argued that the IRI has been balancing these two elements (pragmatism and domestic competition) in order to safeguard its primal interest – the safeguarding of the Revolution. Specifically, this is concerned with ensuring that the post-1979 Revolutionary regime in Iran is kept in tact, something which is mandated in the country’s constitution.

Additionally, when concerned with the provisional nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the US, the UK, France, China, Russia plus Germany) – which has a deadline of 30 June 2015 to iron out the finer details of the deal – these two elements are very much in play. Pertinently, on this occasion, the P5+1 has recognised ‘Iranian Pride’ in the negotiation process. This is something which appears to be key to unlocking a deal as it resonates well with notions of safeguarding the Revolution.

As I noted in my previous post, Iran’s Response to DAESH: It’s all about the Revolution, Tehran has been carrying out discretionary actions in response to the threat of DAESH. This developed from initial support for the former Nouri Al-Maliki Iraqi Prime Minister, into providing political, military, economic and humanitarian aid to DAESH combatants (mainly Kurdish and Shia actors). Furthermore, the informal engagement with Saudi Arabia – in the form of an Iranian-Saudi Foreign Minister meeting on the fringes of the September 2014 Annual UN Conference – combined with the fact that Iran has been less critical of US operations against DAESH reflects this view. This latter point is of specific significance, as it is almost contradictory to the constitutional article which sets its sights on achieving ‘the complete elimination of Imperialism and the prevention of foreign influence’ (Iranian Constitution, 1989, Article 3, Point 5). This demonstrates a level of pragmatism and willingness to cooperate with various aspects of the international community to affront the DAESH threat, as this is complementary to minimising the threat DAESH poses against the Revolutionary regime.

The second element in play when concerned with deciphering Iranian interests, is the domestic political competition in the country. Indeed, the oppositional Hard-line or Conservative factions in Iran have rejected the nuclear deal claiming that it demonstrates weakness and infringes upon Tehran’s sovereign rights. However, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei (who has often aligned himself with the Conservatives in Iran) has tacitly supported the deal. As a result, the Conservatives have been conveying their opposition to the deal through various actions which have the potential to unhinge an agreement. A primal example of this came between 28 April and 7 May when the Marshal Islands flagged MAERSK ship was detained. The eventual release of the ship did however infer an appetite to avoid confrontation and reach a nuclear agreement – even if this appetite was minimal.

As a result, Iran is demonstrating signs of an increased willingness to cooperate with the international community – even if it is with its own interests in mind. The hope is that this sentiment holds enough momentum for an agreement to be reached on the 30th of June.

Image: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits sits with his fellow P5+1 foreign ministers — as well as European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, far right — at the United Nations Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, after the group concluded negotiations about Iran’s nuclear capabilities on November 24, 2013. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Arms Control After Ukraine


Yesterday’s ceasefire in Ukraine can hardly be considered a Valentine. Tensions remain high between Russia and NATO over Ukraine, and past attempts at compromise failed or proved to be short-lived. A recent Washington Post op-ed by Anne Applebaum called on the international community to focus on a long-term strategy for dealing with Russia, rather than getting too distracted by short-term tactical questions. Russia is decidedly taking a long-view of its role not only in Europe but also in geopolitical balancing worldwide. A previous piece as part of this series by Tracy German highlighted Russia’s long-term attitudes and ambitions, which include an increased reliance on nuclear weapons to deter both nuclear and conventional threats.

Yet for the most part, events in Ukraine- to include Russian violation of Ukrainian borders and sovereignty, along with support for rebel forces- are likely to have minimal impact on nuclear non-proliferation and arms control policies. The same can be said for Russia’s ‘new’ military doctrine and nuclear posture. This is a case of correlation: changes in nuclear policy and non-proliferation are a reflection of the same shifts that led to events in Ukraine. The impact on nuclear policies, however, will be felt within NATO regarding the status of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Ultimately, the Ukraine crisis shed light on underlying tensions that have existed for years as a result of Russia’s evolving view of its role in the world, epitomized in the machismo of President Putin, to include its attitude towards nuclear weapons as a source of prestige.

Prospects for further arms control in the near future are unlikely, but this was the case before events unfolded in Ukraine. Following the 2010 New START Treaty, it became clear that Washington and Moscow had very different views as to what would be the next step in bilateral arms control. Russia insists the next agreement be multilateral and continues to express frustration with U.S. plans for missile defence in Europe and advanced conventional weapons; whereas the United States would want to see tactical nuclear weapons under discussion. Any informal agreements are unlikely as Russia will want a legally-binding mechanism for further reductions and unilateral reductions are unappetizing in the current Washington political climate.

A July 2014 report by the U.S. State Department concluded Russia was in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which committed both states to refrain from producing, possessing, or testing ground launched cruise missiles with a range of 500-5500km. The timing of the accusation suggested a link to events in Ukraine as the State Department report was released just weeks after the shoot-down of MH17. However, Russia may have been in violation of the treaty since as early as 2008 and in January 2014 the United States informed its NATO allies of missile testing that violated the INF Treaty. While Ukraine provided the opportunity for highlighting these incidents, they had been going on for years before Russian troops crossed the border.

In another blow to nuclear cooperation, in December 2014 Russia announced it would no longer accept U.S. assistance in securing its nuclear materials as part of a two-decade initiative, the Nunn-Lugar Programme. The timing of this announcement certainly can be seen as linked to souring relations over Ukraine, but for Russia the programme has been controversial since its 1992 inception. Accepting U.S. assistance, both financial and on-site inspectors, may have contributed to securing dangerous materials and weapons, but for many Russian hardliners this was a reminder of events in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War in the early 1990’s, an era of shame. The end of nuclear security cooperation was but one more example of an increasingly assertive Russia, not necessarily a result of events in Ukraine. For many Russians, the Cold War never ended.

On a more positive note, the United States and Russia continue to work together in other areas of arms control and non-proliferation. According to the U.S. State Department, as of the fourth year of New START’s implementation there have been over 8,000 data exchanges and eighteen inspections by each country. Other areas of cooperation include destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and ongoing negotiations with Iran as part of the P5+1 (along with China, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) to roll-back the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme.

Where events in Ukraine will truly have an impact on nuclear policies, however, is within NATO. In another piece as part of this series, Ellen Hallams noted that Russia’s actions in Ukraine have re-energised NATO but have not necessarily led to NATO solidarity. This is certainly true for NATO nuclear policy. U.S. tactical nuclear weapons remain in five NATO countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey) but NATO has consistently avoided difficult questions as to the status of these weapons. For eastern NATO states, particularly the Baltics, these weapons along with U.S. missile defence plans are a crucial part of the Alliance’s security guarantee and source of reassurance. For others, including many of the states hosting the weapons, they undermine global efforts at disarmament, among other concerns. Russian incursions into Ukraine may exacerbate these divisions within NATO and the status of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe is increasingly unavoidable.

Arms control is certainly at a pause, but it is hardly dead. New START inspections continue, along with cooperation on other non-proliferation issues, such as Iran. Taking a long-term view, as Russia appears to be doing, arms control remains in Russia’s interest because it feeds into Putinist ideology. Russia’s nuclear weapons are a reminder of its superpower status and any negotiations that puts it at the table with the United States, along with any resulting agreement solidifying parity in the two countries’ arsenals, reaffirms this world vision about Russia’s place in the world. Eventually, Russia will return to the arms control fold, likely as New START’s expiration approaches and Russia faces the prospect of losing the prestige of arms control, insights into the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and faces the financial costs of sustaining a massive arsenal. In the long-term, the West should be ready for when this time comes and remember that pressure, along with concessions, will be necessary.

Image: US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev sign the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), Prague, 8 April 2010. Photo courtesy of Russian Presidential Press and Information Office.



Using economic sanctions to curb state behaviour is something which has conventionally been considered as an apt supporter or supported government tool alongside military and political levers of power. Indeed, whilst it is increasingly important to combine economic, military, and political methods to achieve influence, it is nevertheless important to understand the context and environment in which these efforts are exercised. In a recent conference paper, I analysed this issue in the context of the United States policy of using sanctions to influence Iranian behaviour (specifically with respect to its nuclear programme).

The paper, at the Seventh Annual Association for the Study of the Middle East and Afric (ASMEA) Conference: Searching for Balance in the Middle East and Africa, titled ‘The Political Economy of US-Iranian Relations (2005-2014)’, identified the fact that the nature of the international political system is such that any form of sanctions are necessarily more effective on a multilateral as opposed to a bilateral level. This can be explained through an understanding of the context in which the sanctions were implemented.

When the initial sanctions were put in place against the revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) regime in 1979, the Middle Eastern state was much less dependent on foreign states. Or more importantly, Iran was more dependent on the US prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Then in the mid-1990s, the US upped the pressure on the international community (through the United Nations and unilaterally) to align against the IRI. At this point, notably the European Union (EU) refuted this US pressure to punish Iran, and even threatened to take the US imposed 1996 Iran and Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), citing its extraterritorial nature (and negative impact on European interests). This initial sabre rattling ultimately led to a US-EU agreement the following year foregoing the ILSA targeting European companies and interests in Iran (and Libya). This not only demonstrated the resistance to US pressure to sanction the IRI, but also the relatively positive light in which EU-Iranian ties were viewed from Brussels.

Then in the early 2000s, Iran was revealed to have more advanced nuclear capabilities than initially thought, with respect to the purpose and development of its Natanz and Arak facilities. Cue new bouts of US bilateral sanctions on Iran and pressure for multilateral action against the perceived threat of the IRI. At that point, the EU still resisted punishing Iran through sanctions and pursued a diplomatic approach to the problem under the guise of the EU3 (namely; the UK, France and Germany) from 2002 to 2006. During these four years, the EU continued to use this soft approach (with an ebb and flow of US support). However, the EU3 goal of ensuring IRI transparency and coordination through the UN nuclear watchdog, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was left unachieved. As a result, the EU began to increase and implemented sanctions on Iran between 2007 and 2012, thereby aligning itself with the US intent on curbing the IRI’s behaviour.

Then in 2013, the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) was agreed upon between Iran and the P5+1 (or the EU3+3 – the EU3 successor), that is the 5 members of the UNSC plus Germany, made possible via the mediation efforts of the EU’s Foreign Policy Chief, Lady Catherine Ashton. This new hope for a comprehensive solution to the problem once again demonstrated the interdependent nature of the international system, in the sense that the agreement required the presence and assent from the 5 (6 including the EU) actors represented. Therefore, in order for the US policy of using sanctions to curb Iranian behaviour in this context, it would need the support from the fellow P5+1 members in order for it to be effective.

As a result, increased sanctions past the 24 November 2014 deadline set for an agreement over the JPA (which has already been extended once), are unlikely to succeed given the varying interests of the actors involved (P5+1). What this tells us is that the more interconnected the international system becomes, a single state’s actions become diluted and less effective. Even in the case of the US.

Image: Secretary Kerry Poses With Iranian, E.U., and Oman Ministers Before Trilateral Negotiations in Muscat About Future of Iran’s Nuclear ProgramU.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stands with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif of Iran, Baroness Catherine Ashton of the European Union, and Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawai of Oman before the U.S., Iran, and the E.U. began three-way negotiations about the future of Iran’s nuclear program in Muscat, Oman, on November 9, 2014. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Reflections on Deterrence and the Lessons of History


The reflections of ‘Cold War warriors’ provided prescient insights into the wider application of deterrence during a recent Witness Seminar organised by the Defence Studies Department and the Institute for Contemporary British History at the Institute of Historical Research.

The term ‘deterrence’ is often used by policy makers, academics and the media to encompass a more complex construct beyond purely deterring an adversary to encompassing acts of ‘compellence’.  While the two terms are subsets of coercive practice, the distinguishing feature of deterrence is that the aim is to maintain the status quo, while compellence involves seeking to modify an extant situation and usually requires an escalatory approach involving the threat of force and its application if required; deterrence fails, of course, at the point an adversary pursues a course of action which the deterrer was seeking to avoid.  Both deterrence and compellence can be based upon threatening either to punish an adversary or to deny its objectives.  It is important to understand that such approaches can only work if they are deemed to be credible on the part of the adversary. This applies in the realm of both conventional and nuclear strategies.

It is commonly assumed that Britain’s approach to deterrence in the Cold War primarily relied upon the threat of nuclear retaliation, but the Witness Seminar demonstrated that a major element of the British deterrence posture involved conventional forces.  In particular evidence was presented about deterring Indonesia during the Confrontation under Plan Addington in 1964.  This saw a complex series of tactical and operational plans to target critical Indonesian infrastructure utilising the RAF’s V Force in a conventional role.  The plans were heavily dependent on tanker support and raised questions about the effects that could be achieved, which has resonance with some of the planning considerations that affected the bombing raids against Port Stanley in 1982.  The evidence challenged some assumptions about the effectiveness of the deterrence of Indonesia; there have been suggestions in recent years that the Indonesians did not fully appreciate that Plan Addington was meant to deter them. However, the evidence of witnesses points to the apparent delay in certain Indonesian troop deployments which took place once the V-bombers had been withdrawn; this hints at a more complicated picture. The complimentary nature of long-range strike platforms and aircraft carriers was brought out through this example.

The inter-action of air and maritime forces was further highlighted by witness presentations on maritime patrol, anti-submarine and Royal Navy submarine operations in the face of a growing Soviet naval threat.  Prior to the event some of the witnesses sought approval for their presentations from the Ministry of Defence and were asked to remove references to specific operational details, perhaps suggesting a degree of continuity between the supposedly obsolescent methodologies of the Cold War and current preoccupations.

Nuclear deterrence, once an area of extensive debate, has since the end of the Cold War been ‘de-prioritised’ but has remained a subject in which thinking and practice has continued to evolve. The concepts relating to Assured Destruction remain relevant although traditional thinking based upon the primacy of offense over defence has been subject to challenge.  Developments in defensive technology, notably in the United States have created new debates in which missile defence has become part of the American deterrence posture.

The presentations nonetheless highlighted conceptual continuities with consideration of the British approach to denying Soviet freedom of action through the use of these air and maritime assets.  The credibility of this approach to denial was illustrated through a number of tactical examples in which witnesses had participated showing the complex relationship that can exist between tactical level activity and strategic intent. The evidence presented by all the witnesses gave rise to a view amongst the audience that despite populist commentary that the Cold War was very much sui generis there is still much relevant read-across between this period and the present.  Questions of how to deter potential adversaries and how to measure the effect achieved upon opponents remain critical considerations in the planning and execution of contemporary operations, as does the matter of how to make clear that deterrence as a concept is not exclusively about nuclear weapons.

It is timely perhaps to remember that deterrence even during the Cold War was about the whole range of capabilities, rather than just the ultimate nuclear ‘big stick’.  The dual-hatting of the V force for these operations placed a strain on the routine maintenance of Britain’s nuclear deterrence, illustrating some of the challenges in the balancing of deterrence forces and achieving a satisfactory blend of nuclear and conventional capabilities.

Image: Trafalgar Class Fleet Submarine HMS Turbulent is pictured in front of Type 23 frigate HMS St Albans, during an anti-submarine exercise in the Gulf of Oman. Courtesy of