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“Stop or I’ll Shoot, Comply and I Won’t”: The Dilemma of Coercive Assurance in International Politics

Successful coercive strategies require not only that I credibly threaten you until you comply, but also that I credibly assure you that I will not punish you after you comply. This is the overlooked dilemma at the heart of coercion. In my dissertation, I develop and test Coercive Assurance Theory to show that coercion is more likely to succeed when credible threats are paired with credible assurance. Threats often fail because they are insufficiently contingent in the eyes of targets.

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States can generate credible assurance through three strategies: Disentangling Demands, Exerting Coercive Control, and Reducing the Visibility of Concessions. Coercers often make multiple demands of targets but fail to keep punishments and demands discretely linked. Coercers also navigate their own domestic and international coalitions, which contain actors with varying interests. Unified coercers mitigate fears of capricious punishment. And visibility reduction—for example, allowing targets to plausibly deny their concessions—diminishes target fears of paying reputational costs. 

I examine cases of coercive bargaining between non-allies over nuclear weapons programs, especially South Africa, Libya, Iran, and North Korea. I rely on primary documents from the U.S. government, the South African apartheid-era government, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). I supplement my archival research with the memoirs, recollections, and writings of target state policymakers, military leaders, and nuclear scientists. I also conduct interviews with participants in relevant policy-making processes.