ISSF Article Review on “Alliance Coercion and Nuclear Restraint: How the United States Thwarted West Germany’s Nuclear Ambitions.” International Security 39:3

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Gene Gerzhoy.  “Alliance Coercion and Nuclear Restraint:  How the United States Thwarted West Germany’s Nuclear Ambitions.”  International Security 39:3 (Spring 2015):  91-129.  DOI:  10.1162/ISEC_a_00198.

Reviewed by Nicholas L. Miller, Brown University

Published by ISSF on 1 April 2016

In “Alliance Coercion and Nuclear Restraint,” Gene Gerzhoy offers a novel theory of how alliances can prevent nuclear proliferation. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, which holds that alliances prevent proliferation by reassuring the client state and providing a substitute for an indigenous arsenal, Gerzhoy argues that clients in threatening security environments will nonetheless be interested in nuclear weapons since they can never have full confidence in their patrons’ present and future commitments. As a result, in order to prevent a client from going nuclear, the patron must employ threats of military abandonment, coupled with an assurance that its security commitment will be maintained (or increased) if the client complies and gives up its nuclear program. Whether these threats are successful, according to Gerzhoy, depends on the degree to which the client is militarily dependent on its patron. The article tests the theory with an in-depth examination of U.S. policy toward West Germany’s nuclear ambitions in the 1950s and 1960s. Consistent with the theory, Gerzhoy finds that West Germany was interested in nuclear weapons despite American protection, and that it only gave up these ambitions as a result of American coercion and assurances.

Gerzhoy’s article is without a doubt a major contribution to the literature on nuclear proliferation. In addition to providing a novel, coherent theory of how alliances can prevent proliferation through coercion rather than just reassurance, the article also helps resolve the puzzle of why so many states with nuclear protectors have nonetheless sought their own nuclear arsenals. As Gerzhoy explains, “military insecurity and uncertainty about a patron’s intentions create powerful incentives for states to seek both security guarantees and nuclear weapons,” the latter as a hedge against allied abandonment (96). The fact that insecure clients will worry about their patrons’ commitment helps explain why, as Gerzhoy notes, twelve out of twenty-seven U.S. clients explored or pursued nuclear weapons during the Cold War in spite of American protection (99). This even includes clients that were home to large contingents of U.S. troops and U.S. nuclear weapons, including South Korea, Taiwan, France, the United Kingdom, and West Germany. If reassurance should have operated in any cases, it should have been these.

In addition to the theoretical contribution, Gerzhoy’s article makes a significant empirical contribution as well, providing intriguing evidence on a historically pivotal but understudied case of (non)proliferation. As Gerzhoy rightly notes, many proliferation datasets and scholars overlook the West Germany case entirely (93). Building on the work of two historians, Marc Trachtenberg and Hans-Peter Schwarz,[1] Gerzhoy deftly combines secondary and primary sources. The article convincingly demonstrates that Bonn was indeed interested in acquiring nuclear weapons but that a combination of U.S. coercion and assurances forced German leaders to back away from these plans.

Beyond simply drawing attention to the West German case, Gerzhoy’s work improves on existing scholarship in a number of ways. By highlighting the crucial importance of alliance coercion, the article moves beyond important work by Philipp Bleek, Eric Lorber, and TV Paul on alliances and proliferation that focuses solely on reassurances.[2]

It also improves on the few works of political science scholarship that engage with the West Germany case, most recently that of Nuno Monteiro and Alexandre Debs.[3] Although their historical account largely mirrors that of Gerzhoy, and concurs on the role of U.S. coercion, their theory cannot explain why West Germany was interested in nuclear weapons in the first place. After all, their theory holds that, “When the powerful ally shares all of the protégé’s serious security threats and possesses the capability to mitigate them, the protégé is unlikely to see a benefit in nuclear acquisition and will no longer possess the willingness to nuclearize.”[4] The United States clearly shared West Germany’s only serious security threat (the Soviet Union). Moreover, Washington offered Bonn perhaps the strongest allied commitment in U.S. history, providing not only hundreds of thousands of American troops and a formal treaty guarantee, but also stationing nuclear weapons in West Germany and providing West German troops with physical access to those weapons under the NATO stockpile plan. Monteiro and Debs therefore cannot explain why Bonn was interested in nuclear weapons at all.  Gerzhoy resolves this problem by explaining that clients in insecure environments will always worry that a commitment will not endure, no matter how strong it appears to be at the time.

Despite its many strengths, Gerzhoy’s work raises a few questions. First, the theory and case evidence are somewhat unclear about what is needed to successfully assure clients in concert with the coercion. The article initially suggests that deploying troops and consulting on military strategy are the silver bullets (92), but this raises the question of how many troops are necessary and exactly what type of consultation is needed. Moreover, in the West Germany case itself, the Johnson administration’s decision to abandon the Multilateral Force seems to have played a critical role in undermining U.S. assurances, thereby leading Bonn again to flirt with nuclear weapons (118-119). This suggests that promising multilateral control of nuclear weapons—in addition to troop commitments and consultation—was a crucial aspect of U.S. assurance in this case.  From a policy perspective, it would be useful to have a more specific answer as to what exactly to offer an ally in order to assure it and thereby prevent proliferation.

Second, the article begs the question of why clients cannot anticipate that their patrons will coerce them, thus deterring them from starting a nuclear weapons program in the first place. Do they gamble on keeping their programs secret? Do they intend to use the nuclear program as a bargaining chip to extract additional resources or commitments from their ally? My own research on U.S. nonproliferation policy suggests a potential answer for the West Germany case: namely, that the United States did not develop a credible reputation for enforcing nonproliferation until the 1970s, and so West Germany may not, at least initially, have expected such harsh U.S. pressure.[5]

Like any good piece of research, Gerzhoy’s work leaves a few questions unanswered that will likely spur future research. But these are relatively minor quibbles. The importance of the theoretical and empirical contribution should make this article required reading for students and scholars of nuclear proliferation.


Nicholas L. Miller is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Brown University. His research focuses primarily on the causes and consequences of nuclear proliferation. He is currently working on a book manuscript that examines the historical development and efficacy of U.S. nonproliferation policy. His work has been published in the American Political Science Review, International Organization, International Security, the Journal of Conflict Resolution, and Security Studies. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from MIT in 2014.

Copyright ©2016 The Authors.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License


[1] Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999); and Hans-Peter Schwarz, Konrad Adenauer: A German Politician and Statesman in a Period of War, Revolution, and Reconstruction (Providence: Berghahn, 1997).

[2] Philipp Bleek and Eric Lorber, “Security Guarantees and Allied Nuclear Proliferation,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 58, No. 3 (2014): 429-454; and TV Paul, Power Versus Prudence: Why Nations Forgo Nuclear Weapons (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press), 2000.

[3] Nuno Monteiro and Alexandre Debs, “The Strategic Logic of Nuclear Proliferation,” International Security 39, No. 2 (2014): 7-51.

[4] Ibid., 16.

[5] Nicholas L. Miller, “The Secret Success of Nonproliferation Sanctions,” International Organization 68, No. 4 (2014): 913-944.

Dear H-Diplo List Members:

I appreciate Nicholas Miller's succinct summary and appropriately positive evaluation of Gene Gerzhoy's recent International Security article.

I would like to add one observation. Miller, following Gerzhoy's lead, treats coercion as a policy tool that is distinctly separable from security assurances. This is appropriate up to a point, as the two operate by different logics and can feel very different to the recipient. But the two can also be more closely related than this sharp distinction recognizes. By analogy, sanctions and incentives can function as two sides of the same coin. Once sanctions have been in place for some time, the promise to lift them can be offered as a positive incentive.

Several years ago, I directed a project to evaluate security assurances as a nonproliferation tool, which was published by Stanford University Press under the title Security Assurances and Nuclear Nonproliferation.The concluding chapter of that volume, by Jim Wirtz, pointed out that there can be an element of coercion associated with assurances, in that once a country has made a security commitment to another state it can later threaten to withdraw that commitment as a form of coercive pressure.

My book was also specifically designed to try to identify conditions that make assurances more or less likely to be effective. I agree with Miller about the importance of learning more "about what is needed to successfully assure clients" and refer interested readers to my book for some preliminary findings on that question.

Jeffrey Knopf
Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey
Monterey, CA 93940

Dear H-Diplo List Members:

We read with great interest Nicholas Miller's review of Gene Gerzhoy's article, "Alliance Coercion and Nuclear Restraint," International Security 39:4 (Spring 2015): 91-129.

In his review Miller criticizes our article "The Strategic Logic of Nuclear Proliferation" (henceforth SLNP), International Security 39:2 (Fall 2014): 7-51. Specifically, Miller criticizes our theory for failing to account for West Germany's nuclear behavior, even though this is one of the historical cases we discussed in our article. In his view, our argument "cannot explain why West Germany was interested in nuclear weapons in the first place." To substantiate this claim, Miller quotes from our article, in which we wrote: "[w]hen the powerful ally shares all of the protégé's serious security threats and possesses the capability to mitigate them, the protégé is unlikely to see a benefit in nuclear acquisition and will no longer possess the willingness to nuclearize" (SLNP 16).

According to Miller, "[t]he United States clearly shared West Germany's only serious security threat (the Soviet Union). Moreover, Washington offered Bonn perhaps the strongest allied commitment in U.S. history, providing not only hundreds of thousands of American troops and a formal treaty guarantee, but also stationing nuclear weapons in West Germany and providing West German troops with physical access to those weapons under the NATO stockpile plan. Monteiro and Debs therefore cannot explain why Bonn was interested in nuclear weapons at all."

This conclusion results from an incorrect rendition of our argument. It also entails an questionable interpretation of West Germany's nuclear experience.

The argument we introduced in SLNP includes a nuanced treatment of the role of allies in shaping a state's odds of proliferation. In order to place in context the quotation that Miller extracted from our work, here is what we wrote in the theory section of our article about an ally's role in conditioning its protégé's willingness to acquire nuclear weapons:

The more reliably a powerful ally commits to defend its protégé's security interests from their common adversaries, the lower the security benefit of proliferation will be for the protégé. When the powerful ally shares all of the protégé's serious security threats and possesses the capability to mitigate them, the protégé is unlikely to see a benefit in nuclear acquisition and will no longer possess the willingness to nuclearize. ... [S]tates protected by a powerful ally are likely to acquire the bomb only when ... the powerful ally fails to guarantee all of the security goals of its protégé, thereby making it willing to nuclearize. ... If the powerful ally's commitment to the potential proliferator's security credibly covers all of the protégé's aims, the latter will have no willingness to nuclearize. Therefore, proliferation will not occur. A protégé will possess the willingness to go nuclear only when its powerful ally fails to mitigate all of its security threats reliably. In other words, proliferation by the protégé of a powerful state requires an imperfect overlap between the security interests of the two alliance partners. This imperfect overlap may manifest itself in two ways. First, and most obviously, the potential proliferator may find that its ally is insufficiently committed to its security, either because it provides only a limited amount of protection or because the long-term reliability of its protection is questionable. Second, the potential proliferator may possess broader security interests that would benefit from nuclear possession but that its ally is unwilling to guarantee. According to this logic, the wider the range of security goals of the potential proliferator that an ally does not protect, the higher the likelihood of nuclearization. States that care only about their own survival will be willing to nuclearize only if they do not trust their allies' long-term reliability; states with broader security goals may possess the willingness to nuclearize even when their powerful allies reliably protect their homeland. (SLNP 16-18, footnotes omitted)

As should be clear from this passage, we argue that if a state enjoys the protection of a security sponsor, it will have the willingness to build nuclear weapons whenever it doubts the reliability of that protection.

Such was the case with West Germany in the late 1950s. West German leaders worried that U.S. policy-makers did not share their security interests. At times they worried that the Americans would be too keen to use nuclear weapons to repel a Soviet invasion. At times they worried that Washington would order a retreat into "Fortress America." These security fears are documented in our article. Here is what we wrote:

The United States saw the protection of West Germany—and of Western Europe more generally—as a key global interest, given their geographical proximity to Soviet territory and economic potential. Consequently, the United States committed significant resources to the European theater in the form of the Marshall Plan and the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Yet doubts soon emerged about the reliability of U.S. commitments. In 1955 the Carte Blanche war games estimated the number of German citizens killed or injured in a superpower conflict at 5 million. In July 1956, the Radford plan, which laid out U.S. intentions to withdraw 800,000 troops from the continent and rely more heavily on nuclear weapons, was leaked to the press.

These developments caused great alarm in Bonn. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer declared to the press that he opposed a policy where 'America is a fortress for itself, because that would mean that we would be outside that fortress.' He wrote to U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles on July 22, 1956, that as a result of the Radford plan, 'Europe, including Germany, has lost its confidence in the United States' reliability.' In September 1956, Adenauer declared that 'Germany cannot remain a nuclear protectorate.' Consequently, he vowed to acquire 'the most modern weapons' for West Germany. The following month, Franz Josef Strauss was named minister of defense. Both Adenauer and Strauss were committed to acquiring nuclear weapons.

The Soviet Union's successful launch of Sputnik in October 1957 further exacerbated Bonn's security concerns. West Germany held bilateral talks with France and, in April 1958, signed an agreement with both the Paris and Rome governments for the development of a secret nuclear program. (SLNP 42-43, footnotes omitted)

Contrary to what Miller claims, by the late 1950s West Germany did not think that Washington shared all of its serious security interests, nor that it possessed the capability to mitigate them; hence Bonn was willing to build nuclear weapons.

To conclude, while Miller's review does not accurately represent our argument and does not do justice to West Germany's security concerns, we agree with Miller's encouragement of the H-Diplo community to read Gerzhoy's historically rich and interesting article.

Alexandre Debs and Nuno P. Monteiro
Yale University
New Haven, CT 06520