Nuclear proliferation expert Reid Pauly joins Watson faculty

Reid Pauly, Dean's Assistant Professor of Nuclear Security and Policy, focuses his research on coercion, nuclear weapons proliferation, and wargaming. After earning his Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Security Studies Program, he was a Stanton postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

What drew you to studying nuclear issues? 

In 1945, humans invented the technology to destroy themselves. Today, nuclear weapons are one of three existential threats to the globe (the other two: pandemics and climate change). I believe that careful study can help governments manage these risks in perpetuity, and I wanted to devote my career to one of them. I am part of a renaissance in nuclear security studies that is questioning Cold War-era conventional wisdom on how to manage dual-use technology.

Your book project (tentatively titled The Assurance Dilemma in Coercive International Politics) focuses on the “assurance dilemma.” What is that dilemma and why is it important for policymakers to understand?

The assurance dilemma arises in the context of coercion. Coercion is a tool that leaders frequently use – they make threats to try to change the behavior of others. But they’re really bad at it, and often make problems worse! When coercion fails, we tend to blame the inadequacy of our threats, “If only our threats were more credible,” we say, “if only we had squeezed the adversary a bit harder, imposed additional sanctions, etc., … surely then they would have given in, when we had them on the ropes.” Through this lens, policymakers have for decades worried about ways to demonstrate resolve. (The Biden administration just did this with its air strike in Syria – it was a political signal.) 

My research shows that this common understanding of coercion in international affairs is woefully incomplete. Adversaries often defy coercive demands backed by both credible and severe threats. We need to change our thinking. Credible threats frequently fail because they are perceived as insufficiently contingent. That is, targets fear that coercers wish to punish them no matter what they do – without assurance, they feel “damned if they do and damned if they don’t.” As we now know, Saddam Hussein lamented to his advisors in the 1990s, Iraq “could have sanctions with [UN] inspectors or sanctions without inspectors.” He perceived no assurance and thus no escape. 

Leaders engaged in coercion usually do not appreciate this fear and do little to allay it. The dilemma they face is how to communicate resolve while also communicating that they are not bent on punishment – threats and assurance. I am writing a book about their options.

Talk about wargaming, and its risks and benefits.

I got interested in wargaming in order to answer questions about nuclear strategy. We have mercifully limited real-world experience with nuclear war, so wargaming provides researchers like me the opportunity to gather data. We simulate hypothetical futures over and over again. With colleagues at Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I am working to bring wargaming and simulation methods to the study of international relations.

While crisis simulations – which have value in nonmilitary contexts as well – are powerful tools, they don’t predict the future. Rather, they help people see problems in different ways, anticipate unintended consequences, generate unanticipated outcomes, pose new questions to ask, and reveal unknown assumptions. In the 1960s, wargames consistently demonstrated that U.S. involvement in Vietnam would be a terrible quagmire, but the results were completely disregarded. When simulations tell you the same thing over and over, you should listen.

You arrived at the Watson Institute in the midst of the pandemic. How are you adjusting?

I have found students here energetic, bright, curious, and engaging, despite this Covid craziness. My students in last fall’s Coercion: Deterrence and Compellence undergraduate seminar showed up to classes with brilliant and creative ideas about where they see coercion around them. We had great discussions about voter suppression, Chinese panda diplomacy, and school desegregation, among other examples. They were also terrific strategists in our virtual crisis of a Russian incursion into the Baltics.

I am also finding synergies between teaching and research. Graduate students in this spring’s seminar, Nuclear Proliferation and International Security, are collectively exploring dissertation questions: What do we still need to know? Given the topics we’ve covered, what is still puzzling about the world? What book do you need to write?

So, I feel lucky to be here, though I do look forward to a time when I can explore more of the campus than my office and the parking lot.

You are among 26 young scholars named to the inaugural class of international affairs fellows in the Schmidt Futures Program’s International Strategy Forum. Tell us more.

The Schmidt Futures Program, which aims to strengthen progress and security amidst technological innovation and a changing world order, is a collaboration between Schmidt Futures (founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt) and the Rockefeller Foundation. It was borne of a recognition that no single discipline can solve the problems facing the world today. As the Watson Institute is an interdisciplinary research center with a public policy focus, I am excited to bring Watson’s mission into this new space for me and develop connections across different disciplines. Although Covid has so far kept us from meeting, I am looking forward to collaborating with the other Schmidt fellows.