When Actions Speak Louder than Words: Adversary Perceptions of Nuclear No First Use Pledges

In this online seminar, we will discuss Caitlin Talmadge's draft paper with Vipin Narang and Lisa Michelini, “When Actions Speak Louder than Words: Adversary Perceptions of Nuclear No First Use Pledges.”

Speaker: Caitlin Talmadge, Associate Professor of Security Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

Respondent: Scott D. Sagan, Caroline S.G. Munro Professor of Political Science, Mimi and Peter Haas University Fellow in Undergraduate Education, and Senior Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and the Freeman Spogli Institute, Stanford University

Registration: To sign up for this online event, please register here. All participants will receive a copy of the draft paper and a Zoom invitation in advance.


An increasing number of prominent policymakers and scholars have suggested that the United States should adopt a nuclear no first use (NFU) pledge. Such a declaration would commit the United States to refrain from the use of nuclear weapons except in response to an adversary nuclear attack. Yet there has been surprisingly little systematic study of the conditions under which adversaries perceive such pledges as credible, which is the key mechanism by which such pledges achieve most of their purported benefits.

In this paper we develop and test a theory of the conditions under which states will find their opponents’ NFU pledges credible. Drawing on the logic of costly signaling, we argue that a state’s assessment of the likelihood that its opponent will engage in nuclear first use hinges on a combination of political and military conditions that are independent of the presence or absence of a formal NFU pledge by the opponent.

We examine available evidence on adversary perceptions of NFU pledges made by China (1964-present), India (1999-present), and the Soviet Union (1977-1991) in order to probe theses claims empirically. Overall, our analysis shows that NFU pledges usually face a very high bar to credibility, and in the rare cases where the bar is cleared, the pledge is almost by definition unnecessary. The implication is that changes to U.S. declaratory policy alone are unlikely to convince adversaries to disregard the prospect of U.S. nuclear first use in the absence of other major changes in these countries’ political relationships with the United States and in U.S. nuclear force posture.


Caitlin Talmadge is Associate Professor of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, as well as Senior Non-Resident Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution and Research Affiliate in the MIT Security Studies Program.

Professor Talmadge’s research and teaching focus on defense policy, civil-military relations, U.S. military operations and strategy, deterrence and escalation, and security issues in Asia and the Persian Gulf. She is author of the award-winning book, The Dictator’s Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes (Cornell, 2015), and co-author of U.S. Defense Politics: The Origins of Security Policy (Routledge, 2021), with Harvey Sapolsky and Eugene Gholz, now in its fourth edition. Dr. Talmadge is currently writing a book on the role of nuclear escalation risk in world politics with Brendan Green, and they are also in the final stages of a two-year study examining the strategic military implications of potential Chinese control of Taiwan.

Dr. Talmadge’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, International Security, Security Studies, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, The Journal of Strategic Studies, The Washington QuarterlyThe Non-Proliferation Review, and numerous other publications. She also offers frequent commentary to media outlets such as CNN, The Economist, and The Atlantic. Recent speaking engagements include the U.S. Naval War College, the Pentagon, the White House, the RAND Corporation, Lincoln Laboratory, Harvard, Yale, and others.

Dr. Talmadge is a graduate of Harvard (A.B., Government, summa cum laude) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Ph.D., Political Science). Her work has received funding from the Department of Defense, the Carnegie Corporation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Stanton Foundation, among others. Previously, she worked as a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; a consultant to the Office of Net Assessment at the U.S. Department of Defense; and a professor at the George Washington University. For more information please visit caitlintalmadge.com or follow her on Twitter @ProfTalmadge.


Scott D. Sagan is the Caroline S.G. Munro Professor of Political Science, the Mimi and Peter Haas University Fellow in Undergraduate Education, and Senior Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University. He also serves as Chairman of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Committee on International Security Studies. Before joining the Stanford faculty, Sagan was a lecturer in the Department of Government at Harvard University and served as special assistant to the director of the Organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon. Sagan has also served as a consultant to the office of the Secretary of Defense and at the Sandia National Laboratory and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. 

Sagan is the author of Moving Targets: Nuclear Strategy and National Security (Princeton University Press, 1989); The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton University Press, 1993); and, with co-author Kenneth N. Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate (W.W. Norton, 2012). He is the co-editor of Learning from a Disaster: Improving Nuclear Safety and Security after Fukushima (Stanford University Press, 2016) with Edward D. Blandford and co-editor of Insider Threats (Cornell University Press, 2017) with Matthew Bunn. Sagan was also the guest editor of a two-volume special issue of Daedalus: Ethics, Technology, and War (Fall 2016) and The Changing Rules of War (Winter 2017).

Recent publications include “Does the Noncombatant Immunity Norm Have Stopping Power?” with Benjamin A. Valentino in International Security (Fall 2020); “Why the atomic bombing of Hiroshima would be illegal today” with Katherine E. McKinney and Allen S. Weiner in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (July 2020); "Weighing Lives in War: How National Identity Influences American Public Opinion about Foreign Civilian and Compatriot Fatalities" with Benjamin A. Valentino in the Journal of Global Security Studies (December 2019); “On Reciprocity, Revenge, and Replication: A Rejoinder to Walzer, McMahan, and Keohane” with Benjamin A. Valentino in Ethics & International Affairs (Winter 2019); and “Armed and Dangerous: When Dictators Get the Bomb” in Foreign Affairs (October 2018). 

In 2018, Sagan received the Andrew Carnegie Fellowship from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. In 2017, he received the International Studies Association’s Susan Strange Award which recognizes the scholar whose “singular intellect, assertiveness, and insight most challenge conventional wisdom and intellectual and organizational complacency" in the international studies community. Sagan was also the recipient of the National Academy of Sciences William and Katherine Estes Award in 2015, for his work addressing the risks of nuclear weapons and the causes of nuclear proliferation. The award, which is granted triennially, recognizes “research in any field of cognitive or behavioral science that advances understanding of issues relating to the risk of nuclear war.” In 2013, Sagan received the International Studies Association's International Security Studies Section Distinguished Scholar Award. He has also won four teaching awards: Stanford’s 1998-99 Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching; Stanford's 1996 Hoagland Prize for Undergraduate Teaching; the International Studies Association’s 2008 Innovative Teaching Award; and the Monterey Institute for International Studies’ Nonproliferation Education Award in 2009.

Published Oct. 26, 2021 3:48 PM - Last modified Oct. 27, 2021 6:10 PM