Rupal N. Mehta

International Affairs
Jul 11 · 7 min read
Image credit: European External Action Service via Flickr

As with most other issues of coercion in the modern era, policy-makers have traditionally used a variety of policy levers for bargaining. When the Cold War ushered in a bipolar nuclear world, it revealed the necessity for the superpowers and other major actors to establish a set of instruments or inducements with which to modify or prevent certain state behaviours — such as human rights abuses, nuclear proliferation, state-sponsored terrorism or territorial incursions. These instruments would be used, in particular, against those states in opposition to the aims of the international community. In contrast to leading work at the time, which emphasized the role of military power as central to the success of a state and a predictor of state behaviour, Thomas Schelling argued for a critical examination of the strategic interaction between states, specifically how states choose to act in response to another state’s behaviour.

From this seminal work, both academic scholarship and policy-making communities eventually diverged into two separate strands of debate about the use of military and economic inducements in bargaining. Some of the existing scholarship and conventional wisdom suggests that actors can and should only be targeted with one form of inducement to change behaviour. Often, this scholarship and policy emphasized the efficacy of negative inducements or punishments to alter behaviour — somewhat surprisingly given the frequent instances of sanctions’ failure in international relations. This also seems surprising given the positive externalities of bargaining with rewards. According to some scholars, such as David Baldwin, Miroslav Nincic and Paige Cone, positive inducements can have long-lasting psychological effects on how states bargain. Moreover, positive inducements, in contrast to damaging sanctions, may produce ‘virtuous cycles of success or spillover’ that work to build trust within the international system in the future.

Sanction and reward

In order to gain clarity on the causal mechanisms at play, my research on counter-proliferation looks at how to best use policy instruments to coerce, deter or compel changes in behaviour. From looking at the Iranian nuclear deal, I have found that for successful nuclear reversal states cannot rely solely on either the use of rewards or coercion to alter behaviour — combining positive and negative inducements is the most effective strategy. Thus the success of nuclear reversal is incumbent on the willingness of the other actor to employ a variety of policy instruments. Specifically, states encouraging counter-proliferation must employ threats of coercion and the promise of rewards simultaneously. These tools are mutually reinforcing as they provide a set of incentives to modify nuclear decision-making. Rewards can serve as face-saving political cover that allows leaders of adversarial states to stop their nuclear weapons programmes while also surviving potential challenges to their political survival. Sanction, and the prospect of their ultimate lifting, can also help persuade domestic populaces that accepting a settlement to end their nuclear programmes is better than continuing to suffer political and economic costs — or face an escalation in punishment, potentially to the use of military force.

The efficacy of the combination of positive and negative inducements became particularly clear during my conversations with Iranian diplomats involved in the Iranian nuclear deal’s negotiations. This is as, from the Iranian perspective, sanctions did little but shore up domestic support for the administration to resist US interference and had little technological impact on the actual nuclear programme. According to these diplomats, Iran was only willing to come to the table when sanctions were coupled with economic, technological and political rewards.

Unpacking these dynamics and varying perceptions about sanctions is critical, especially as the outlook is quite different outside of Iran. In my discussions with American and European analysts and diplomats, it became clear that they believed that the use of economic sanctions is what ultimately brought Iran to the table. This reveals the distance that still exists between our understandings of the objectives and outcomes of deterrent policy instruments as well as the significant theoretical gap in our understanding of how these instruments operate. In particular, and similar to discussions which focus solely on sanctions, there are considerations that need to be taken into account when it comes to policies which combine reward and coercion — considerations that will require significant further investigation.


First, concerns of credible commitment may weaken the efficacy of these policy tools. The credibility of threats is a much discussed topic when it comes to sanctions. Similarly, we often assume that offers are credible and that states will follow through on providing positive inducements or doling out negative inducements and that targets of these policy tools will abide by their end of the agreement. Take for example the negotiations to stop nascent nuclear programmes in Taiwan and South Korea. In exchange for stopping their development of military-related nuclear technology, the United States credibly assured protection against foreign aggression and followed through on their commitments with credible and costly signals.

However, there may be certain situations or circumstances in which policy-makers are not sincere in their strategic interactions or are not deemed to be credible in bargaining. For deterrence to be effective, targets must believe that their punishment will not be applied and that rewards will be implemented if they stop their course of action. This means that the reputation of the state promising reward and imposing sanctions may become imperilled if they have recently reneged on a commitment. This may undermine their ability to credibly commit and can risk future negotiations. The US’ unilateral and unwarranted withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal is a clear example of the necessity of credibility in foreign relations.

Changes in domestic situations

Second, we often assume that negotiations for deterring certain actions will be with the same leader. Further, we assume that the impact of imposed sanctions or potential rewards will mean the same thing to subsequent leaders. There are circumstances in which both assumptions are wrong. For example, new leaders may be chosen or elected specifically because they have different domestic and foreign policy preferences than their predecessor. In those cases, it could still be possible to alter their decision-making through a variety of policy levers. However, it is important to note that in some instances of leader transition, new leader may be increasingly resistant to the deterrent effects of these policy instruments — both weakening the policy tool and decreasing the likelihood of successful deterrence. Consider here the rise of Kim Jong-un in North Korea. Despite continued, and often ramped up economic pressure and an increase in the size of the promises from the US and the international community, the North Korean leader was initially resistant to attempts to deter continued nuclear development.

When sanctions help a leader

Lastly and relatedly, we generally assume that leaders will yield at the prospect of continued sanctions, will abandon their intended course of action when faced with increasing forms of punishment and will be likely to want the potential reward for stopping certain behaviour. This may not always be the case: some leaders may derive political utility from withstanding sanctions or rejecting rewards. Many leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Libyan Prime Minister Muammar Gaddafi, have achieved significant domestic political wins by appearing to stand up to US sanction pressure and encouraging their citizens to rebel against the international system. In these cases, these policy methods may indeed intensify leaders’ resolve and help consolidate power.

My research has indicated that combining threat and reward when it comes to inducing behaviour change is the best way for policy-makers to proceed. However, the above discussion clearly shows that significant research is required to understand exactly how to deter behaviour in this manner. My and others’ research makes several important, though potentially incorrect, assumptions about the strategic interaction between initiator and target. These assumptions do not always accord with reality and have the possibility to impact the efficacy and outcome of inducements used for deterrence. Indeed, in certain circumstances, the use of certain combinations of positive and negative inducements could weaken policy-makers’ attempted deterrence. The underlying assumptions need to be appropriately tested in order for sanctions and rewards to be effectively used and understood.

Rupal N. Mehta is Assistant Professor at the University of NebraskaLincoln.

This blogpost is part of a new series, New Policy Perspectives, a collaboration between International Affairs and the Bridging the Gap Project.

The first contributions to this series are based on presentations given as part of Bridging the Gap’s New Voices in National Security program.

New Voices in National Security, the newest program by the Bridging the Gap Project, extends current national security debates by incorporating the most up-to-date research findings from both established and emerging scholars who are not typically part of the Washington DC policy orbit. Made possible through support from the Frankel Family Foundation, the workshops are aimed to build connections between innovative national security scholars and members of the policy community, and result in a tailored outreach strategy aimed at informing sound national security decisions.

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