Caitlin Talmadge is an assistant professor at The George Washington University and was a 2014-2015 Stanton nuclear security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of The Dictator’s Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes (Cornell University Press, 2015).
1. What’s the most interesting project you are currently working on?
I’m engrossed in my next book project, which examines how the United States can prevent nuclear escalation in conventional wars. This is a problem the United States hasn’t had to think much about since the end of the Cold War because it has fought conflicts exclusively against states lacking nuclear weapons. But in the future, the United States could very well find itself in crises or conventional conflicts with states that do possess nuclear weapons, such as China, Russia, or North Korea.
How do we conduct conventional military operations in ways that reduce rather than heighten the prospects for adversaries to escalate to nuclear use? My book develops a framework for identifying different possible pathways to nuclear escalation and a theory that helps readers understand the political, strategic, and organizational conditions under which these pathways might become reality. The analysis also presents some policy changes that could help the United States direct its potential opponents away from these escalatory pathways and keep conventional wars conventional, should they arise.
2. What got you started in your career?
I’ve been interested in security issues for as long as I can recall. Even in the fourth grade, I remember we were supposed to turn in short stories for our composition class. It was 1991 and the Gulf War was going on so I wrote a story from the perspective of a young Kuwaiti girl witnessing the invasion. I probably should have been writing about my bike or my guinea pig, but even at that age I just found myself trying to understand why this war was happening. Why had Iraq invaded Kuwait? Why was the United States intervening? Why did the war end so quickly? As a college senior many years later I found myself asking some similar questions while watching the footage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Never did I dream I would someday end up actually writing a book that dealt extensively with Iraq (The Dictator’s Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes), or visiting Kuwait for field research (“Less Is More: the Future of the U.S. Military in the Gulf”), but looking back it makes sense. The interest was always there.
It helped a lot that I was able to intern at the Brookings Institution and The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) during college. People at both places went out of their way to mentor and guide me, and after graduation I was fortunate enough to get a job back at CSIS as a research assistant working on nuclear security issues. The year I spent there between college and graduate school really primed my interest in foreign policy. I got to observe some extremely impressive senior people doing their thing, and it seemed like a natural next step to go on to pursue my PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
3. What person, book, or article has been most influential to your thinking?
It’s hard to pick just one, but The Diary of Anne Frank had a profound impact on me. I read it for the first time when I was about twelve and have read it a number of times again over the years. I still reflect on it pretty regularly. War and politics can easily become abstractions, but Anne Frank’s story is a reminder of what is fundamentally at stake in both international and domestic contests for power. There are real evils in this world, and real people’s lives are affected by the choices we all make, both as individuals and as part of larger organizations, such as armies and governments. Wanting to understand the larger context in which Anne lived and wrote strongly shaped my motivation for studying international politics. It’s something I still grapple with today when I try to think about what questions to work on and the importance of ensuring that relevant lessons of the past make their way into current discussions.
4. What kind of advice would you give to young people in your field?
It’s counterintuitive, but I would advise people to worry less about the big picture and more about what’s in front of them. Focus more on doing a good job with your responsibilities wherever you are and on building relationships with the people directly around you, and less on strategizing to get to the next thing. Yes, of course, it’s important to have big goals, but so much of whether you get to those big goals depends on whether you meet small goals in your day-to-day work and life.
Rarely in my life have I been accurate in predicting where I would be five years later. Only very late in college did I realize I might want to pursue a PhD. Only very late in the pursuit of my PhD did I realize I might want to be a professor. I was always focused on the thing right in front of me—my college classes, my internships, my dissertation, and so on—but because of that, when the bigger opportunities came along, it turned out that I could take the leap.
I’ll add one concrete suggestion, too, which is to have as many diverse experiences early on as you can. Travel, try different internships, work with different people in different fields, and get exposure to different ideas. Even if you have a less-than-wonderful experience, you’ll learn more about how to have a better experience in the future. And even if you end up doing something totally different in the long run, you will have sharpened your perspective a bit and you’ll have smart friends outside your own bubble.
5. What was the last book you finished reading?
Is this a trick question? Because I start many, many more books than I finish! I get bored or find myself going off to read something cited in the footnotes. And I’m assuming the two Gillian Flynn novels I read last week on airplanes don’t count, right?
The last serious book I finished was Dick Betts’s classic, Soldiers, Statesmen, and Cold War Crises. Actually, I was re-reading it. I read it once as a frantic graduate student preparing for general exams. This time, I wanted to soak it in a little more deliberately in light of my own work on civil-military relations, military effectiveness, and crisis escalation.
Betts shattered some big myths in that book. He examined major instances of Cold War crisis decision-making and showed that military officers were not, in fact, more likely to recommend the use of force than were civilians. To the extent that the military constrained presidential decision-making, it was in thwarting presidents who wanted to use force—not in pressuring presidents to use force when they didn’t want to. Interestingly, though, he found that once the initial decision to use force had been made, military officers tended to be at least as aggressive in their recommendations about further escalation as civilians, and sometimes quite a bit more so.
His study offers important insights into how civil-military relations can affect not just crisis or war initiation, but also intra-crisis or intra-war escalation, which is something I’ve been thinking about a lot with my current project. It would be interesting to apply Betts’s methodology and questions to more recent cases (if we had access to all the documents) to see if his findings hold up given changes in the officer corps and the nature of civilian elites today.
6. What is the most overlooked threat to U.S. interests?
As the old saying goes, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Well, not entirely, but the United States has a lot of things it could be doing here at home to bolster and sustain the long-term foundations of its power. The United States needs to get its fiscal house in order, especially with respect to entitlement spending. It needs to muster a political consensus for immigration reform so that it continues to attract bright, ambitious people from the rest of the world even as U.S. birth rates decline. The United States needs to address the problem of income inequality, which threatens one of the most basic American ideas: that equality of opportunity means anyone can achieve success here.
This is easier said than done, of course. But historically, great power decline has been as much or more a story about the domestic economic and political health of the great power as it has been about facing down direct military challenges from other states.
7. What do you believe is the most inflated threat to U.S. national interests?
Almost everything is an inflated threat. Clearly, there are dangers out there, but too often Americans lose sight of how extraordinarily safe the United States is compared to almost every other country on earth, and even compared to past eras of American history, such as the Cold War. In my opinion, Americans also radically underestimate the country’s ability to adapt and be resilient in the face of truly serious, unexpected threats. The historical track record on that is better than people seem to think.
To be sure, threats such as terrorism are extremely frightening. As a resident of Washington, DC, and someone who works only a few blocks from the White House, I do find myself worrying about the possibility of an attack some days. But many more Americans die each year from car accidents, gun violence, or drowning than from terrorism. When thinking about some of the things the United States has done to prevent terrorism, one has to wonder if the game is really worth the candle. Terrorism is definitely a threat, but I’m not sure it’s the threat around which the United States should be orienting so much of its foreign policy. In fact, some things the United States has done have actually made the problem worse, and the country may be losing sight of more important long-term strategic challenges.
8. What is the most significant emerging global challenge?
It’s hard to pick just one, but I think the relationship between the United States and a rising China is likely to be incredibly consequential for global politics, economics, and stability. It’s also a policy area where the outcome is far from inevitable. Choices that political leaders make in the United States and China can still really change the trajectory of the relationship.
The last few years haven’t been that encouraging, but I can still imagine a world in which the two countries live peacefully with each other, probably as competitors, but not as outright rivals the way the United States and Soviet Union were during the Cold War. The geography is more forgiving than it was in twentieth century Europe. The areas of overlapping interest with China are also much greater and the conflicts of interest are not as implacable and profound, though they do exist.
I think one of the big questions is the course of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule in China, whether it stays in power over the long term and what it has to do to pull that off. For the United States, I think one of the big questions is how it manages its relationships in the region in a way that reassures friends and deters potential adversaries, without raising tensions or provoking conflict. This is especially tricky given that some U.S. allies don’t get along well with each other, and China isn’t the only regional actor that the United States seeks to deter (I’m looking at you, North Korea).
9. What would you research given two years and unlimited resources?
Politics of the South Pacific islands, and I’d need to be in residence on a beach somewhere doing field work for the full two years. No, just kidding. I’d still be researching this question of how to prevent nuclear escalation in conventional wars, but I’d spend longer stretches of time actually living in some of the countries most relevant to this topic, so that I could get better access to interview sources, including with help from translators, and gain a deeper understanding of non-U.S. perspectives. Shorter trips abroad and interviews here in the United States are more realistic for now, so that’s what I’m actually doing. Fortunately, the research strategy has been productive, but I’m still willing to take a hiatus for the South Pacific project if any funders are reading your blog.
10. What’s the most important take-away from your latest book, The Dictator’s Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes?
My book examines the question of why some authoritarian regimes, such as North Vietnam, seem to produce militaries that fight extraordinarily well, while others, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, produce militaries that seem to collapse on the battlefield even when they have the ability to continue fighting.
The conventional wisdom has been that democracies generally fight better than autocracies, but my research shows that different types of authoritarian regimes vary widely in their ability to turn resources into fighting power. Some are well-institutionalized, with few internal threats. When they adopt the right set of practices in their military organizations with respect to promotions, training, command, and information management, these states can actually perform very well in battle, despite being authoritarian. By contrast, other authoritarian regimes may be poorly institutionalized and face significant internal threats, especially coups. These regimes are much more likely to orient their military organizations toward dealing with the coup threat rather than with conventional adversaries—even when such external threats are also quite pressing. The result is likely to be poor military performance, even when such states may have significant material capabilities in terms of army size, weapons, powerful allies helping them out, and so on.
Ultimately, assessing military power in U.S. adversaries and allies requires more than bean counting. Sure, the United States can say it wants to build a foreign army to a certain size through security assistance, or it can do a campaign analysis based on a potential adversary’s apparent order of battle. But if it doesn’t know more about the internal politics of a given regime and how those politics shape key practices within the country’s military organization, its estimates of the resulting fighting power are likely to be pretty inaccurate. The United States needs a fine-grained assessment of all the threats facing a given regime, including internal ones, to understand how its military has evolved and is likely to fare in battle. My book provides a tool for doing that and shows its relevance to explaining military performance in the two biggest land wars of the past half-century—the Vietnam War and the Iran-Iraq War—as well as in more recent cases and possible future scenarios.