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Arms and Influence: U.S. Technology Innovations and the Evolution of International Security Norms

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Arms and Influence: U.S. Technology Innovations and the Evolution of International Security Norms by Jeffrey S. Lantis. Stanford Security Studies, 2016, 260 pp.



Despite sharing a title with Thomas Schelling’s 1966 publication, author Jeffrey Lantis explores a much different look in this newer version. Lantis’ Arms and Influence explores a constructivist view of how technological change drives governmental elites to establish policy and conditions and subsequently cause normative shifts globally. The text is well reasoned, elegantly constructed, and extremely informative without being overly complex. Facts are solidly blended with their theoretical basis efficiently throughout the text. Examined cases include nuclear proliferation, arming space, and President Obama’s drone war as Lantis maps each instance through the baseline norm kindling, a technological spark, and subsequent policy fires as elite actors sought norm changes either domestically or internationally. Although the relationships are complex, this book makes the reading easy and is extremely informative about how technological changes affect social behavior through norms. 


A typical norm life-cycle model includes emergence, broad acceptance, and internalization stages. Expanding from this baseline, Lantis offers continuing challenges to norm structures from elite actors conducting top-down contestation and redefinition. A social construction of technology lens allows one to see where multiple cases show technological change driving national leadership (specifically that of the United States) to consider new approaches to internationalnorms. Non-US leaders are considered from the “bandwagoning” perspective, where they lend influence to help the United States achieve a goal. This theoretical aspect, redefinition or contestation, sees the former as seeking multilateral changes and the latter altering domestic policies. Lantis used four criteria to select case studies: (1) those featuring the United States’ democratic tendencies, (2) traditional studies providing systemic aterial in quantity, (3) studies where norms appeared dynamic, and (4) studies that appeared representative of contemporary politics. These criteria lead to Lantis’ exploring five cases, two in atomic weapon development, two in space concerns, and one on President Obama’s drone war. Each case demonstrated how elites contested norms even if overall changes did not occur. 

The first cases proposed two nuclear proliferation examples as a contested norm. Contestation appears first through nuclear weapon proliferation and then in nuclear-related export controls. Lantis starts his cases immediately following World War II and considers how American moves from prohibitive standard with sole nuclear controls to a discriminatory standard after nuclear technologies spread. The discriminatory standard cooperated with bandwagoning powers to achieve desired effects while prohibitive standards use international agencies to prevent trade in nuclear technologies. The nuclear norm looked to stop terrorists from gaining access to nuclear fuel or reprocessing technology that would enable weapons-grade uranium access. Despite contesting the norm, this example establishes a protected space to deny technological access. The protected space is intended to prevent war or terrorist actions from raining nuclear fire on US citizens while controlling emerging powers through dictating allowed nuclear accesses. The author establishes how various organizations, like the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, work as bandwagoning agents outside state controls to achieve results similar to state policy actions.  

The next block, again in two cases, concerns space technologies, surveillance, and armament.  The surveillance chapter explores state sovereignty norms to consider when border security expands into a responsibility to protect (R2P).  Lantis develops situations where knowing an event occurs, such as genocide in Darfur or ethnic conflict in Kosovo, leaves states or international organizations responsible to take further action. Some arguments compare to how states use private surveillance norms, but the real debate is whether nongovernmental organizations can motivate other actors to intervene because of exclusionary knowledge. The answer is 100 percent absolutely, positively maybe. Too many other factors appear in surveilling unfortunate events to motivate intervention just because the details are unpleasant. As in the recent Syrian cruise missile strikes, once a humanitarian event occurs, states often require intent, capability, and demonstrated national interest before intervening.

Part two, norms in space, considers a contested space environment as opposed to a peaceful commons. Like earlier reprocessing debates, Lantis suggests dual-use considerations create conflict for senior leaders as to whether they establish controlled areas or allow free-market expansion. President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative was critical in establishing funding and policy for military operations in and from space as a means to contest norms. Lantis frequently conflated his examples by blending what would be an established ballistic missile defense protecting the homeland and an antisatellite system denying the adversary a space high ground. Although the conflation is technically possible, one should consider the intent as the primary focus, not just if a system can vertically reach a target area. Denying a ballistic missile, either in boost or reentry, requires capability to reach and target in space. Strong dual-usage aspects again mean this norm, like nuclear fuel and R2P intervention, remains contested.

The last case examined, although not the last textually, shows the clearest contested norm results with a redefinition caused by expanded US drone strikes during the global war on terrorism. Lantis uses a traditional norm based on government-authorized political assassinations and offers weaponized drones as the technological improvement and change agent.  Although weaponized drones have existed for almost 20 years, Lantis notes early development and deployment were classified, meaning norm discussions about usage never occurred publicly.  President Obama’s drone war became public when he conducted twice as many targeted killings during his first 10 months in office as President Bush authorized during his two terms.  This expansion created public notice and pushed ethical debates regarding drone killing into open forums. The norm redefinition sought emphasized a legal attack basis and an imminent threat to US persons as the twin pillars for ethical action. This norm redefinition was successful through strong bandwagoning actions from states like Russia and China, which desired their own operational drone campaigns against terrorists, separatists, and freedom fighters challenging their authority.

Overall, Lantis does an excellent job advancing constructivist theory by demonstrating how policy elites contest and redefine international norm structure through demonstrated cases in nuclear technology, space access, and drone employment. Arms and Influence adheres to a solid methodology for presenting historical norms, applying a technological change, and demonstrating policy outcomes in an easily understood and useful manner. This text is invaluable in understanding how societal behaviors relating to technological changes emerge and, further, how government agencies and senior leaders can influence those behaviors. Lantis’ book should be a key read for most line officers, especially those working policy or strategy functions, due to its interpretation of technology and related behaviors and of essential elements of Air Force activity. This book is enjoyable, well argued, easily read, and a solid contribution to any bookshelf.

Lt Col Mark T. Peters, USAF

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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