Seminar Series – Conventional Weapons as Symbolic Signals

Author: Notre Dame International Security Center

With the beginning of a new school year comes new informative Seminar Series events at the Notre Dame International Security Center (NDISC). As the inaugural seminar of the 2022-23 school year, NDISC was excited to welcome Dr. Jen Spindel from the University of New Hampshire. Dr. Spindel’s dissertation on signaling and conventional weapons sales won the Kenneth Waltz Award for best dissertation in international security, so it was only natural for her to discuss her latest research about the symbolic power conventional weapons carry in international relations and foreign policy. 

One of the devices Dr. Spindel presented was a two-by-two matrix. On one axis was “how militarily useful is the weapon;” on the other was “how visually impressive or intimidating is the weapon.”  

Dr. Spindel explains: 

  • A useful weapon that’s also impressive is a boom weapon. 

  • A weapon can be visually impressive but carry little military application; these are bling weapons. 

  • A weapon can be visually unimpressive but still be exceptionally useful; these are backbone weapons. 

  • Weapons that are neither visually impressive nor useful are blip weapons. 

While weapons exchanges are important in maintaining relationships between countries, they can present challenges to both parties. Dr. Spindel describes a Cold War scenario where the United States had exchanged weapons with Pakistan—leading the latter to designate themselves “the US’ most allied ally.” But what were the limitations of this alliance? Could Pakistan request anything from the US and receive it?  

To find out, be sure to watch the recorded talk: 



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