“The brink is a curved slope”: Thomas Schelling on strategy

I’ve been re-reading some Thomas Schelling, and reminded of how much insight there is on nearly every paragraph of every page (as has been said: “whole careers in international relations have been built out of codifying a few sentences in Schelling”).

Some excerpts, below.

First, The Strategy of Conflict (1960):

On the (then) paucity of strategic studies:

“[M]ilitary services, in contrast to almost any other sizable and respectable profession, have no identifiable academic counterpart … Within the universities, military strategy in this country has been the preoccupation of a small number of historians and political scientists, supported on a scale that suggests that deterring the Russians from a conquest of Europe is about as important as enforcing the antitrust laws”. (p8)

On trying to persuade someone you’ll carry out an irrational threat:

“And one can suspend or destroy his own “rationality”, at least to a limited extent; one can do this because the attributes that go to make up rationality are not inalienable, deeply personal, integral attributes of the human soul, but include such things as one’s hearing aid, the reliability of the mail, the legal system, and the rationality of one’s agents and partners”. (p18)

The famous part on trip-wires:

“We are led in this way to a new interpretation of the ‘trip-wire’ [of US troops in Europe]. The analogy for our limited war forces in Europe is not, according to this argument, a trip wire that certainly detonates all-out war if it is in working order and fails altogether if it is not.

What we have a graduated series of trip wires, each attached to a chance mechanism, with the daily probability of detonation increasing as the enemy moves from wire to wire. The critical feature of the analogy, it should be emphasized, is that whether or not the trip wire detonates general war is – at least to some extent – outside our control, and the Russians know it”. (p192)

On brinksmanship and the brink:

 The brink is not, in this view, the sharp edge of a cliff where one can stand firmly, look down, and decide whether or not to plunge. The brink is a curved slope that one can stand on with some risk of slipping, the slope gets steeper and the risk of slipping greater as one moves toward the chasm. But the slope and the risk of slipping are rather irregular …

Brinksmanship is thus the deliberate creation of a recognizable risk of war, a risk that one does not completely control. It is the tactic of deliberately letting the situation get somewhat out of hand, just because its being out of hand may be intolerable to the other party and force his accommodation”. (p200)

On the social construction of nuclear red-lines:

“The inhibition on the penetration of a border, or on the introduction of a new nationality into the conflict, is like that on the introduction of a nuclear weapon; it is the risk of enemy response . And an important determinant of enemy response is his appreciation of what he has tacitly acquiesced in if he fails to respond, or makes only an incremental response, to our symbolically discontinuous act.

What we are dealing with in the anaysis of limited war is tradition. We are dealing with precedent, convention, and the force of suggestion. We are dealing with the theory of unwritten law … What makes atomic weapons different is a powerful tradition that they are different …

Certain characteristics of limits, particularly their simplicity, uniqueness, discreteness, susceptibility of qualitative definition, and so forth, can be given an objective meaning, one that is at least pertinent to the process of tacit negotiation”. (pp258-263)


And excerpts from Arms and Influence (1966). You can get one of the best chapters, The Art of Commitment, here [PDF].

On strategy as punishment:

“Military stategy can no longer be thought of, as it could for some countries in some eras, as the science of military victory. It is now equally, if not more, the art of coercion, of intimidation and deterrence. The instruments of war are more punitive than acquisitive. Military strategy, whether we like it or not, has become the diplomacy of violence”. (p34)

On limits to the madman theory:

“A government that is obliged to appear responsible in its foreign policy can hardly cultivate forever the appearance of impetuosity on the most important decisions in its care …

Deterrent threats are a matter of resolve, impetuosity, plain obstinacy, or, as the anarchist put it, sheer character. It is not easy to change our character; and becoming fanatic or impetuous would be a high price to pay for making our threats convincing” (pp40, 42)

On why clear signaling requires that red-lines separate things clearly:

This, I suppose, is the ultimate reason why we have to defend California-aside from whether or not Easterners want to. There is no way to let California go to the Soviets and make them believe nevertheless that Oregon and Washington, Florida and Maine, and eventually Chevy Chase and Cambridge cannot be had under the same principle …

Once they cross a line into a new class of aggression, into a set of areas or assets that we always claimed we would protect, we may even deceive them if we do not react vigorously. Suppose we let the Soviets have California, and when they reach for Texas we attack them in full force. They could sue for breach of promise. We virtually told them they could have Texas when we let them into California; the fault is ours, for communicating badly, for not recognizing what we were conceding. California is a bit of fantasy here; but it helps to remind us that the effectiveness of deterrence often depends on attaching to particular areas some of the status of California.

The principle is at work all over the world; and the principle is not wholly under our own control. I doubt whether we can identify ourselves with Pakistan in quite the way we can identify ourselves with Great Britain, no matter how many treaties we sign during the next ten years. (p56)

On how this principle differs for the two superpowers:

There is an interesting geographical difference in the Soviet and American homelands Our oceans may not protect us from big wars but they protect us from little ones. A local war could not impinge on California, involving it peripherally or incidentally through geographical continuity, the way the Korean War could impinge on Manchuria and Siberia, or the way Soviet territory could be impinged on by war in Iran, Yugoslavia, or Central Europe  …

This gives the American homeland a more distinctive character – a more unambiguous “homeland” separateness – than the Soviet homeland can have … Like virginity, the homeland wants an absolute definition. This character the Soviet bloc has been losing and may lose even more if it acquires a graduated structure like the old British Empire. (pp57, 62)

More on the need for simple threats:

“There is a simplicity, a kind of virginity, about all-or-none distinctions that differences of degree do not have. It takes more initiative, more soul-searching, more argument, more willingness to break tradition and upset expectations, to do an unprecedented thing once”. (p132)

And how the credibility of an adversary’s red-lines can be inadvertently bolstered (lessons here for India and Pakistan):

If we always treat China as though it is a Soviet California, we tend to make it so. If we imply to the Soviets that we consider Communist China or Czechoslovakia the virtual equivalent of Siberia, then in the event of any military action in or against those areas we have informed the Soviets that we are going to interpret their response as though we had landed troops in Vladivostok or Archangel or launched them across the Soviet-Polish border. We thus oblige them to react in China, or in North Vietnam or wherever it may be, and in effect give them precisely the commitment that is worth so much to them in deterring the West …

We credited the Soviets with effective deterrence and in doing so genuinely gave them some. We came at last to treat the Sino-Soviet split as a real one; but it would have been wiser not to have acknowledged their fusion in the first place. (pp60, 62)

On what can – and cannot – be credibly threatened as part of coercive diplomacy or nuclear strategy (and, by implication, why a strategy of flexible response may be more credible [PDF] than massive retaliation):

When the Russians put missiles in Cuba, why cannot the President quarantine Vladivostok, stopping Soviet ships outside, say, a twelve-mile limit, or perhaps denying them access to the Suez or Panama Canal? And if the Russians had wanted to counter the President’s quarantine of Cuba, why could they not blockade?

A hasty answer may be that it just is not done, or is not “justified,” as though connectedness implied justice, or as though justice were required for effectiveness. Surely that is part of the answer; there is a legalistic or diplomatic, perhaps a casuistic, propensity to keep things connected, to keep the threat and the demand in the same currency, to do what seems reasonable. (p87)

There is an idiom in this interaction, a tendency to keep things in the same currency, to respond in the same language, to make the punishment fit the character of the crime, to impose a coherent pattern on relations” (p147)

The rest of the book looks at the manipulation of risk, how to fight and end a nuclear war, and the dynamic of arms racing and arms control.


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