China and U.S. Can Reduce the Risk of War by Learning from History's Blunders

For Release

December 2, 2014

Because war between China and the United States could occur by misjudgment rather than by rational calculation, a new study from the RAND Corporation examines why nations blunder into war.

“Again and again, we found leaders who relied on cognitive models — simplified versions of reality — that were untethered from objective reality,” said David C. Gompert, lead author of the study and an adjunct senior fellow at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “These faulty models were based on prior success, intuition, conceit or flawed grand theories.

“Leaders who blunder into war tend to have unwarranted confidence in their ability to script the future and control events. They favor information, analysis, and advisors that confirm their beliefs over those that contradict them. In essence, blinders cause blunders.”

The RAND study looks at eight strategic blunders: Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812; a decision by German military leaders during World War I to resume unrestricted submarine warfare against the U.S. and other neutral shipping in 1917; Adolph Hitler's decision to invade the Soviet Union in 1941, repeating Napoleon's mistake; Japan's decision to bomb Pearl Harbor in 1941; Deng Xiaoping's 1979 decision to invade Vietnam; the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; Argentina's 1982 invasion of Great Britain's Falkland Islands; and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The study also examines four cases in which blunders were not made: The U.S. decision to go to war with Spain in 1898; the U.S. decision to go to war with Germany in 1917; the 1973 showdown between the U.S. and the Soviet Union over the Egyptian Third Army during the Yom Kippur war; and the 1981 Soviet decision to not invade Poland. In contrast to the blunders, decisionmakers in these cases had or created sound models of objective reality, even when at odds with their predispositions.

The exponential growth in available information in recent decades offers no guarantee of improved decision-making.

“Two hundred years of history suggest that poor supply of information does not cause blunders, poor use of information does,” Gompert said. “In every case, information was available that could have supported better decisions.”

Gompert and his colleagues have three general recommendations. First, governments need formal sources of independent policy analysis and advice with both detachment from and access to decisionmakers. Second, these sources should set and insist on the highest standards of analytic objectivity and rigor. Third, the independent analysis performed by such sources should make use of proven enhancements in analyst-computer “teaming” capabilities and methods as a way of examining multiple possible future outcomes and scenarios.

In terms of the Sino-U.S. case, Gompert and his co-authors, Hans Binnendijk and Bonny Lin, note that Chinese and Americans have cognitive models of each other that cause strategic mistrust and could increase the danger of misjudgment, the likelihood of crises and the possibility of war. China tends to view the United States as being opposed to China's success and determined to encircle it. Meanwhile, the United States sees Chinese attempts to recover disputed territory as evidence of expansionism.

The study recommends that U.S. and Chinese presidents develop a close personal relationship. Institutional connections between the two countries also should be further expanded, and Chinese and American “strategic communities” — including think-tanks, universities, and retired officials — should continue to expand their connections with such activities as joint crisis management games. While noting concerns about Chinese intelligence gathering, Gompert said that “the danger is not that China and the United States will know too much, but rather too little about each other.”

The study, “Blinders, Blunders, and Wars: What America and China Can Learn,” is available at

The study is a product of the RAND Corporation's continuing program of self-initiated research. Support for such research is provided, in part, by donors and by the independent research and development provisions of RAND's contracts for the operation of its U.S. Department of Defense federally funded research and development centers.

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