Rationality at the Brink

The Role of Cognitive Processes in Failures of Deterrence

by Jack L. Snyder

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Understanding the dynamics of a game involving tradeoffs between two values is the chief preoccupation of nuclear strategists. According to Thomas Schelling, strategic theory assumes rational behavior. His theory of deterrence states the decisionmaker will (1) recognize the tradeoff between the two values and (2) employ a strategy effecting optimal tradeoff between those values. Similarly, the strategy of compellence assumes that the compellee will recognize tradeoffs and make appropriate cost-benefit calculations. This paper discusses possible nonrational influences on decision processes as outlined by John Steinbruner, and tests the plausibility of Steinbruner's cybernetic decision model by examining two case studies — American decisionmaking during the Cuban missile crisis and German decisionmaking between the assassination of the Austrian Archduke and the invasion of Belgium. In each case the study examines (1) how the decisionmakers dealt with the value tradeoff problem, (2) how they perceived their options, and (3) how they behaved and what this implies for current notions of deterrence.

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