Avoiding War, Making Peace

RICHARD NED LEBOW is Professor of International Political Theory in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London (part-time) and James O. Freedman Presidential Professor Emeritus at Dartmouth College. He is also a Bye-Fellow of Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. He has taught strategy at the National and Naval War Colleges and served as a scholar-in-residence in the Central Intelligence Agency during the Carter administration. He has authored and edited 34 books and nearly 250 peer reviewed articles. In this blog post Prof Lebow summarizes his most recent book on Avoiding War, Making Peace (London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2017).

This book revisits and expands on my critique of threat-based strategies of conflict management and discusses the use of reassurance and diplomacy as alternatives. I also explore the sources of political accommodation and the relationship between conflict management and accommodation. My project is based on the premise that many of the less successful strategies of the past are considered relevant to contemporary security problems by American and British policymakers, the media, and scholars. Deterrence and compellence have made a comeback in the light of widespread fears of an aggressive Russia and more assertive China. Intervention is once again an active American strategy; Washington and its allies have been engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2003, and with American backing Europeans intervened in Libya to remove Gadaffi. The American right is pushing for military action against North Korea and mainstream media are debating it.

I reprint some of my key articles on chapters on conflict management and accommodation. They were published between 1989 and 2014. At the core is my critique of immediate and general deterrence, conventional and nuclear. I include work on accommodation and the conditions associated with it. In a lengthy, original conclusion, I explore the ways in which the strategies of conflict management can work together or at cross-purposes, the mechanisms responsible for these effects. I also offer some thoughts about the relationship between them and conflict resolution.

Chapter 2 examines how so-called lessons of the past dominate responses to present day problems. I identify five such lessons about the world that the American national security community learned from the run-up to World War II. They have to do with how the world economic crisis of the 1930s facilitated the emergence of aggressive, authoritarian regimes, an uncoordinated response to the Great Depression made economic suffering far worse, U.S. isolationism undermined deterrence. The economic lessons were apt and helped to structure a more prosperous and secure world order. The foreign policy lessons are more questionable, not because they were wrong, but because they were applied in a different and arguably inappropriate context. I draw on cognitive psychology to explain why this happened. This phenomenon should be a reason for caution in applying Cold War lessons to today’s world.

Chapter 3 offers a critique of deterrence. It draws on numerous case studies and motivational psychology to explain why immediate conventional deterrence so often fails. It also critiques the political and behavioral assumptions of deterrence. These strategies place unreasonable informational and analytical requirements on policy-makers. They misconstrue the process of risk assessment, exaggerate the ability of leaders to estimate the risks inherent in their threats let alone shape adversarial estimates of their resolve. They overvalue the balance of power and interests, and mistakenly assume that protagonists share common understandings of them. These problems may help explain why deterrence and compellence often fail when practiced by rational and attentive actors against equally rational and attentive targets. Some of the political and behavioral assumptions of deterrence and compellence are unique, but most are shared with other rational theories of bargaining. I illustrate my argument with examples from American and Soviet decision-making in the Cuban missile crisis.

Chapter 4 explores the lessons of World War I’s origins, and to a lesser extent, those of World War II. The origins of both World Wars, but especially the First, have been hotly contested by generations of historians. Some theories of war and its prevention build on particular interpretations of its origins, but there is a growing consensus among historians that there is no single, or even dominant, cause of this war. Rather, it was the result of a suite of interactive and reinforcing causes, although there is no consensus about which of them was the most important. The centenary of the Great War in 2014 encouraged a spate of new studies that build on some new primary documents but mostly represent a rethinking of the origins due to a collective shift away from the question of what country was most responsible for war to how such a catastrophe could happen. The focus of historical research has accordingly drawn closer to questions of interest to international relations scholars, and our field has something to learn from the new research.

The new literature offers evidence and arguments relevant to the claims of balance of power, power transition and deterrence theories. It suggests the importance of immediate causes of war, which can be independent of underlying causes and cannot be taken for granted. It highlights the role of agency and the ways in which policy can be driven by idiosyncratic or seemingly inappropriate goals, based on erroneous understandings of other actors and threat assessments and have consequences not expected, and sometimes, not even unimagined by actors. At a more fundamental level, it raises questions about approaches that assume rational actors or rely on outside understandings of their motives and understanding of context. Most importantly, the new research should make us question the conceit that any parsimonious theory of war can tell us much about any single war, or the phenomenon of war more generally.

Chapter 5 explores the lessons of the Cold War for conflict management. It is one of the concluding chapters of We All Lost the Cold War, written with Janice Gross Stein. It draws on evidence from Soviet and American archives and extensive interviews with Soviet and American political and military officials to reconstruct the consequences of general deterrence for Soviet-American relations and immediate deterrence for crisis prevention. It indicates that general deterrence was largely unnecessary because both superpowers were self-deterred. Memories of the costs of World War II convinced leaders on all sides, and most military officials, that even a conventional war between the superpowers would be an unrelieved catastrophe. The advent of atomic, and then thermonuclear, weapons strengthened these beliefs and the fear of war. The problem was that neither side knew of the other’s fear of war, in part because both did their best to hide it thinking it would convey weakness. Soviet and American leaders accordingly felt the need to build up their strategic arsenals, deploy weapons in forward, provocative positions, and engage in bellicose and threatening rhetoric. General deterrence practiced this way undermined immediate deterrence by making both superpowers feel more insecure and threatened. It was an underlying cause of the crisis spiral of the late 1950s and early 1960s. This ended in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis that taught leaders on both sides the extent to the other also feared war.

Chapter 6 looks beyond crisis management to conflict resolution. I ask what accommodation means, and distinguish between a rapprochement that significantly reduces the threat of war, but may do nothing else to improve relations, and an accommodation that relations them on a normal footing. Post-peace agreement Egyptian-Israeli relations are an example of the former, and Anglo-French relations after their Entente a case of the latter. Russian-American relations after the Cold War and Sino-American relations following the thaw inaugurated by Nixon and Mao lie somewhere in between.

How did these rapprochements and accommodations come about? I find three conditions common to the Anglo-French, Egyptian-Israeli, and Soviet-American cases. There was a new leader on one side committed to far reaching reforms that required a winding down of the country’s primary foreign conflict, to free resources but also to undercut hardliners who also opposed domestic changes. Leaders on both sides concluded that it was impossible to achieve their political goals by military force. This belief was promoted by the failure of a recent challenge or confrontation. Leaders committed to reform too risks by extending the olive branch, and diplomacy made progress only when their initiatives were encouraged and reciprocated. Threat-based strategies were both a cause of conflict and contributed to its resolution, but not in the ways generally theorized.

Chapter 8, my conclusion, takes hesitant steps toward a holistic approach to conflict management and resolution. It recognizes that deterrence, although a deeply flawed strategy, nevertheless has an important place in international relations. It is appropriately directed against states whose leaders harbor aggressive intentions, although those practicing deterrence must do so with finesse and recognition that the success rate of general and immediate deterrence is low. Threat-based strategies are only one response to international conflict. Of equal importance are reassurance and diplomacy aimed at reducing or finessing substantive differences. I describe these strategies, identify their associated mechanisms and how they are expected to work, and the conditions in which they are most appropriate. Regardless of how international conflicts begin, they are usually characterized over time by hostility, conflicts of interests, and misunderstandings. The critical question is not the choice of a particular strategy – as they are often all relevant – but rather how they are combined, staged, and integrated into a sophisticated approach to conflict management tailored to the conflict in question.

Image: Cuban Missile Crisis, via Naval History and Heritage Command.

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