The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The ladder of escalation

July 18, 2006

In grad school, Herman Kahn was my second favorite strategic theorist (after Thomas Schelling). I still have an original edition of On Thermonuclear War with the dust jacket — restrain your envy, my copy was marked up as I read it.

In any case, Kahn is known for a number of interesting ideas, including the so-called “ladder of escalation.” Essentially, Kahn’s term explains gradations of conflict, from “ostensible crisis” up 40+ rungs to “spasm” thermonuclear war.

Such a spasm is to be avoided, obviously.

While Kahn developed the ladder as part of his critique of the “massive retaliation” doctrine of the Eisenhower administration, the notion of “winnable” nuclear war-fighting took on a life of its own during 1970s and 1980s strategic debates.

I’m referencing Kahn because he also reminds us that crises, conflicts and wars can escalate — perhaps in unexpected ways, though Kahn was a game theorist and wanted to think rationally about the unthinkable.

To some extent, Kahn was right. Leaders and scholars do have to think about the possible, not merely the probable.

Newt Gingrich, who was on “Meet the Press” yesterday, is trying to be one of those forward-thinking leaders:

I mean, this is absolutely a question of the survival of Israel, but it’s also a question of what is really a world war. Look what you’ve been covering: North Korea firing missiles. We say there’ll be consequences, there are none. The North Koreans fire seven missiles on our Fourth of July; bombs going off in Mumbai, India; a war in Afghanistan with sanctuaries in Pakistan. As I said a minute ago, the, the Iran/Syria/Hamas/Hezbollah alliance. A war in Iraq funded largely from Saudi Arabia and supplied largely from Syria and Iran. The British home secretary saying that there are 20 terrorist groups with 1200 terrorists in Britain….I mean, we, we are in the early stages of what I would describe as the third world war, and frankly, our bureaucracies aren’t responding fast enough…

He continued:

I believe if you take all the countries I just listed, that you’ve been covering, put them on a map, look at all the different connectivity, you’d have to say to yourself this is, in fact, World War III.

I’m not writing this to scare anyone, but I do think it is patently obvious that world leaders ought to be doing everything they can to try to de-escalate the current ongoing crises.

Israel’s latest incursion into Lebanon is dangerous and India’s recent threats about Pakistan might be as well. The risk that Iran might intervene in regional war could be low, and even that might not be enough to trigger an American response…but the risks of these actions are not zero.

Maybe the guy who wants to be the “peace President” could start thinking about more creative ways to stop the violence in the Middle East. I don’t think this will do:

See, the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it’s over…

I felt like telling Kofi to get on the phone with Assad and make something happen. We’re not blaming Israel. We’re not blaming the Lebanese government.”

I’d like someone in the press to ask the most powerful man in the world who “they” are. Kofi Annan’s minions?

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.