Context: Cuban Missile Crisis case study in governmental decision-making

Graham Allison: For three decades has been a leading analyst of U.S. national security and defense policy with a special interest in terrorism. He served as Special Advisor to the Secretary of Defense under President Reagan and as Assistant Secretary of Defense in the first Clinton Administration. Allison wrote and published the first edition of this book without a co-author in 1971.

Philip Zelikow: A former trial and appellate attorney, Dr. Zelikow served as a career foreign service officer overseas, in the Department, and on detail to the NSC staff until 1991. Since the 1980s he has served in three different offices of the State Department in the second Reagan administration. He was a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 2001 to 2003


Decision making by an organization is more complex (see Complexity or Wicked Problems or Boyd) than the standard Rational Actor model (unitary actor moved by value-maximizing). An Organizational Behavior model features a corporate actor moved by organizational processes. A Government Politics model features a coalition actor moved by negotiation and politicking by elites. Analyzing decision making through alternate models challenges the basic conclusions, categories, and assumptions of previously used models, and allows one to understand influences on decisions in a different way.


1. Analysts/policy makers think about problems of foreign and military policy in terms of largely implicit conceptual models that have significant consequences for the content of their thought. (p.3)

2. Most explain and predict behavior of national governments in terms of one basic conceptual model, here entitled Rational Actor Model (RAM/Model 1) (p.4)

3. Two alternative conceptual models, here labeled an Organizational Behavior Model (Model II) and a Governmental Politics Model (Model III), provide a base for improved explanations and predictions. (p.5) (used extensively by Halperin)

4. Model I, Rational actor

4.1. Happenings in foreign affairs are conceived as actions chosen by the nation or national government acting in a unitary fashion. Governments select the actions that will maximize strategic goals and objectives. These “solutions” to strategic problems are the fundamental categories in terms of which the analyst perceives what is to be explained.
4.2 Predictions about what a nation will do or would have done are generated by calculating the rational thing to do in a certain situation, given specified objectives

5. Model II, Organizational behavior paradigm

5.1. The happenings of international politics are outputs of organizational processes in three critical senses.
5.1.1. Actual occurrence are organizational outputs; if organizations produced an output of a certain kind at a certain time that behavior resulted from existing organizational structures, procedures and repertoires.
5.1.2. Existing organizational capacities for employing present physical assets constitute the range of effective choice open to government leaders confronted with any problem
5.1.3. Organizational outputs structure the situation within the narrow constraints of which leaders must make their decisions about an issue—change tends to be incremental (like Rosen's generational innovation).

6. Model III, Governmental politics paradigm

6.1. The decisions and actions of governments are intranational political resultants; resultants in the sense that what happens is not chosen as a solution to a problem but rather results from compromise, conflict, and confusion of officials with diverse interests and unequal influence; political in the sense that the activity from which decisions and actions emerge is best characterized as bargaining along regularized channels among individual members of government. National behavior in international affairs can be conceived of as something that emerges from intricate and subtle, simultaneous, overlapping, and often deadly serious games (see Schelling and Axelrod) among players located in position in a government.

Implications for strategy:

  • Models are often applied implicitly. One should have a clear understanding of assumptions regarding governmental behavior before developing strategy. The use of multiple models forces one to step back and examine those factors that may have been excluded from an initial analysis.
  • Embracing an alternate behavioral model may offer innovative foreign policy strategies or assessment.

Example: The "Central Metaphor" (pp. 6-7)

"Imagine a chess game in which the observer could see only a screen upon which moves in the game were projected, with no information about how the pieces cam to be moved. Initially, most observers would assume--as Model I does--that an individual chess player was moving the pieces with reference to plans and tactics toward the goal of winning the game. But a pattern of moves can be imagined that would lead some observers, after watching several bames, to consider a Model II assumption: the chess player might not be a single individual but rather a loose alliance of semi-independent organizations, each of which moves its pieces according to standard operating procedures. For example, movement of separate sets of pieces might proceed in turn, each according to a routine, the king's rook, bishop, and their pasuns repeatedly attacking the oponenet according to a fixed plan. It is conceivable, furthermore, that the pattern of play might suggest to an observer a Model III assumption: a number of distinct players, with distinct objectives but shared power over the pieces, could be determining the moves as the resultant of collegial bargaining....A single case can do no more than suggest the kinds of differences among explanations produced by the three models."

Appendix: Model SummariesEdit

Model I (Rational Actor, pp. 24-26)

1. Basic Unit of Analysis: Government Action as Choice

2. Organizing Concep

2.1. Unified National Actor
2.2. Problem: action chosen in response to the strategic situation faced.
2.3. Action as Rational Choice: Objectives (interests), Options (for advancing objectives), Consequences (cost/benefits), Choice (rational choice is value maximizing)

3. Dominant Inference Pattern: Nations behavior based on this value maximizing

4. General Propositions: (1) increase in perceived action’s costs reduce the chance it’s selected; (2) Decrease in perceived costs, increases likelihood

5. Evidence: details of behavior, gov’t discussions/documents are marshaled in such a way to get clear picture of value maximizing (beware “Rationality Theorem”: a creative analyst can find value maximizing anywhere, p26)

Model II (Organizational Behavior, pp. 164-185)

1. Basic Unit of Analysis: Gov’t Action as Organizational Output

2. Organizing Concepts:

2.1. The actor is a constellation of orgs on which leaders sit
2.2. Factored problems and fractured power
2.3. Organizations have different missions
2.4. Operational Objectives, Special Capacities, Culture of Orgs
2.5. Action as Organizational output:
2.5.1. Objectives and definition of successful output
2.5.2. Sequential attention to objectives (prioritization)
2.5.3. Standard Operating Procedures
2.5.4. Programs and Repertoires
2.5.5. Uncertainty avoidance (standard scenarios)
2.5.6. Problem directed Search (narrow focus)
2.5.7. Org. Learning and Change (budgetary ups/downs, dramatic failure)
2.5.8. Central Coord and Control
2.5.9. Decision of govt leaders trigger program A vs. program B in a repertoire; or triggering org routines in a new context; or trigger several different organizations programs at once.

3. Dominant Inference Pattern: if nation performs an action of certain type today, its organizational components must yesterday have been performing (or have had established routines for performing) an action only marginally different from today’s action. (p. 175).

4. General propositions: existing org. capabilities influence choice; org priorities shape implementation; implementation reflects previously established routines; leaders neglect administrative feasibility at their peril; limited flexibility and incremental change; long-range planning; organizational imperialism; directed change

5. Specific propositions: deterrence, force posture;

6. Evidence: Examination of govt action in terms of organizational tendencies can be very fruitful.

Model III (Governmental Politics, pp. 294-313)

1. Basic unit of Analysis: Governmental actions as political resultant

2. Organizing Concepts:

2.1. Who plays?: Chiefs, Staffers, Indians, Ad Hoc Players
2.2. What factors shape players views/preferences?: parochial priorities; goals/interests; stakes/stands; deadlines and faces of issues
2.3. What determines player’s impact?: Power (bargaining advantages, skill/will to use them, & other views of actor)
2.4. What is the game?:
2.4.1. Action Channels – regularized mean of govt action
2.4.2. Rules of the game – explicit/implicit (laws, ROE)
2.4.3. Action as Political Resultant

3. Dominant inference Pattern: action resulted from bargaining among individuals and groups in the government

4. General Propositions: Political resultants - influenced by large number of factors; action and intention – the action does not necessarily represent intention; problems and solutions – actors usually focus on near term needs; where you stand depends on where you sit; chiefs/Indians – face different demands in policy making and implementation; 51-49 principle; international and intranational relations; face of the issue differs between players; misexpectations; miscommunication; reticence; styles of play.

5. Specific Propositions: Use of force in crises; military action.

6. Evidence: Synthesizing numerous sources of data from documents to news reports to individual recollection may allow you to piece together the very complex puzzle.

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