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Allison and Zelikow, The Essence of Decision (XXI)

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Matt Domsalla

SAASS 601/8

Essence of Decision Precis

In Essence of Decision, Harvard political scientist Graham Allison and University of Virginia political scientist and historian Philip Zelikow examine the events of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and provide a framework for examining the influence of unrecognized assumptions on analysis about events such as the missile crisis. The book is written with five different audiences in mind – the authors’ colleagues, students of foreign affairs, regular readers of foreign policy articles, journalists, and an intelligent person not particularly interested in foreign affairs (as exemplified by a colleague’s spouse). Allison and Zelikow address four central questions of the missile crisis:

1. Why did the Soviet Union place strategic offensive missiles in Cuba?

2. Why did the United States respond with a naval quarantine of Soviet shipments to Cuba?

3. Why were the missiles withdrawn?

4. What are the “lessons” of the missile crisis?

Allison and Zeliko propose three frameworks, or lenses, through which the analyst should view actions:

1. Model I – Rational Actor Model: IR is seen as choices of unitary rational actors (nations).

· Basic unit of analysis – government action as choice

· Organizing concepts – unified national actor, problem, action as rational choice (objectives, options/alternatives, consequences, and choice.

· Dominant inference pattern – value-maximizing means for achieving the actor’s objectives

· General propositions – increase in the perceived costs of an alternative reduces the likelihood of that action being chosen / decrease in the perceived costs of an alternative increases the likelihood of that action being chosen.

2. Model II – Organizational Behavior Model: From what organizational context, pressures, and procedures did this decision emerge?

· Basic unit of analysis – government action as organizational output. The decisions of government leaders trigger organizational routines. Existing organizational capacities for employing present physical assets constitute the range of effective choice open to government leaders confronted with any problem. Organizational outputs structure the situation within the narrow constraints of which leaders must make their decisions about an issue. Innovation – leaders may try to undertake a new activity, where there is no established organizational capacity or set routines.

· Organizing concepts – organizational actors; factored problems and fractionated power; organizational missions; operational objectives, special capacities, and culture; action as organizational output (objectives: compliance defining acceptable performance, sequential attention to objectives, SOPs, programs and repertoires, uncertainty avoidance, problem-directed search; organizational learning and change (budget feast/famine & dramatic failures); central coordination and control; and decisions of government leaders.

· Dominant inference pattern – If a nation performs an action of a 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. Explanatory power is achieved by uncovering the special capabilities, repertoires, and organizational routines that produce the outputs that comprise the puzzling occurrence.

· General propositions – existing organized capabilities influence governmental choice, organizational priorities shape organizational implementation, implementing reflects previous established routines, leaders neglect calculations of administrative feasibility at their peril, limited flexibility and incremental change, long range planning, imperialism, directed change

3. Model III Government Politics Model: Government actions are a resultant of bargaining games among players in the national government.

· Basic unit of analysis – Governmental action as political resultant.

· Organizing concepts – Who plays? What factors shape players’ perceptions, preferences, and stance on the issue? What determines each player’s impact on results? How does the game combine players’ stands, influence, and moves to yield governmental decisions and actions?

· Dominant inference pattern – If a nation performs an action of a 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. Explanatory power is achieved by uncovering the special capabilities, repertoires, and organizational routines that produce the outputs that comprise the puzzling occurrence.

· General propositions – political resultants, action and intention, problems and solutions, where you stand depends on where you sit, chiefs and Indians, the 51-49 principle, international and intranational relations, the face of issue differs from seat to seat, misexpectation, miscommunication, reticence, and styles of play.

The General Argument

· “In searching for an explanation, one typically puts himself or herself in the place of the nation, or national government, confronting a problem of foreign affairs and tries to figure out why one might have chose the action in question.” (3)

Model I: The Rational Actor

· “The attempt to explain international events by recounting the aims and calculations of nations or governments is the trademark of the Rational Actor Model.” (13)

· “In spite of considerable differences in emphasis and focus, most contemporary analysts (as well as citizens) proceed predominantly – albeit most often implicitly – in terms of this framework [RAM] when trying to explain international events.” (15)

· “Precisely because the theory of rational action allows the analyst to get inside the agent’s calculations and this have a sense that he understands and can explain what was done, it can be powerfully misleading.” (19)

· “Uncertain about the consequences, the actor is assumed to choose the alternative with the highest expected utility.” (20)

· “The Rational Actor Model is widely used in thinking about government behavior and international relations [particularly the realism school and its derivatives].” (26)

The Cuban Missile Crisis: A First Cut

· “Having peered over the edge of the nuclear precipice, both nations edged backward toward détente.” (77)

· Four hypotheses about the Soviet attempt to place missiles in Cuba (82 – 109)

1. Cuban Defense. “The Americans had little or no grasp of what, to the Soviets and Cubans, seemed like a string of deterrent successes for Soviet missiles.” (83)

2. Cold War Politics. “Whenever one party lost, the other gained.” (88)

3. Missile Power. Strategic balance of power. “A clear-eyed strategic analyst, Martian, Soviet, or American, could quite reasonably conclude in 1962 that the Soviet Union had a problem, a large problem.” (94)

4. Berlin – Win, Trade, or Trap. “For Kennedy…It must be Berlin. Khrushchev would use the missiles to solve the Berlin problem – on his own terms.” (100)

· “It must be acknowledged that the missile power and Berlin hypotheses, as well as the others considered above, fail to account for many other features of what the Soviets actually did.” (108)

· Six alternatives for the US were considered before a fusion of several was chosen (111 – 120)

1. Do nothing. Vulnerability to Soviet missiles was nothing new.

2. Diplomatic pressure

3. Secret approach to Castro

4. Invasion

5. Air Strike – Difficulties: kept surgical?, kill Russians, advanced warning? (reverse “Pearl Harbor”), might not get all the missiles

6. Blockade

· “Khrushchev withdrew the Soviet missiles not because of the blockade, but because of the threat of further action. The middle road – that is, the blockade – may have provided time for Soviets to adjust to the fact of American determination to withdraw the missiles. But is also left room for the Soviet Union to bring the missiles to operational readiness.” (129)

Model II: Organizational Behavior

· “Governmental behavior can therefore be understood…less as deliberate choices and more as outputs of large organizations functioning according to standard patterns of behavior.” (143)

· “Coordination required standard operating procedures: rules according to which things are done.” (143)

· “Organizations create capabilities for achieving humanly-chosen purposes and performing tasks that would otherwise be impossible…existing organizations and their existing programs and routines constrain behavior…organizational culture emerges to shape the behavior of individuals within the organizations in ways that conform with informal as well as formal norms…organization are thus less analogous to individuals than to a technology or bundle of technologies.” (145 – 146)

· “To perform and to make regular judgments, organizations adopt rules, norms, or routines.” (152)

The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Second Cut

· “The SAM, MRBM, and IRBM sites constructed in Cuba were built to look exactly like the SAM, MRBM, and IRBM sties in the Soviet Union.” (208)

· “Once the weapons and equipment arrived in Cuba, another organization took over.” (211)

· “At the sites, each team did what it knew how to do – emplace missiles – literally according to the book.” (212)

· “As one analyzes the normal behavior of the organizations engaged, the [Soviet] performance becomes more plausible.” (216)

· “[The discovery of missiles in Cuba] was possibly only because of the special organizational capacities routines, and procedures of the US intelligence community.” (219)

· “Organizations defined what the president believed US military equipment and personnel were capable of doing in the Cuban missile crisis.” (225)

· “Were the organizations on top of which the president was trying to sit doing to drag the country over the nuclear cliff in spite all his efforts?” (240)

· “There is always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t get the word.” [JFK in response to a routine U-2 flight that inadvertently strayed into Soviet airspace during the crisis.] (241)

Model III: Governmental Politics

· “The chess pieces are moved…according to the power and performance of proponents and opponents of the action in question.” (256)

· Neustadt’s analysis – separated institutions sharing power, the power to persuade, bargaining according the to process, power equals impact on outcome, intranational and international relations. (259 – 260)

· Factors that influence group decision making process: better decisions; agency problem: principles, agents, and players; participants: who plays?; decision rules; framing issues and setting agendas; group think; and complexity of joint decisions and actions. (264)

· “While only you can ultimately make the decision, to say that you determined the content of the choice would be inaccurate…Your informal choice is likely to be better than if made without expert advice. You must also recognize that the interaction involves asymmetric information and expertise, and that the interests of the client and expert are not necessarily identical.” (272)

The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Third Cut

· “The timing [of U-2 flights] was the product of pulling and hauling, a tug of war principally between McCone, on one side, and Rust with Bundy on the other.” (338)

· “A basic choice had yielded to a richer, more sophisticated menu of choices, enabling the president to calibrate US actions more carefully, find the precise spot where he felt the greatest confidence, and give clear operational guidance to his subordinates.” (346)

· “The nuclear crisis seems to have magnified both rulers’ conceptions of the consequences of nuclear war, and each man’s awareness of his special responsibility. This consciousness not only set each man apart from his associates, it set each apart in a way that left the two alone – together.” (355)

· “President Kennedy becomes the drivers of the debate. We see a president as analyst-in-chief. On each issue, he presses his colleagues to probe deeper implications of each option; to explore ways of circumventing seemingly insurmountable obstacles; to face squarely unpalatable tradeoffs; and to stretch their imagination.” (357)


· “Model III also sees the leaders as influenced by their place and peculiar responsibilities, the singular burden that falls on the one person with ultimate authority to order nuclear war.” (383)

· “The information demanded by Model II and Model III exceeds that needed by Model I.” (387)

· See page 389 – 390 for cookbook questions for each model.

· “Thus the models can be seen as complements to each other. Model I fixed the broader context, the larger national patterns, and the shared images. Model II illuminates the organizational routines that produce the information, options, and action. Model III focuses in greater detail on the individuals who constitute a government and the politics and procedures by which their competing perceptions and preferences are combined.” (392)


Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis Allison & Zelikow (1999 org. ‘70s)

Purpose of book: 1- Understand Cuban Missile Crisis, 2- explore influence of unrecognized assumptions, specifically things that don’t meet the Rational Actor theory (Model I)

Model I – The Rational Actor

- Organization acts as a single rational actor both in decision making and implementation

o (1) Cuban Defense, Cold War Politics, Missile Power, Win-Trade-Trap

o (2) Do Nothing, Diplomatic Pressure, Secret Approach Castro, Invasion, Air Strike, Blockade

o (3) Blockade to buy time (Soviet decision required) & threat of further action

Model II – Organizational Behavior

- Organization acts based on the SOPs, routine, constraints, culture, technology of the organization and sub-organizations

o Khruschev, scare Americans…sent in tactical nucs; 1 unit delivered, 1 unit assembled, no camouflage, didn’t use SAMs to shoot U2

o DEFCON 3 led to bomber/nuc dispersal, Naval blockade, barely got U2 footage, USAF could only destroy 90%, had to get SAMs no surgical option

o U.S. U2 over Russia, nuclear armed aircraft on alert, “Always some Son of b that doesn’t get the message

Model III – Governmental Politics

- Organization acts based on a series of negotiations amongst the principles

o Access, Agenda, Group Think, Organization Rep, Info Access

o Robert Kennedy becomes the leader of EXCOM (Attorney General?)

3 questions throughout the book, used for each model

- Why did the Soviets put missiles in Cuba?

- Why did the U.S. choose to use a blockade?

- Why did the Soviets remove the missiles from Cuba?

Model 1 assumes not just unitary decision making but also unitary control of those actions

Model 1 will be most used based on time and resources – it is a solid model

- Asking questions from model II & III brings some humility into the thought and the process

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