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Thomas Schelling, Strategy of Conflict


Thesis: International conflicts are not zero-sum games; they are variable-sum

- Conflicts are bargaining situations

- Deterrence requires conflict and common interests

- "Threat that leaves something to chance"

- Brinkmanship

Gloves notes Schelling ch1-3 / conflict can be pathological (so we seek diagnosis and cure) or the normal state (so we study behaviors) – and among the latter, some equate conflict to a contest and study strategies to ensure victory 3 / assuming a rational actor limits application of findings because not all actors are rational 4 / there are usually areas of common interest among those engaged in conflict, inducing bargaining, mutual accommodation, and avoidance of mutually damaging behavior 4-5 / strategy, then, is concerned with “exploitation of potential force” – latent force 5 / “theory of interdependent decision” captures the scope of the interaction between opponents who are in conflict but not diametrically opposed 16 / old, despotic devices like exchanging hostages can enlighten our so-called enlightened world 20 / demonstration of commitment can make what is false become true (if you commit irrevocably and at great cost) 24 / communication asymmetry can limit deter-ability – if my phone is disconnected, you can’t threaten me to stop whatever it is I am doing 26 / mutual but uncoordinated commitments can lead to incompatible positions that stalemate bargaining 28 / precedent and historically-followed principles add credence to negotiations 34 / threats that hurt both are effective only if the threatener is credible and bound to carry out the threat 36 / trip wire or plate glass window show commitment 38 / maximum credibility leaves minimum loopholes or room for discretion – automatic is best 40 / offering a bargain entails risk because it discloses a willingness to bargain, but accepted and honored bargains lead to trust, which is very valuable 46 / bargaining through communication is hard as war looms, so tacit bargaining assumes greater importance 53 / impotence can be strength in bargaining 60 / even in explicit bargaining, tacit clues have influence 67 / precedents and status quo set a pattern, e.g. 68 / infinitely reflexive expectations somehow resolve into a position 70 / attractive outcomes enjoy “prominence, uniqueness, simplicity, precedent, or some rationale that makes them qualitatively” different than the rest 70 / tacit coordination requires intuitively perceived mutual expectations 71 / “tacit agreements or agreements arrived at through partial or haphazard negotiation require terms that are qualitatively distinguishable from the alternatives and cannot simply be a matter of degree” and with incomplete communication, you may have to find a solution that’s less than fair because of the situation and circumstance 75 / regarding gas in WWII – tacit arrival at “no gas” is more obvious than “some gas” (but how much, or where, or on what targets) 75 / tacit arrival at 38th parallel, no nukes, equipment (not personnel) aid to French in Indochina, etc. 76 / limiting warfare presents not a smooth continuum of options but a “lumpy, discrete world” 77 / tacit bargaining benefits from previous agreements, and because war isn’t inherently limited, it would be good to make lots of previous agreements to make it easier to limit war 78


  • Conflict is a contest. Rational behavior, in this contest is a matter of judgment and perception.
  • Strategy makes predictions using “rational behavior - …behavior motivated by a serious calculation of advantages, a calculation that in turn is based on an explicit and internally consistent value system. “
  • RAM model: we use it every day, to value maximize our interests and self preservation. Actor’s value is the guideline. However, we need MOD I and II since not all can be explained by RAM.
  • There is a bargaining area/space, where both parties feel they can live with the result. Outside this area there will be too much to lose. Can be done open/secret and the power to bargain depends on your power base/what you can offer and the other parties interests.
  • Cooperation is always temporary, interests will change.
  • Democracy and Al-Qaida; seems to be a zero sum game, but we need to find the possibility to change it to a variable sum game, otherwise will there be too much at stake and never any solution.
  • Like Thucydides' "fear, honor, and interest" formulation, it may not tell you exactly how each character will interpret what falls under each category, but you can form an overall theory of strategy around the assumptions that each actor will seek to reduce fear, enhance honor, and preserve or increase interest, even if their conclusions about what actions are needed to do this don't match yours.
  • Schelling adds the important element that one side’s calculation of actions is dependent on what the other side does or is predicted to do –in other words, fear, honor, and interest calculations are not made in vacuums. He calls this the theory of interdependent decision
  • “A theory of strategy does not deny that there are common as well as conflicting interests among the participants...in international affairs, there is mutual dependence as well as opposition." Sticks and Carrots are always in play, but sometimes you both get carrots at the same time.
  • Most competition is not a zero sum game, and interests are seldom in total opposition. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 are an example – although they definitely competed the whole time, they both found carrots in Poland - at least until they fought each other over even bigger ones. According to Schelling, unless there is both conflict and some kind of common interest in a certain status quo, there can be no such thing as deterrence – you’d get either pure antagonism if you only have the former, and “complete common interest” if you only have the latter
  • “Most conflict situations are essentially bargaining situations.” You could argue from Clausewitz that war is essentially a bargaining situation, and conflict never ends unless
  • 1. One side is eliminated,
  • 2. One side is temporarily forced to accept the winner’s imposed status quo by force and must wait until it can gather strength to resume hostilities, or 3. Both sides come to some sort of mutually acceptable agreement on a new status quo and conflict ends.
  • “it is not a universal advantage in situations of conflict to be inalienably and manifestly rational in decision and motivation”.
  • Negotiation often occurs without discussion, but it’s difficult to predict outcomes when this happens, and these are often determined by geographically or cognitively significant features (i.e. natural borders, prominent features, precedent, round numbers) of the environment . This communication need not be reciprocal to provide both parties benefit

Sugar's tips on Schelling - Strategy of Conflict

pg4 Strategy makes predictions using “rational behavior - …behavior motivated by a serious calculation of advantages, a calculation that in turn is based on an explicit and internally consistent value system. “ Like Thucydides' "fear, honor, and interest" formulation, it may not tell you exactly how each character will interpret what falls under each category, but you can form an overall theory of strategy around the assumptions that each actor will seek to reduce fear, enhance honor, and preserve or increase interest, even if their conclusions about what actions are needed to do this don't match yours. Schelling adds the important element that one side’s calculation of actions is dependent on what the other side does or is predicted to do –in other words, fear, honor, and interest calculations are not made in vacuums. (pg 15) He calls this the theory of interdependent decision (pg 16)

pg 4 “A theory of strategy does not deny that there are common as well as conflicting interests among the participants. .. in international affairs, there is mutual dependence as well as opposition. “ Sticks and Carrots are always in play, but sometimes you both get carrots at the same time. Most competition is not a zero sum game, and interests are seldom in total opposition. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 are an example – although they definitely competed the whole time, they both found carrots in Poland - at least until they fought each other over even bigger ones. According to Schelling, unless there is both conflict and some kind of common interest in a certain status quo, there can be no such thing as deterrence – you’d get either pure antagonism if you only have the former, and “complete common interest” if you only have the latter (pg 11)


pg5 “Most conflict situations are essentially bargaining situations.” You could argue from Clausewitz that war is essentially a bargaining situation, and conflict never ends unless 1. One side is eliminated, 2. One side is temporarily forced to accept the winner’s imposed status quo by force and must wait until it can gather strength to resume hostilities, or 3. Both sides come to some sort of mutually acceptable agreement on a new status quo and conflict ends.


pg18 “it is not a universal advantage in situations of conflict to be inalienably and manifestly rational in decision and motivation”. As illustrated by Viking beserkers (there ‘ya go, Snake!) Mel Gibson’s character in Lethal Weapon (or in Hamlet with his "antic disposition" before all the swordfights) and the rhetoric of North Korea – sometimes it’s extremely rational to appear to be completely nuts.

Top of page 37, 3rd para of 40 – the Strangelove Doomsday machine!

pg75-77 Negotiation often occurs without discussion, but it’s difficult to predict outcomes when this happens, and these are often determined by geographically or cognitively significant features (i.e. natural borders, prominent features, precedent, round numbers) of the environment . This communication need not be reciprocal to provide both parties benefit (i.e. car in right lane swerving to avoid driver in wrong lane texting on cellphone)

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