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Hobson's choice? : the politics of international crisis escalation Robinson, P. Stuart


The existing literature does little to reveal the sources of escalation in international security crises. This thesis reveals some of them by means of a general analytical framework designed to sensitize us to the distinctive political context of individual cases. Most theorising about crisis focuses narrowly on decisionmaking: the cognitive and/or organisational processes that form and implement policy. Such an approach essentially treats decision-makers as autonomous actors more or less effectively securing their utility. Their broad political context--the nation-state they represent and the issue--are given. In these terms, decision-making is critical to policy. Technical prescriptions to improve the process should therefore also improve policy. However, both largely reflect political constraints immune to such ‘improvement.’ In crises such constraints apparently produce sloppy decision-making, because they drastically reduce the politically expedient options and thus the importance of the process of choosing. They can also increase escalation. I identify the escalatory political constraints of crisis, and argue for their importance by examining a case that reveals them unusually starkly: one ending in war. This is the basis of a framework for analysing the political dimension of crisis escalation. The political context is important because of the general political role of the foreign-policy-maker, and the kind of issue raised in a crisis. An individual acting for the state at least nominally represents the community--the nation--of which the state is the political expression. This is a role which, as long as he occupies it, he must in some measure perform. As such, he is constrained by the implicit or explicit obligations of his office. These are common to all states (defined as an institution with supreme authority to order the affairs of a community) though they vary greatly in form and substance. An international crisis is essentially a period of extraordinary threat to important national interests and extraordinary likelihood of war. Because crises involve the dispute of important national interests and the use of force--at least by implicit threat--they provoke unusual political and public attention. A coercive demonstration of force must be publicly legitimised, by defining the issue as important and the adversary as the wrong-doer. Depending on the salience of the issue and the character of the state, such a demonstration constitutes a lesser or greater commitment, a more or less constraining invocation of public expectations concerning the leader's obligations of office. To understand how and why such commitments tend to be more or less powerful and thus more or less escalatory, we must identify the sources of issue salience, in the character of the states and in the object of dispute. Different combinations of aspects of object and states will have more or less escalatory effects. Some will invoke a greater sense in the political constituency of that leader's obligations to escalate, for example, because the adversary has a despised political system, or because the issue involves territory populated by loyal subjects. Such a tenor of public or peer opinion, albeit ill-defined, imposes palpable political costs on conciliatory actions. The identified escalation-relevant variables are: the states' balance of power, political systemic distance, history of contact, current political instability, and the disputed object's indivisibility, preemptibility, emotive potential and utility. A crisis can be characterised according to how escalatory or de-escalatory are the effects of these variables. I characterise three case-studies thus to help us evaluate the 'characterisation' as an analytical instrument. The instrument does more than draw our attention nicely to the dynamics of crisis escalation. By emphasising the foreign-policy-maker's role as the notional person of the state, and his symbolically and practically important obligations to political constituency, it provides a more conceptually coherent alternative to the realists' anthropomorphic state, and to the crisis literature's autonomous decision-maker, as the focus of analysis.

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