The Terror of Strategic Incoherence

At the hearings for Rex Tillerson and James Mattis last week, the incoming Secretaries of State and Defense had some things to say.  Most interestingly both endorsed a hard line on Russian adventurism diametrically opposite from President Trump’s vocal enthusiasm for Russia and Putin.  Does this mean that they will be edged aside in favor of Trump’s proposed US-Russia alignment, or conversely that they will be the “adults in the room” setting real policies.  I certainly don’t know, but the disconnect is frightening in itself.

The late Thomas Schelling conceived of war as a process of diplomatic bargaining.  By committing troops and suffering to a conflict, nations can assess by trial just how committed their adversaries are to their stated aims.  If country A pushes country B for a concession B does not want, A can escalate from polite negotiation all the way up to all-out war as a way of communicating to B just how important the concession is.  A would only escalate up to the point where it thinks B will back down.

Conflict happens and escalates when countries misjudge each other.  If an aggressor badly underestimates another’s commitment, that can lead to terrible conflicts.  A posture of strategic ambiguity – e.g., the Trump Administration’s mix of pro- and anti-Putin views – exacerbates this concern.  Foreign countries can choose to see whatever they want in the noise machine emanating from the White House.  Some adversaries might wrongly believe they can push further than they really can – and since no one knows what our real red lines are, it’s easy to imagine conflicts blowing out of control.

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