Escalation or Reconciliation: Options for Ukraine

Wars are initiated over specific grievances, real or believed. The particulars of each case often cause a neglect of long-term and overriding factors. During times of escalating conflicts, one is tempted both to up the level of threat and to blame the adversary’s behavior as the reason why this new level is necessary. Typically, each new level of threat or act of aggression is described as a moral outrage against an incorrigible and dangerous opponent. Civilian populations are bombarded with images of the enemy. Criticism of one’s own increasing military build-up, and intervention is viewed as weak and giving in to a tyrant. Sequentially increasing the ante is presented as the needed path to create an enemy backdown. This thesis was articulated at the height of the cold war by strategist Herman Kahn’s theory of escalation dominance. Kahn described an escalation ladder in which 44 gradually harsher moves would be prepared in advance and enacted until the enemy got the message and gave up.

A report by the Rand Corporation reviewed Soviet, Western, and other national concepts of escalation. The generalized model is purportedly related to gaming or decision theory. Game theory is a mathematical theory of rational choice. The theory classifies situations (games) according to specified properties: e.g, Are the payoffs a constant sum in which the winnings of one side add exactly to the losses of the other? Is full information available, as in chess, or is chance or probability involved, as in poker?

Some controversial applications of the theory culminated in Kahn’s 44-Step Escalation Ladder. Steps ranged from modest critical notices to embassies, through threatening military provocation, and on to the actual use of nuclear weapons targeting cities of the adversary.1

During times of active military conflict, we typically witness countering narratives as to who are the responsible parties. In the current Ukraine crisis, Russia claims support for its military actions by previously occupied portions of Ukraine and blames a threat posed by the US and other NATO nations. The provision of extensive military and economic aid to Ukraine by NATO has been used to argue that we are dealing with a proxy war following a model in which the US and Soviet Union empires fought wars by assisting factions of other nations in order to buy influence and allegiance.

The clearly illegal Russian incursion in Ukraine does not preclude justifying the designation of a proxy war. There is a long-term strategic and economic conflict between two empires, which have taken steps along the escalation model. The Russian steps have included armed action, bombing of infrastructures, and threats of military action against NATO members. The US steps have included declaring Putin guilty of genocide, providing weapons to Ukraine, enacting economic sanctions against Russia, and providing logistic information used to target high-ranking Russian military officers and Soviet warships. The escalation playbook is in operation.

Recent pronouncements demand that Russian officials must be brought before a criminal court, despite refusals by the US to honor such agencies in alleged charges of war crimes against the US. The Russians reply that they are a nuclear power. What comes next? Where will it lead?

The escalation model has been subject to serious criticism. It can be played by both parties in a conflict. It offers no assurance that the opposing party will back down, despite the severity of the costs. In fact, the inflicted pain can become a rallying cry for new steps as retribution.

Actual application of the escalation model would require a quantitative measurement of the pain associated with each new move. Such measures, however, are highly subjective. Moreover, such assessments during time of war are likely to be wrong. Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam war, described the “fog of war” — the propensity to misjudge the true effects of tactics and strategies amidst a blinding array of life-and-death details.

This fog hid the need for deception to pursue a failing model of military escalation in Vietnam. That deception was described in the Pentagon Papers and by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. A similar documentation of twenty years of deception that supported escalation of war was reported in the Afghanistan Papers. [2]

The escalation model is not the only alternative for the conflict in Ukraine or elsewhere. Graduated Reciprocation in Tension Reduction, (GRIT): An Alternative to War or Surrender was proposed by Charles Osgood.3 That model called for one party to initiate small conciliatory moves on a unilateral basis. The moves would be pre-announced. If reciprocated, the magnitude of the conciliatory moves would increase, leading, if successful, to a détente.4

A controlled laboratory test affirmed some efficacy for the GRIT model. A partial test was made of the hypothesis that a renewed strategy of small conciliatory moves, preceded by honest prior announcements, will induce reciprocation from an adversary, even after a deadlock of distrust. The task was a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma game, extended to permit gradations in cooperative response and cast in the simulated settings of an arms race.

False-feedback conditions permitted the experimenter to contrast the effects of the conciliatory strategy with another group who played against a foe with a tit-for-tat strategy. A control group of natural pairs was left to make their moves without experimenter intervention. The effects showed the efficacy of conciliatory moves and honest communication of intentions against both matching strategies and natural sequences of play.

The potential danger of the escalation model in a conflict between the two countries most capable of using nuclear-laden ballistic missiles defies imagination. Wars frequently result, by accident or intent, in destruction greater than the decision-makers had considered possible. The combined effects of blast, firestorm, and radiation produce a destruction of people, habitat, and the possibility for recovery. The absolute horror of nuclear war contributes to a denial of the possibility. Some measure of this denial is present among the defense professionals and military suppliers, who derive the meaning of their lives from proficiency in waging war.

The risk of escalation to nuclear war requires stepping back and considering conciliatory policies leading in a safer direction. One small move might lesson the hostile language: a promise of full international media coverage of dialogue; arrangements for safe passage of civilians; safe return of soldiers; promises of reductions in nuclear weapons in Europe; announcing a “no first use” policy; gradual relaxing of sanctions; international monetary relief to cushion the economic transition; and providing vaccines universally. Nations small and large, autocratic or democratic, need to use forums for international dialogue and agreements. Conciliatory initiatives call for creativity and patience. They could become steps toward building a world with better outcomes for all. [*]

Marc Pilisuk is Professor Emeritus, The University of California, Berkeley, and Faculty, Saybrook University. A prior abbreviated version of this article appeared in the Basel Peace Office, Switzerland. May 16, 2022

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