Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Focal Point for Those Who Study Conflict

Thomas Schelling died yesterday.  He was one of the most influential scholars of the past fifty years, complete with a Nobel Prize in economics and tens of thousands of citations.  His work shaped not just that field but that of political science, especially those who study strategy and conflict.  Indeed, those words almost seem to be Schelling's thanks to Strategy of Conflict, the book that informed not just American social scientists but, well, the arms race and then some.  Like Kenneth Waltz's work, Schelling's ideas are now common sense:
  • the importance of focal points around which behavior converges
  • the power to hurt is the power to bargain
  • the importance of signaling
  • the dynamics of tying hands and making commitments
  • and, for me, what is so key today, the threat that leaves something to chance.
Schelling's work is relevant in so many areas.  Lately, for me, I have focused on its implications for European security and international peace.  That NATO can deter Russia even if no one really wants to sacrifice their national capital for Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania.   That deployments of NATO troops to the region embody the threat that leaves something to chance.  That is, it is not really a commitment to certainly escalate to nuclear war--that would be ridiculous--incredible in the sense of not being believable.  However, what it does do is this: it puts the onus on taking the next decision, which might lead to a series of moves that would produce escalation, in Putin's hands.  This deterrent threat--building a modest tripwire in the Baltics--builds on Schelling's ideas in a big way.  I should have been citing him every time I blogged about this (although that is one of the joys of blogging--no requirements to cite).

Anyhow, of all the stuff I read in grad school, the concepts that I rely on most often, that give me the most insight into contemporary international relations, are those I found in Strategy of Conflict and Arms and Influence

1 comment:

LFC said...

Wrote a comment and then hit the wrong button and lost it (sigh). Anyway, won't retype it but just to say I'm learning of Schelling's death from this post, so thks.