The Essence of Decision, A Book Analysis – part i

The following is a book analysis I wrote on Graham Allison’s “Essence of Decision,” which was a three-paradigm study of the Cuban Missile crisis.

The Cuban missile crisis was a major event of the Cold War, in which the two major powers of the fifty year struggle, the United States and the Soviet Union, came close to a nuclear confrontation. What led to this confrontation, and how it unfolded is the subject of Graham Allison’s book, Essence of Decision. Written in 1971, it offers the reader an in-depth account of the “thirteen days” from multiple perspectives, and attempts to expand the literature of the study of this crisis. His method is unique: he establishes three models to analyze the events of October 1962, and applies each to gain a fuller understanding of an event that turned out to be much more complex than once thought.

In his Introduction to the study, Allison identifies four majors questions that he believed were never completely engaged by the reports on the missile crisis at the time. The first was why the Soviets decided to place offensive missiles in Cuba; second, how the US settled on their response of a naval quarantine; third, why the Soviets withdrew the missiles; and finally, what were the lessons learned from this event? The problem, as Allison saw it, was that most of the study of international relations focused on the study of the outcomes of decisions made by governments, and from those outcomes, attempts to rationalize the underlying reasoning behind the decisions. During this process, decisions of national governments are often explained by personifying said government, with the implication being that there is a single, unitary decision-making process at work.

Allison’s main argument is that the existing method of analyzing outcomes is insufficient, and multiple methods need to be applied to more fully understand an event. He summarizes his argument with three propositions:

1. Professional analysts of foreign affairs (as well as ordinary laymen) think about problems of foreign and military policy in terms of largely implicit conceptual models that have significant consequences for the content of their though.

2. Most analysts explain (and predict) the behavior of national governments in terms of one basic conceptual model, here entitled Rational Actor or “Classical” Model (Model I)

3. Two alternative conceptual models, here labeled an Organizational Process Model (Model II) and a Governmental (Bureaucratic) Politics Model (Model III) provide a base for improved explanations and predictions.

The Rational Actor model is the most prevalent in foreign relations study, according to Allison, but when the organizations in government, along with the individual actors who comprise them, are taken into account, it alone cannot answer the questions concerning why events happen fully. The remainder of the study is broken up into eight sections. He spends a chapter each on the explanation of each of the three models, and builds them into paradigms that can be used for analysis of events. Interspersed are chapters which then apply each model to the Cuban missile crisis. In his conclusion, he collates his findings, and examines the contributions each model makes to understanding the event. In the final section, the afterword, Allison explains how he thinks the models can be used not only for the reevaluation of foreign policy studies, but also how he thinks the models can applied to the study of public administration.

The first chapter, Model I: The Rational Actor, explains the most basic of the three models. Allison defines it as an attempt to analogize government behavior to that of an individual actor making rational choices . In the first section of the chapter he illustrates how this model is used by analysts in various fields of international study to explain various phenomena. Diplomatic history, national strategy, sovietology, and American foreign policy all use this model to study the international scene. Practitioners of this model each assume that there is an action, or behavior, to be explained; that the actor is a national government; that the action is a calculated solution to a specific strategic problem; and that the goal of their explanation is to locate the nation’s goals, and determine how the action achieved, or failed to achieve, the objective . Allison is sympathetic to the prevalence of this model. When studying foreign governments, this model offers the analyst an inexpensive method of estimating what an opponent would do when confronted with a situation, without actually having to force the situation upon them. The problem with this vicarious method, is that it assumes another individual would act in the same manner under a certain set of circumstances. To an extent, this is unavoidable. When discussing the machination of the Soviet Union, a closed society who also happened to be an enemy, there wasn’t much reliable information available to study. Allison notes that the less information available, the more it is necessary to rely on Model I, because the dearth of empirical material forces the analyst to estimate motives . Allison spends some time highlighting major practitioners of this model in the field of foreign relations studies, and explains how the “state-as-actor” model is thoroughly prevalent in the literature.

This is a function of simplification. This model takes the decisions made by governments, the actions decided upon as a result of those decisions, and the policies formed around the actions, and ascribes them to a personal construct. Allison posits that this tendency is prevalent throughout most of the social sciences. During the middle of the 20th Century, the behaviorist school came to dominate many branches of social science. These branches study human behavior as “purposive, goal-directed activity,” and views this activity as “intendedly rational” . The tendency in foreign relations is to extrapolate this tendency to the actions of governments. In terms of the rational-actor model, there are four concepts that seek to explain behavior. The first is that the actor possesses goals and objectives, and that these can be weighed against each other to determine a ranking of “payoffs” . Second, in a given situation, the actor can weigh alternatives. Third, the consequences of each alternative are considered, and finally, the rational choice is made. An underlying assumption to these concepts is that the rational actor will seek to maximize their benefit in any given situation, and that all considerations are known to the actor prior to the choice being made.

The third goal of the chapter is to formulate a paradigm for the Rational-Actor model. Allison defines a paradigm as a “systematic statement of the basic assumptions and concepts” that a school of analysis employs when studying a problem. The basic unit of analysis of this model is government action as choice . This model holds that when a government chooses to go to war, or invest in a technology, it does so because it believes this choice will maximize its interests for the lowest possible price. The paradigm has four organizing concepts: a unitary national actor; the ability to recognize problem it faces; that its selection of an action is a static, rather than dynamic one; and that the action chosen is a rational choice . The dominant inference pattern used is that an action is initiated by a government as a “maximizing means” to achieve a strategic ends . Allison’s paradigm next states that both general and specific propositions can be inferred by application of the model. This final aspect of the paradigm is that evidence is used to strengthen the analysis in the construction of a rational explanation of events. This model clearly has limitations, mainly because of the numerous assumptions it requires on the part of the analyst, but as Allison notes, in the absence of total information, it is in many cases the best model for an analyst to start with.

3 thoughts on “The Essence of Decision, A Book Analysis – part i

  1. Pingback: The Cuban Missile Crisis, A Book Analysis – part ii | Lone Wolf Musings

  2. Pingback: The Cuban Missile Crisis, A Book Analysis – part iii | Lone Wolf Musings

  3. Pingback: The Cuban Missile Crisis, A Book Analysis – part iv | Lone Wolf Musings

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