On Sunday, an Iranian-backed militia killed three U.S. soldiers and injured 25 more in an attack on a base in Jordan. The attacks only add to the list of ways it seems the U.S. could get drawn into a major war. For some, the Biden administration’s increasing willingness to use military force risks escalating conflict.
Over the last two weeks, the U.S. and U.K. have conducted multiple strikes against Houthi targets in response to the militant group’s attacks on shipping through the Red Sea. While the U.S. and its supporters argue that these operations are necessary to secure global shipping, some worry that the use of force will draw Saudi Arabia back into the conflict in Yemen.
The death of U.S. soldiers on Jan. 28 only increases the sense that the U.S. and Iran appear to be on the brink of a direct confrontation. And while Russia and the U.S. have seemingly managed escalation dynamics in Ukraine, Kyiv’s increased attacks against the Russian homeland threaten to pull the U.S. deeper into the conflict.
But others believe Biden is too reluctant to use force against opponents. While the U.S. provides Ukraine with financial and military support, critics say these efforts were too slow and too piecemeal to prevent the invasion in the first place. The willingness of the Houthis and other militants to strike shipping and now U.S. soldiers, critics claim, results from Biden’s fear of confronting Iran. And looking to the future, some suggest that Biden’s hesitation to use force has emboldened Chinese President Xi Jinping to contemplate aggressive moves to reunify Taiwan, without fear of a U.S. response.
This debate about the Biden administration’s foreign policy demonstrates a long-standing argument in international relations: Do wars result from spirals or failed deterrence? And while most scholars believe that both models explain the outbreak of wars, the literature provides little guidance over how and when spiral and deterrence dynamics are likely to dominate.
The spiral and deterrence models, explained
In some ways, the spiral and deterrence models are similar. Both scenarios attempt to explain the inadvertent outbreak of war, or why wars between countries break out when at least one side wants to avoid fighting. Both models argue that wars stem from mistakes, when leaders adopt strategies designed to avoid war but end up causing them instead.
But what actually drives escalation in each model is different. The spiral model suggests that conflict escalates when leaders use force hoping to get the other side to comply, but instead force their opponent to escalate. For example, when one side – Country A – uses or threatens force, even defensively, its opponent might read this as evidence of aggressive aims, and choose to fight back. In response, Country A might then increase its use of force, hoping to get the other side to back down.
In the years before World War I, for instance, European countries engaged in what in retrospect was counterproductive arms racing. Germany built up its navy in an attempt to dissuade Britain from acting against its interests. But Germany’s actions only prompted Britain to increase its own naval armaments and seek closer ties to France.
In the deterrence model, escalation happens not because one side uses force, but because they fail to dissuade aggressive behavior through threats of punishment. In this case, Country A decides to appease rather than confront an opponent as a way to elicit better behavior. As a result, the opponent sees the appeasement as a sign of weakness and escalates its demands.
The classic example of a deterrence failure is Neville Chamberlain’s negotiation with Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1938. Here, the British prime minister mistakenly thought that compromising on the Sudetenland territory would satisfy the Nazi leader’s demands. Instead, these negotiations convinced Hitler that Britain was unwilling to fight to defend its allies, inviting Germany’s further expansion.
Which model is right about what leads to conflict?
In 1978, Robert Jervis’s Perception and Misperception offered a bold answer to which model explained the outbreak of war: “it depends.” Specifically, which model leads to conflict depends on the intentions of the leaders, and whether or not their intentions are “status quo” – that is, generally interested in peace – or “revisionist,” looking to use aggression to change political facts on the ground.
How does this play out in the deterrence model? If Country A offered to compromise with a status quo actor, then escalation is unlikely. The opponent is likely to take the deal. If Country A’s opponent is a revisionist – if Chamberlain is trying to negotiate with a Hitler – then Country A’s offer of compromise signals a lack of resolve, and only invites more aggression from that opponent.
With the spiral model, the dynamics are reversed. Appease a status quo actor, and you are likely to get to compromise. But when Country A threatens a status quo actor, this only convinces the opponent that they are being threatened and need to act. If Country A is trying to coerce a status quo actor – for example, Germany threatening Britain with a naval buildup before World War I – this is likely to set off a spiral. Without German provocation, Britain would have seen little need to engage in arms racing.
This seems pretty straightforward. Here’s the catch: It is difficult, if not impossible, to know whether or not your opponent has status quo or revisionist intentions. Information is hard to come by in international politics, even for the most rational of actors. Communication is difficult, particularly when war is on the line. Cognitive blinders make things even more complicated. Psychological theories tell us that leaders are likely to misread each other’s intentions. As a result, they act like they are in a spiral model when deterrence is required, and try to deter when they are faced with a spiral situation.
So are we doomed to escalate?
The situation is gloomy, but political scientists do think there are ways to glean the intentions of adversaries. To begin with, leaders can look for costly signals of status quo or revisionist intentions. Chamberlain should have paid more attention to Hitler’s rearmament efforts and expansionist rhetoric, for instance. Leaders should also debate a variety of explanations for an opponent’s behavior. During the Cuban missile crisis, U.S. National Security Council members explicitly argued over whether Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s behavior signaled intransigence or a willingness to compromise.
There is no perfect answer, but political scientists would suggest policymakers behave … well, more like social scientists. Policymakers need to propose or consider alternative theories of behavior, for example, beginning with the idea that Iran could be acting either out of domestic political security or aggressive intentions. They need to specify what evidence would disprove or support the dominant theory, and update beliefs in the face of evidence. And they need to accept that strategies may have unanticipated consequences, including an inadvertent spiral to war.
None of these strategies is easy to implement, but they are the only alternatives to walking blindly down a path to war.