Michael KreponRobert Jervis

Aspiring wonks: your homework assignment this week is to read Robert Jervis. In my view, his best writing is about the impact of nuclear weapons on world politics and the psychology of nuclear deterrence. As the salience of nuclear weapons has been reduced for the United States, the security dilemmas Jervis writes about have become more applicable to conventional conflict.

Try The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon (1989). The timing of this book was off because Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan jumped ahead of Jervis (and everybody else), but its content is well worth another look.

Here’s a sampler:

The fact that nuclear weapons could destroy the world has changed the way people think and the way nations behave. [long break] It is the prospect of fighting the war rather than the possibility of losing it that induces restraint.

On escalation control:

If violence stayed at the same level rather than increasing, the result would still be a form of escalation because the damage would be cumulative. Indeed, states could destroy each other piecemeal in a process that has no upper limit. Each side could believe that with the infliction of a bit more pain and the running of a bit more risk, the other side would back down… Thus, even a purely rational decision maker could participate in a cycle of destruction and counter-destruction….

The pressures for such escalation would be increased by two factors relating to losses the states have already suffered. First, people often try to recoup sunk costs even if rationality dictates ignoring them. Suffering in vain is not easily accepted. Second, sunk costs have important political effects: to lose after entering the fray usually harms the state’s reputation more than not having contested the issue at all.

Does Afghanistan come to mind? And here is a forewarning about Iran:

If war can come by a self-fulfilling prophecy, then the danger of war can build on itself; the reality is created by the participants’ beliefs… The background mood can thus be crucial.


  1. George William Herbert (History)

    Yes, if you haven’t already, go read as much of his work as you can find…

  2. John Schilling (History)

    I’m not a Jervis completist, but my library includes “Perception and Misperception in International Politics” and “Psychology & Deterrence”. Quite useful, and as you note relevant to conventional conflicts as well as nuclear.

    If nothing else, it is an antidote to the common misperception that national command authorities are composed either of flawlessly rational entities . Whether we are talking Reagan/Gorbachev, Bush/Hussein, or Obama/Ahmadinejad, there are predictable, comprehensible cognitive biases at work on both sides.

  3. Bradley Laing (History)

    Pasadena Star New

    Posted: 10/04/2012 09:42:28 AM PDT
    October 4, 2012 4:43 PM GMTUpdated: 10/04/2012 09:42:28 AM PDT

    PASADENA – Robert Christy, a Caltech professor and member of the Manhattan Project team that developed the Atom Bomb has died. He was 96.

    A professor of theoretical physics, Christy was recruited by Robert Oppenheimer as a member of the Manhattan Project.

    The team developed a nuclear weapon during World War II.

    “Christy’s experience in the war led him to oppose further development of nuclear weapons,” a statement from Caltech indicated. “In the 1980s he became a member