Essence Of Decision: Explaining The Cuban Missile Crisis

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Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis”, by Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow examines the momentous Cuban Missile Crisis, which was one of the most successful acts of diplomacy during the Cold War. Allison and Zelikow explore through three different ‘conceptual lenses’ accommodating the reader to look further into common methods of foreign policy analysis. Allison and Zelikow evaluate the events of the thirteen days in October 1962 to demonstrate the models of policy analysis from different perspectives. The authors provide ample historical reviews, evidence and documents of the events, and offers thorough analyses of the crucial time of the nuclear age by also presenting new methods to consider with foreign policy actions. The three conceptual models, which can be used to analyze policy actions; the Rational Actor, Organizational Behavior, and Governmental Politics Models are described and applied to the Cuban Missile Crisis case. Each model demonstrates different features and areas of the fundamental decisions made by both the United States and the Soviet Union during the crisis. Allison and Zelikow clarify that even though there is no whole understanding of the situation as it happened at the time, and it will never be likely, however using these three theoretical lenses it will help gain a closer understanding and more of an awareness of all of the elements and the choices that were made at the time.

In this essay I will attempt to draw some understanding of the decisions the United States made towards the Cuban Missile Crisis by using Allison’s three conceptual lenses from the Essence of Decision, which is an analysis of the crisis itself and the decision making in the resolution procedure.

Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow present ‘Model I’ as the most commonly used method of evaluating foreign policy actions, this method is titled the Rational Actor Model, also known as RAM. RAM is a way of understanding policy actions taken by states, by considering the country as a rational unitary actor. The rational framework is also the most frequently used method in determining decisions between policy choices in the adoption and evaluation stages of the policy cycle. Whilst analysing an action undertaken by a state towards another state, the RAM presumes the actions taken place are intended, value maximising and strategic. The authors quote ‘for each explanation an act consists of showing what goal the government was pursing when it acted and how the action was a reasonable choice, given the nation’s objective” (Allison & Zelikow, 1999, p. 15). This allows us to understand how people go about making decisions, as it is done implicitly, without the person unintentionally realising they are doing it. The main questions in the Essence of Decision book that were answered in regards to the crisis are; ‘Why did the Soviet Union place offensive missiles in Cuba? Why did the US respond to this action with a blockade around Cuba? And why did the Soviet Union withdraw missiles in response?’ Looking at the situation in understanding the US decision-making reaction to the actions, the RAM analysis considers after evaluating a number options, and considering Kennedy’s goals, by assessing the quality of the search for options and their respective outcomes, and check whether the final choice promised to achieve his original goals to the extent that the decision-making process comes close to this ideal model, we can say that it was rational (Allison 1999, p.33), and a blockade would have the best chance of sending the desired message to Moscow without provoking a military response. Allison and Zelikow’s Rational Actor Model, examines the question – of whether we can understand clearly the move made by a country in the international policy arena as a rational choice? For instance, the concept of ‘bounded rationality’ appears clearly in foreign policy decision making, even when there is a central decision maker of a state, for example a leader or president who has supreme choice over all courses of action, their rational decision making will be hindered by the fact that they have no idea what the opponent is thinking. This can be referred back to the Cuban Missile Crisis; where President Kennedy and his advisors, the ExCom’s failed attempts at trying to understand why Khrushchev made certain decisions and actions. Since the international policy arena often deals with competitive oppositional opponents who keep their true intentions hidden as a means of accomplishing what they want (Lindbolm, 1959, p.113-127). President Kennedy becomes ‘the driver of the debate’ by making sure his team cautiously takes each step of the crisis to “probe deeper implications of each option… and to stretch their imagination” (Allison & Zelikow, 1999, p. 357) as the mass of diverting nuclear war cascades upon him. Thus helps us understand why the US made a rational decision with the blockade as it had several advantages, one being it did not constitute direct attack, secondly it placed the burden of the next move on Khrushchev, and also kept other options open. This is when the USSR decided to withdraw, that is because it recognised US strategic superiority. The book argues that in fact the USSR backed down in face of US warnings that further actions would follow if the missiles were to become operational.

The second Model, Allison and Zelikow presents are the Organisational Model of foreign policy. In this model, it is understood that countries and governments are not unitary actors but are stated as ‘vast conglomerate(s) of loosely allied organisations, each with a substantial life of its own’ (Allison & Zelikow, 1999, p. 143). The authors state that ‘Governments perceive problems through organisational sensors…they define alternatives and estimate consequences as their component organisations. – And process information” So, the government movements are not so much logical choices decided upon by one central decision maker, but are the productions of many organizations all ‘functioning according to standard patterns of behaviour’. The effects to consider with this organisational model illustrate that the importance of looking at governmental actions this way gives us a clear understanding of why the United States made the decisions in this crisis. For example, nearly all government actions in foreign policy are carried out by organizations, whether it is the Forces or the CIA, in this case, the government carrying out the policies are divided with the military and intelligence agencies. Furthermore, organizational actions are also limited and known by standard operating procedures, with what has been done before. The model which the authors present provides us with a curious opportunity to look at the role of bodies that play in foreign policy making in different ways. In Model II, Allison and Zelikow present a way of looking at policy decisions that are completely well ordered by the bureaucracy, although it may not be the government that makes the decision. In understanding the United States decision-making process with Model II, the deliberations of the EX-Com that produced possible alternatives were alternatively answered by the organisations, ‘What specifically, could be done?’ (Allison & Zelikow, 1999, p. 225). President Kennedy’s actions were limited by what the military organisations could do, since their actions and decisions made were backed up with experience and previous choices in foreign policy. Essence of Decision illustrates that organisational capacities are fundamental in international policy making. Model II also allows us to understand examples of how organizational behaviours shake the implementation of certain policies. For example, the situation by the Soviet troops lack of camouflage of the missiles in Cuba, and President Kennedy rushing to control with the test flights over Soviet air space. If this occurred after the crisis had begun, there might have started a nuclear war due to wrong interpretation other than a test flight. This example suggests that there is always more to the situation of a rational decision. The authors allow us to look through other ‘lenses’ to give us more of an understanding of how the US made certain decisions throughout the crisis.

The third model that Allison and Zelikow illustrate in the Essence of Decision is the Governmental Politics model also known as the Bureaucratic model. Model III consists of policy actions as a process where state actors bring their personal thoughts, opinions and ideas together to achieve separate goals and decide upon a course of action collectively, which may conflict with each other. In Essence of Decision the authors explain why ‘it is necessary to identify the games and players, to display the coalitions, bargains and compromises, and to convey some feel for the confusion” (Allison & Zelikow, 1999, p. 257). In this case, various individuals, representing various organisational interests engage in a process to achieve a negotiated group decision, which will represent the policy of a state. During the Crisis all US decisions were created by ExCom, President Kennedy’s inner circle of advisors that were composed together specifically for the missile crisis. Allison and Zelikow discussed the Ex-Com members and their ideas, the significance of the Cuban issue to Kennedy, and generally try to illustrate an overall political atmosphere behind the U.S. decisions. Allison proposed in the book that because of the failure of Bay of Pigs invasion, the Republicans in the United States congress made Cuban policy into a major issue for the upcoming congressional elections later in 1962. Therefore President Kennedy decided on a strong response rather than a diplomatic one. Although the majority of ExCom initially favoured air strikes, those closest to the president, (his brother Attorney General, Robert Kennedy and Special Council General Theodore Sorensen) favoured the Blockade. At the same time Kennedy got himself into disputes with supporters of the air strikes, such as Force General Curtis Lemay. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy also distrusted the CIA and their advice. This combination of push and pull led to the implication of a blockade. (Essence of Decision Presentation, u.d) Because of the nature of many foreign policy decisions and the ultimate importance of the decisions they attempt to make, the public and congress can generally defer any decision-making powers to the president even if they know the situation. For instance, in Essence of Decision, we see that the president makes his decision very quickly and through complete blankness, where there were no influence from Congress, or the public as they were unaware of the actions until the White House made the statements. Allison and Zelikow mention a few times in Essence of Decision how different the situation of the Missile Crisis would be if it had happened in today’s world with the immense public knowledge forcing decisions within hours rather than days. As it was, the president only had to challenge with the rivalry of ideas of his team of advisory. They brought in organizational and political thoughts from the head of agencies such as the military, which all had their own aims and objectives within the whole situation. As Wildavsky states, the president can nearly always gain support for his foreign policies, however “his problem is to find a viable policy” (1966, p. 237). For many parts of the politics Kennedy had to perform, were very limited in comparison to the domestic policy situations that occur. This model in comparison to the first two models may not illustrate an informative policy analysis, however it does offer a strong case in understanding why Kennedy came to the decision of a blockade. With essentially no opinion from the populous, the small governmental group made their decisions that could have meant life or death of millions of people. Thankfully, the Cuban Missile Crisis was settled by US’s decisions.

Graham and Zelikow’s Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis helps us understand US’s decision-making throughout the thirteen days by allowing us to look through three distinctive conceptual models. The three models shown throughout the book can be used to help understand policies at any level, from domestic to foreign. Looking into actions by governments through a rational, organisational and political lens seems necessary to fully understand the moves that Kennedy took and the game Khrushchev played. I believe we are used to taking a more full approach to accepting domestic and local policy decisions because we are more alert of the aspects going into the decisions. This book helps us understand why Kennedy and ExCom made a rational decision after evaluating options ranging from doing nothing to a full invasion of Cuba, and then finally a blockade was selected because it wouldn’t necessarily escalate into war, as well as forcing the Soviets to make the following move. The organisational process model allowed us to understand how Kennedy operated under time and information constraints whilst engaging in ‘satisficing’ behaviour. Kennedy and Excom never really considered any other options besides the blockade or air strikes, and initially were almost solidly in favour of the air strikes. However, such attacks created huge doubt because of the US Air Force, as they could not guarantee it would disable all nuclear missiles. The blockade felt to be the safest option in that case. The bureaucratic politics model also helped us understand Kennedy and ExCom’s different level of power based on charisma, personality, skills of persuasion and personal ties to the head of the decision maker. Even whilst sharing the matching goals, the leaders contrast in how they accomplish it because of elements such as personal interests and background. These all have an impact on why the US made certain decision on choosing the blockade. This book constructs us to comprehend why international decisions are made, and helps simplify why rational reasons are behind certain actions. Applying the organisational process model and the governmental model to the foreign policy actions it gives us an insight to the possibilities of miscommunication, misunderstandings and disagreements that can also happen in such situations more than what we believed. Overall, Essence of Decision has helped to an extent with relevant information and evidence to support Allison and Zelikow’s three conceptual models, with an understanding of why the United States decided to choose the blockade option.

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