Proportionate Respones
Posted by aogWednesday, 08 January 2003 at 00:02 TrackBack Ping URL
I think that Steven Den Beste is wrong that having a list of response levels to provocations is instrinsically a Bad Thing. A correspondent says
No, the problem comes from not having a proper list of gradients that are attempted with the last item being war. Even with war, there would be some gradients - military blockade all the war to the highest gradient of Nuclear response
to which Den Beste replies
Having a public list like that would be an extremely grave mistake. [.…] What it means is that an enemy has a menu he can consult to determine how far he can push you, because he can see at any given point just how far down your list of standard steps of escalation you’ve gone through so far. If he’s willing to tolerate up to step 8 and you’ve only reached step 5, then he knows he can keep pushing
I agree that a list like that described is a bad idea for the same reasons Den Beste mentions. However, I think that a different list is a positive good. One can consider Den Beste’s position that a list is ok as long as there is a single item on it - “we may respond in any way to any action”. I think a middle ground, a list with a few items on it, is better than either extreme. As Den Beste himself goes on about at length, we had such a list during WWII and it worked well. That was, “we won’t use chemical weapons as long as our enemies don’t”. Den Beste notes well the ways in which an unscrupulous actor can abuse such a list, but ignores the way such a list can encourage such actors to behave. The key is to have few levels on the list, or alternative big steps so that it’s hard to game the system because at each level there is a broad range of possible response. For instance, Jacksonians have three levels on the list:
  • You leave me alone then I leave you alone
  • You mess with me then I’ll fight honorably
  • You fight dishonorably then it’s no holds barred

I think that this is better than the single level of response Den Beste seems to be advocating, because then a scrupulous actor doesn’t really know what you might do. A list like the one above reassures such actors while giving little away to unscrupulous ones. Unpredictability morphs into irrationality quite easily and so it’s not an unalloyed good. And as Den Beste observes it’s good to have carrots as well as sticks and a short list provides carrot while not overly restricting the choice of sticks.

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