Dangerous Thresholds

Dangerous Thresholds: Managing Escalation in the 21st Century

Forrest E. Morgan
Karl P. Mueller
Evan S. Medeiros
Kevin L. Pollpeter
Roger Cliff
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Published by: RAND Corporation
Pages: 274
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  • Book Info
    Dangerous Thresholds
    Book Description:

    Escalation is a natural tendency in any form of human competition, and today's security environment demands that the United States be prepared for a host of escalatory threats. This analysis of escalation dynamics and approaches to escalation management draws on a range of historical examples from World War I to the struggle against global Jihad to inform escalation-related decisionmaking.

    eISBN: 978-0-8330-4636-9
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-ii)
  2. Preface
    (pp. iii-iv)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  4. Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Summary
    (pp. xi-xxii)
  6. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxiii-xxiv)
  7. Glossary
    (pp. xxv-xxviii)
  8. CHAPTER ONE Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    Escalation, in broad military terms, is an increase in the intensity or scope of conflict. It is a fundamental dynamic in which adversaries engaged in a contest for limited objectives increase the force or breadth of their attacks to gain advantage or avoid defeat. Escalation can be unilateral, but actions perceived as escalatory often provoke other combatants to increase their own efforts, either to punish the earlier escalation or to counter its advantages. Left unchecked, cycles of provocation and counterprovocation can intensify until the cost that each combatant incurs exceeds the value of its original stakes in the conflict.


  9. CHAPTER TWO The Nature of Escalation
    (pp. 7-46)

    During the Cold War, the subject of escalation attracted great attention from policymakers, strategists, and scholars. Their concerns centered primarily on the possibility of crises between the United States and the Soviet Union escalating into war; of limited, conventional wars escalating into world wars; and, especially, the use of nuclear weapons.¹ Escalation was by no means a new problem in international politics, as the July crisis triggering World War I in 1914 demonstrates,² but the nuclear and airpower revolutions greatly increased the possibility that escalation might quickly lead to catastrophic results, even as leaders sought to control it.³ Once under...

  10. CHAPTER THREE China’s Thinking on Escalation: Evidence from Chinese Military Writings
    (pp. 47-82)

    The modernization of the Chinese military is one of the most consequential challenges that U.S. national security planners now face. In the past five to 10 years, the PLA has been engaged in a dedicated and deliberate effort to improve all aspects of its capabilities in order to deter a range of potential adversaries and, if necessary, to prosecute limited military conflicts in Asia. The PLA’s current modernization efforts—in stark contrast to past activities—have been uniquely comprehensive, covering doctrine, force structure, and training and education. For the first time since the reform era began, the PLA is undergoing...

  11. CHAPTER FOUR Regional Nuclear Powers
    (pp. 83-116)

    In recent years, several states in regions in which the United States has important interests have acquired nuclear weapons or are attempting to do so. These developments are not only disturbing in and of themselves, but they signal the end of a positive trend in efforts to contain nuclear proliferation. The end of the Cold War initially brought encouraging changes in membership to the international nuclear club: Aside from Russia, all of the former Soviet republics and the Republic of South Africa elected to give up their nuclear weapons and accede to the international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear...

  12. CHAPTER FIVE Escalation in Irregular Warfare
    (pp. 117-158)

    Among the most notable characteristics of the post–Cold War security environment are the collapse of state authority in several regions of the world and the rise of powerful nonstate actors with agendas that threaten U.S. interests and the safety of U.S. citizens. These characteristics, taken in conjunction with the increased willingness of U.S. policymakers to intervene in regional crises, raise the probability that U.S. military forces will be attacked by irregular combatants or will be called on to conduct operations best described as irregular warfare.¹

    During the Cold War, Western leaders thought about escalation in irregular warfare mainly in...

  13. CHAPTER SIX Managing Escalation in a Complex World
    (pp. 159-176)

    This monograph has examined the risks of escalation in the 21st century and assessed implications for military confrontations with adversaries armed with nuclear weapons and asymmetric capabilities. The findings presented here offer insights for air- and spacepower strategy and should also inform national security policy and military operations more generally. To help the Air Force anticipate and manage escalation risks in today’s complex environment, this analysis set out to answer three key questions:

    1. What is the fundamental nature of escalation? That is, what are the motives and mechanisms that drive escalation in military conflict?

    2. What escalation risks result when those...

  14. APPENDIX A China, Force, and Escalation: Continuities Between Historical Behavior and Contemporary Writings
    (pp. 177-196)
  15. APPENDIX B Case Studies of Escalation in Stability Operations
    (pp. 197-220)
  16. APPENDIX C Modified Method for Delphi Analyses
    (pp. 221-224)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 225-246)