Tuesday, October 11, 2016

When Rational Choice Theory Doesn't Fit

The Cold War is no doubt still fresh in the minds of senior political leaders and policy makers in both the US and Russia. It is the most relevant and critical history from which each country can predict how the other will act in their interactions today. As tensions between the US and Russia heighten, specifically in regards to each party’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, it is crucial for these US senior officials and policy makers to decide how they are going to view the Russian Federation. Should they view it as a rational actor that has certain weighted preferences and who can recognize the difference between which policies to pursue? Or should they view the Russian Federation organizationally, in which case policies would be tailored to the different organizations/agencies/departments within the Russian government? Or perhaps our government officials should view Russian government from a bureaucratic decision making model. Whichever they choose will have a hefty influence on the character of future US-Russian interactions and may even be the difference between having a friend or a foe in Russia.

Key American foreign policy strategist Andrew Marshall
During the Cold War, Andrew Marshall was a key figure in developing new analytical methods in dealing with the Soviet Union and had a large impact on the US ability to predict or explain actions taken by the Soviet Union. As discussed in his biography, The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy, written by Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts, instead of viewing the Soviet Union as a single, unitary actor, as prescribed by the rational choice theory, Marshall and his fellow analysts suggested that the Soviet Union be viewed through its separate organizations and agencies. Marshall and friends inferred that each of the separate entities within the Soviet government was its own rational actor with its own set of preferences and that they could differ from actor to actor. Therefore, there would be organizational infighting that could result in a policy or action that would significantly differ from a decision that would result from a rational choice decision making model. With that in mind, policy makers decided to take a different approach to the Soviet Union problem.

Today, interactions between US and Russia are seemingly more and more reminiscent of the Cold War period. Bilateral talks between the two nations over their involvement in Syria have come to an end and Russia has withdrawn from an agreement with the US to dispose of 34 tons of plutonium. This withdrawal follows a failed cease fire in the Syrian war-torn city of Aleppo that was initially agreed upon by both the US and Russia, but ended after the American-led accidental bombing of Syrian troops and the Russian and Syrian bombing of a humanitarian group on its way to Aleppo. How can we explain Russia’s decision to withdraw from the arms control agreement based on a rational choice or organizational decision-making model?

It is certain that Russia has a growing mistrust with the American government and that their withdrawal from the arms control agreement was solely a political action, not a military one.
Therefore, Secretary of State John Kerry requested to continue talks with Russia’s foreign minister when President Obama was ready to call it quits. Although the talks with Russia have since ceased due to Russia’s failure to commit to its own promises encompassed in the ceasefire negotiated with the US, Secretary Kerry’s decision to initially hold on ending talks was a decision that assumed Russia to be a rational, unitary actor. The most logical prediction of Russia’s actions would been that it would have followed the guidelines set forth by the ceasefire in order to provide humanitarian aid in Syria. However, it is perhaps the inability of the Russian government to decide between policy options due to the conflicts of preferences between different agencies or departments that has caused them to be unfaithful in agreements with other international actors such as the US. Although I cannot be certain this is the case because I do not have the proper intelligence on the issue, I can suggest that the organizational decision making model could be an effective framework for US policy makers to view the decisions of their Russian counterparts. Whichever the framework for analyzing Russia’s actions, it needs to be correct or we could be looking at a Cold War-esque relationship once again.

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