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  • Writer's pictureParley Policy Initiative

Obstacles to De-escalation

Soldiers exchange fire during the Badme Border War, 1998-2000


De-escalating a security crisis is a daunting task. Its difficulty lies in the fact that there are so many obstacles to de-escalation that seem to generate a gravitational pull towards behaviors that perpetuate an escalation cycle. One of the keys to crisis management is recognizing those obstacles and making a conscious effort to mitigate or avoid them.

Prior to diagnosing those obstacles, a quick review of the characteristics of crisis is necessary. Crisis emerges with a precipitating event, whether intentional or unintentional. With few exceptions, there is an initiator of a crisis (meaning the party responsible for the precipitating event) and a respondent. Third parties can play a role as pacifiers (parties seeking to de-escalate) or antagonists (parties aiming to escalate). A security crisis only ends in one of four ways: (1) the situation escalates into open hostilities; (2) the parties to crisis negotiate resolution; (3) third parties step in to mediate a resolution; or (4) one or more parties to the crisis disengage.

With those characteristics in mind, we may proceed in examining the obstacles to de-escalation. Although there are different ways of labeling these obstacles, Parley Policy identifies the following ten.


Following a precipitating event, an aggrieved party may wish to inflict punishment upon the initiator of a crisis. This is especially true when human casualties are involved. This desire for vengeance means that even if the initiator intends to de-escalate after the precipitating event, the respondent could be the one to perpetuate the escalation cycle, often through the use of military force. Those seeking retribution will often refer to their actions as “punishment,” “reprisal,” or “retribution.”


An aggrieved party may feel compelled to take action based on an irrational need to defend an individual, unit, or country's honor or image. Pride can also cause some decision-makers to double down on missteps rather than having to admit fault. While there are important reputational considerations in managing crises (namely, when it comes to credibility), pride can cause a party to the crisis to escalate when de-escalation still remains a viable option.


Fear can manifest itself in different ways but one in particular that creates problems for de-escalation: fear contributes to the belief that failure to match power-for-power in a crisis will invite additional costs. In other words, the only way to prevent something worse from happening is to inflict equal or greater harm in response.

Sense of Fairness

Humans are prone to pursue fairness in any resolution of conflict. Put simply, people will reject any outcome where there is perceived inequity, even if those outcomes are beneficial. For example, there may be a situation in which one side lost lives and the other did not. The party that experienced a loss of life may choose not to de-escalate simply because of the disparity in casualties from the original incident, even if escalation could result in additional loss of life.

Audience Costs

“Audience costs” are negative impacts–both real and perceived–for domestic leaders who demonstrate inadequate response to a crisis. Audience costs may drive decisions that are beneficial in terms of personal political interests but are detrimental to de-escalation efforts. One example of an audience cost comes when a state leader talks tough but is then seen as ‘backing down’. This can cause some leaders to take escalatory actions in response to an emerging crisis when de-escalation is still a viable option, simply to save face in front of a domestic audience.


Opportunism may come from the direct parties to the crisis or from third parties who view the crisis as an opportunity to advance their policy ambitions. In either case, one or more actors exploit the crisis rather than de-escalate it, which either extends tensions or ratchets up the escalation cycle. Those seeking to exploit crisis may take the opportunity to push conditions to open hostilities if it serves their desired ends.


Crises tend to move quickly, and expedited decision-making cycles often allow confusion to creep in, creating false understanding of what is really happening and what options are available to resolve it. This confusion can lead to suboptimal decision-making, which may perpetuate escalation rather than enable de-escalation.

Mixed Messaging

Governments tend to be large organizations with many players, some of whom may say or do something that does not reflect the central decision maker’s intentions. This is problematic, as clear signaling to the other parties involved in a crisis is critical for minimizing confusion, while mixed messaging elevates the risk of misinterpretation or miscalculation.


Misinformation is the unintentional spread of false information, while disinformation is deliberate. Both are problematic for crisis management because they fuel confusion and exacerbate the politics surrounding the crisis. An example here is if there is an accidental skirmish along a border area, and one side fabricates a story that errant bullets struck a house and killed a small child. That falsehood could fuel domestic political sentiments supporting escalation, which empowers a party to ratchet up the escalation cycle.

False logic

There’s a relevant quote here: “It ain’t the things you don’t know that will get you in trouble; it’s the things that you know to be true that just ain’t so.” In the case of crisis management, this means believing in a particular formula for resolving crises that simply is not correct. The best example of this is the “bloody nose strike” option, which is based on the notion that a limited military strike against a foreign actor as a demonstration of strength during a crisis will force the other side to back down. (Those who champion this logic use the term “bloody nose strike” to liken it to punching a bully in the face to get him or her to back off.) There are myriad problems associated with that false logic, but at the core of it is the fact that conflict between countries is far more complex than children fighting on a playground. Flawed approaches to crisis management like this are not rooted in empirical evidence, but it sounds compelling and can take hold within government circles based on how confidently some advocates will recommend them.

* * * * * *

The obstacles to de-escalation are many and varied, and they present real challenges to decision-makers and policy professionals seeking to manage crises. Despite this, there are a few methods for overcoming these obstacles.

  • Educate personnel prior to any crisis of what the obstacles to de-escalation are, both to elevate understanding and to ensure that they are adequately prepared to respond before any precipitating events occur.

  • Diagnose any obstacles to de-escalation as they emerge during a crisis.

  • Employ tools for de-escalation–that is, time, fact finding, communication, and third party involvement–to overcome any identified obstacles.

  • Adhere to the core principles of consistency, clarity, and transparency, which will help eliminate confusion, cut through mis-/dis-information, and mitigate the impact of emotions in any response to crisis.

Cable No 15_Obstacles to De-escalation
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