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  • Writer's pictureParley Policy Initiative

The Characteristics of "Crisis"

"Crisis" is a term we hear constantly in our daily lives. Crisis in the Middle East. Constitutional Crisis. Midlife Crisis. Crisis of conscience. But what is a security crisis, and what does it mean when governments are involved?


The answer to those questions are vital for peacemakers, diplomats, and other practitioners, because governments can find themselves locked into situations fraught with peril. Take for example the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the 1993-94 North Korean Nuclear Crisis, or the 2020 Ladakh Crisis between China and India. Each of those cases could have resulted in countries trapped in escalation cycles that would have devastated one or more parties involved.


To understand how to de-escalate and manage crisis, one must first know what crisis is down to the fundamental level. In particular, one must understand the characteristics, mechanics, and players of crisis.


Characteristics of a security crisis

These are the features that distinguish a security crisis from other circumstances or situations. Those unique characteristics make crises more dangerous, contribute to lapses of judgment in decision-making, and raise the stakes for the parties involved. Those features are listed below.


1. There is a precipitating event, whether accidental or intentional.

In other words, something out of the ordinary happens that triggers the crisis.


2. It is dangerous for at least one party involved in the crisis.

If there was no danger or associated costs, there would be no crisis; it is the very existence of danger that fuels a security crisis.


3. The outcome is uncertain.

Uncertainty contributes to anxiety and fear, as well as opportunism for some parties.


4. Parties to the crisis are able to influence outcomes.

This means that decisions matter. Those decisions can escalate the crisis towards a full outbreak of hostilities or de-escalate towards resolution.


5. It is bounded.

There are interests, policy actors, and objectives that are specific to the crisis.


6. It is unique.

No two crises are the same. This characteristic is crucial, because many will try to apply the same approaches to two different crises hoping for but failing to achieve the same result.


Mechanics of a Security Crisis

Crises come in many forms, but because they all share those same characteristics listed above, there is commonality in the mechanics of a security crisis.


A crisis begins with a precipitating event--whether intentional or unintentional--that sets things in motion. Decision-makers have a choice of how to respond to the precipitating event, but prior to that decision, they will typically take time to assess the situation. That assessment includes a determination of why the incident occurred and what the other side's perception of the event was.


At that point, they will assess the options that are available to them, whether that is to escalate, de-escalate, take indirect action, or defer. De-escalation is any deliberate, non-coercive action directed at the other party to crisis, while escalation is coercive in nature and intent. Taking indirect action means implementing measures intended to influence outcomes without specifically engaging or targeting the other party to the crisis. To defer is to put off any action until the situation further develops.


Once a party executes a desired action, decision-makers will observe how the other party to crisis responds. Sometimes it just leads to another move/countermove situation, but it may lead to an end to the crisis.


In principle, there are only four ways a security crisis can end. One, things may escalate until there is an outbreak of hostilities. Two, the parties to the crisis could negotiate resolution. Three, third parties may mediate resolution of the crisis, whether via established international organizations or through direct engagement with the parties. Finally, the parties to crisis may choose to disengage from further actions or responses.


These mechanics are shown in the image below:


Players in Crisis

Some crises only involve two players, while others will draw in many more. No matter how many parties may be involved, there are fundamentally only four categories of players.


1. Initiator

The initiator is the party directly or indirectly responsible for the precipitating event. Sometimes determination of the initiator will be in dispute, since governments tend to blame each other for causing or escalating crises. This is not about blame, however; rather it is about understanding the origin of the crisis and which party has the initiative based on the precipitating event.


It is also important to note that not all crises have initiators. Sometimes the precipitating event comes as a result of actions from a third party antagonist. For example, a terrorist group based out of one country may perpetrate an attack in another without any form of state sponsorship.


2. Respondent

The respondent in a crisis is the party that reacts to the precipitating event. Again, the title is not to imply justification or blame; in crises, the respondent may be a primary contributor to escalation. The point here is that this is the party that determines the next step after the precipitating event.


3. Third party antagonist

There may be parties that are not central players in the crisis that seek to exploit it. Those antagonists may spark the crisis, block efforts to de-escalate, contribute to militarized disputes through kinetic action, or support escalatory behaviors by the other parties.


4. Third party pacifier

Some third parties will be principally interested in facilitating de-escalation. The term pacifier is not meant to imply dovish or pacifist behavior; on the contrary, sometimes the pacifiers take steps to contribute to deterrence by threatening or actually imposing costs upon one or more parties to the crisis.


Why is it important to understand the different types of players in crisis? This is critical for figuring out the interests, intentions, and stakes that are at play--all major considerations in managing crises.


Cable No 6_The Characteristics of Crisis
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The plotting board of the USS Randolph during the Suez Crisis, 1956

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