The Japan Coast Guard responds to a China Coast Guard vessel illegally operating in Japanese-administered waters (photo via Japan Coast Guard)
It is inevitable that some countries will find themselves locked into escalation cycles at one point or another. If left unchecked, those cycles can fuel security crises and lead to open hostilities. Thus, it is necessary for practitioners to be able to diagnose escalation and calibrate appropriate responses, so as to prevent themselves from sleepwalking into conflict that would have otherwise been avoidable. To do that, it is essential to have a clear understanding of the escalation ladder.
The problem is that there are different interpretations of the escalation ladder. Perhaps the most famous version comes from Herman Kahn, who identified forty-four rungs of escalation leading up to nuclear war. While useful for scholars conducting an ex post facto analysis of a crisis or conflict, it proves to be cumbersome for practitioners, especially when the escalation is ongoing, when it involves non-nuclear powers, or if it includes multiple actors. Instead, a more concise and flexible interpretation is necessary, which we can call “the Practitioner’s Escalation Ladder.”
The Practitioner’s Escalation Ladder
The Practitioner’s Escalation Ladder is a tool in facilitating two core tasks in managing escalation cycles: (1) diagnosing the escalation; and (2) calibrating appropriate responses. To complete those tasks and enable rational and measured decision-making, practitioners must assess the level of intensity of the incident, which then informs the impetus for response based on international law. The figure below correlates those two elements to the escalation ladder, with descriptions that follow:
Violations of domestic interpretation of international law are incidents which may be viewed as transgressions by a state but do not necessarily comport with internationally accepted interpretations. For example, the Chinese government position is that the land features it has constructed in the South China Sea constitute islands under its sovereign control, a position which contravenes the UN Convention on Law of the Seas. China's protest of foreign militaries conducting freedom of navigation operations around those land features is based on its own unilateral interpretations.
Violations of international law or sanctioned activities include acts such as illegal arms transfers, sanctions violations, and state-sponsorship of terrorist organizations, among others.
Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)-related activities are any that involve nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. Examples include North Korean nuclear testing or illicit transfer of WMD assets or technologies.
Incidents with impact to sovereign territory but dealing no damage to personnel or property may include a territorial incursion short of an armed attack (e.g., non-military personnel landing on an uninhabited island) or a failed missile test where debris falls in an empty field.
Security incidents with impact to sovereign territory that includes damage to personnel or property represent the next level of intensity. Using the same missile example from before, this is where the failed missile falls on an apartment complex or commercial zone, destroying buildings or harming bystanders. Another pertinent example in modern conflict is a cyberattack that disrupts a state’s critical infrastructure.
The next rung on the ladder includes any of the aforementioned incidents that results in loss of life.
All those security incidents could potentially occur before reaching the level of an armed attack--the international legal threshold for individual and collective self-defense. The space where security incidents occur before an armed attack is often referred to as the grey zone.
Understanding escalation cycles
An escalation cycle is initiated when there is a security incident, whether intentional or unintentional, that prompts a response from another party. The respondent to that incident may execute actions that are of an equal or greater level of intensity, which then prompts the other party to reciprocate. This then leads to a tit-for-tat exchange, often at increasing intensity.
It is important to recognize that escalation cycles occur at myriad levels. In some cases, the escalation may just come in the form of confrontational rhetoric or issuance of threats. In others, it could involve shows-of-force or low-level skirmishes. But escalation cycles may also include a crescendo of militarized activities leading up to and including the use of force.
The tempo of escalation cycles can vary as well. Especially in the case of military-on-military exchanges, the escalation cycle can accelerate quickly, where one shot at an opposing side can prompt machine gun fire in return, which then leads to artillery exchanges, then to air strikes, and so on. In other cases, an escalation cycle may be dragged out over weeks or even months.
In principle, there are only four ways that escalation cycles end: (1) the parties continue to escalate to open hostilities; (2) the parties deliberately de-escalate the situation through direct negotiation, signaling, or other means; (3) third parties mediate or intervene to break the cycle; or (4) one or more parties disengage.
Applying the Practitioner's Escalation Ladder in managing escalation cycles
Decision-making amidst escalatory behavior can be difficult, especially with so many obstacles to de-escalation. However, understanding the escalation ladder helps cut through the emotions and politics of the situation to inform practitioners on how to respond because it gives essential context for how dire the situation actually is and what level of response would be appropriate.
So, how does this work? When an incident occurs, practitioners must evaluate which rung (if any) it represents on the escalation ladder. That will tell them how intense the incident is, whether a response is necessary, and what the right response may be.
Let's take for example a show-of-force by another country within its own borders. Unless that show-of-force included something that violated sanctions or some WMD-related activity, the incident would not even reach the first rung of the escalation ladder. This is regardless of whether it had threatening rhetoric attached to it. In that situation, one may feel compelled to respond to the saber-rattling by rattling their own saber even more fervently or by doing something more drastic; however, the original activity itself--although unhelpful in keeping tensions low--does not reach a threshold where such reactions are appropriate.
If a response is called for, the Practitioner's Escalation Ladder informs decision-makers on what options may be available to them. For example, if the escalation reaches the threshold of an armed attack, that would trigger defense obligations under most alliance treaties and would warrant UN Security Council mandates for exercising collective self-defense. Meanwhile, a violation of domestic interpretation of international law would leave little recourse via the international community, meaning practitioners would have to find unilateral options for addressing the situation or opt for direct dialogue or engagement with the other side to find resolution.
Finally, the escalation ladder provides a tool for monitoring developments in the escalation cycle. Are responses increasing or decreasing in intensity? Have the actions from the parties matched the impetus for response or are they misinterpreting the situation? The answers to those questions can enable practitioners to read what the other side may be signaling while helping them evaluate their own actions as the cycle plays out.
For practitioners to be successful at crisis management, that kind of blow-by-blow analysis is essential. And while every tool is imperfect, the escalation ladder offers a foundation for assessing situations and responses. When an escalation cycle begins, clear-eyed analysis can make all the difference in mitigating conflict.