The cabinet room during the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962 (photo via the JFK Library)
Crisis management is hard. There are myriad players and interests involved. The stakes are typically high, and the time for decision-making is short. All this together creates scenarios which can lead to suboptimal choices and avoidable mistakes.
One thing that can assist in crisis management is keeping some core principles in mind. These principles offer a foundation from which to operate during a security crisis. Although this list is not exhaustive, it is useful for centering one’s perspective on how to navigate these dynamic and challenging situations.
1. No two crises are the same. Even if the same groups or countries are involved and the situation seems similar, every crisis is bounded by the interests, capabilities, constraints, and players involved. Because those elements differ in every crisis, no two crises can ever truly be the same. What this means is that while crisis managers can derive lessons from similar situations, there is no reusable template for managing different crises.
2. Fundamentally, there are only four outcomes from a crisis. The key is to understand these outcomes and to make measured, deliberate choices that contribute to the most desirable of the four:
(1) Outbreak of hostilities. The crisis escalates until it erupts into open and sustained militarized conflict.
(2) Negotiated resolution. The parties to a crisis achieve a mutually agreeable conclusion via dialogue or other non-violent engagement.
(3) Mediated resolution. A third party intervenes to facilitate a mutually acceptable end to the crisis.
(4) Disengagement. One or more of the parties involved simply choose not to take any further action vis-à-vis the crisis.
3. Disengagement can happen for several reasons, few of which are revealed to the other parties to a crisis. Disengagement may occur because of external pressure (e.g., restraint from an ally or compulsion from the international community); escalating costs (whether real or impending); or domestic influence such as popular unrest or veto players inside decision-making circles. The challenge is that few parties will advertise the true motivations behind their disengagement from a crisis. For crisis managers, it is important to have a clear understanding of these potential reasons to understand what options may be available to entice or compel disengagement.
4. Information is the least understood instrument of power in managing security crises. In a security crisis, parties tend to focus on their military, diplomatic, and (to a lesser extent) economic instruments of power. However, military power means little if the other side does not have information on what capabilities may be brought to bear. Diplomatic and economic actions are difficult to pursue without adequate justification. Further, miscalculation based on insufficient information can lead to suboptimal decision making. Thus, it is critical for crisis managers to understand information power and to wield it deliberately and effectively in crisis management.
5. You will never know exactly what cards the other side is holding. Crisis managers must come to terms with the fact that they will not know exactly what the other party is thinking or what is driving their decision making vis-à-vis a crisis. The key is working to understand the range of options that the other side may be considering based on their interests, capabilities, and constraints rather than trying to predict individual moves or a singular motivation. That will enable more agile crisis management.
6. In a crisis, each new development has the potential to change the calculus for resolution. An approach decided at the outset of a crisis needs update and amendment along the way. Agile decision-making is vital.
7. No party to a security crisis is completely monolithic—there are going to be policy actors influencing decision-making on each side. Even in the most tyrannical society, a dictator must appease at least a small group of supporters. Those supporters may be hardliners or may privilege a softer approach to protect their own interests. They will exercise some influence on a decision maker, whether positive or negative. In democratic governments, the number of policy actors expands greatly. Crisis managers must assess the opportunities and liabilities that exist based on this fundamental principle.
8. In crisis, the gravitational pull is towards escalation. In other words, decision makers in a crisis will generally be more inclined to pick courses of action that increase tensions (whether deliberately or inadvertently) owing to the many obstacles to de-escalation that exist. It is important for crisis managers to be aware of this so that they may counterbalance it.
9. The stronger party has less to do to de-escalate tensions; the weaker must do more to achieve the same effects. Often, a stronger party can de-escalate simply by electing not to react in coercive or escalatory ways. However, based on power disparity and structural disadvantages, a weaker party must do more to leverage third party support, to create opportunities for non-violent engagement, and to illustrate costs (whether real or perceived) to the other party in hopes of compelling de-escalation.
10. The most dangerous party to the crisis is that which is both desperate and feels it has more at stake. This principle centers on the decision makers for a individual party to crisis. The decision makers who are more desperate and feel they have more at stake from a crisis will have higher thresholds for risk than others. This increases the chance of rapid escalation and suboptimal decision-making.
11. It’s easier to “re-escalate” than to de-escalate once a crisis is further along in the escalation cycle. The higher a crisis reaches in the escalation ladder, the harder it is to reverse tensions and enmity. As such, initial steps should generally privilege de-escalatory measures, while reserving escalatory options for later if crisis conditions do not improve.
12. Negotiation is not capitulation. Negotiation is a tool for achieving desired effects without resorting to the use of military force. Importantly, it does not preclude a player from pursuing other courses of action simultaneously, and it offers a mechanism for information gathering, for presenting interests and positions vis-à-vis the crisis, and for pursuing a possible negotiated resolution.
13. There is no clear path to crisis resolution. When a crisis occurs, every decision will likely feel tortuous, and each step will probably feel uncertain. This principle tends to apply to all parties involved in the crisis. Crisis managers can mitigate the ill-effects of this through preparation, a clear understanding of the interests, capabilities, and constraints at play, and measured, deliberate approaches to crisis management.
14. Crises never end with all stakeholders feeling satisfied. Politics, ideology, and emotion all but guarantee that at least some policy actors or audiences will feel disaffected by any potential outcome of a crisis. Decision makers and crisis managers must accept that near-term friction is inevitable while keeping the bigger picture in mind.
15. True crisis management requires follow-on action to mitigate future crises. Resolving an individual crisis is an important achievement, but crisis managers must take additional steps to eliminate sources of conflict and address factors that may have contributed to the precipitating event that triggered the crisis. This may require unilateral policy action or continued negotiation with the other party (or parties) to the crisis.