Essence of Decision
Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow
The updated edition of Graham Allison’s 1972 work reconsiders the historical
account of the Cuban Missile Crisis with new information from Soviet and American archives
and post-Cold War events. Allison and Zelikow maintain the central premise that an awareness
of how different analytical lenses shape assumptions, inquiries, and conclusions can improve
our understanding of foreign policy crisis decision-making. The authors introduce three
analytical models and assess each in corresponding chapters to demonstrate how American
and Soviet leaders processed a course of action and how each vantage point can produce
“a different image of the same fundamental reality” (p. 380). The Rational
Actor Model (RAM or Model I) is the authors’ starting point for analysis, while
alternative frameworks Organizational Behavior (Model II) and Governmental Politics
(Model III) are intended to show how diverse patterns of inquiry can help individuals
identify biases and question assumptions.
Chapter 1, “Model I: The Rational Actor.” In a fast-paced, decision-making
environment, theories with practical applicability can be useful and necessary. The RAM
is the dominant conceptual framework used by foreign affairs analysts to simplify complex
processes. The RAM is used to explain and predict behavior by identifying a specified
strategic objective of the nation-state and considering what actions pursue that end. In
this model, an action in foreign affairs is understood as a deliberative choice made by a
unified national government to maximize strategic goals. What assumptions are made in the
RAM approach? Does “rationality” in this context differ from traditional uses
of the term “rational?” Is the tendency to rely on theory for simplification
more prevalent or unique in foreign policy analysis, relative to other fields?
Chapter 2, “The Cuban Missile Crisis: A First Cut,” seeks to explain Soviet
and American actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis through the lens of a Model I analyst.
Four hypotheses are presented to explain the Soviet decision to place offensive missiles in
Cuba. The authors identify a range of military and diplomatic alternatives in the American
response and group courses of action into six categories. Using available archival evidence,
the final section evaluates the impact of the American blockade on the subsequent withdrawal
of missiles. Why was the blockade selected over other options? How do the authors explain the
causal relationship between the blockade and Soviet withdrawal? Does this analysis offer insights
into the utility of compellence or deterrence?
Chapter 3, “Model II: Organizational Behavior.” The organizational behavior model
draws from organizational theory to highlight the effect of institutional cultures and standard
procedures within a government bureaucracy. While RAM assumes behavior is a deliberate choice,
Model II views behavior as an output of an organization’s procedures, which are developed
to maximize efficiency. Through this lens, analysts may identify a specific organization’s
trends to understand its procedures and form predictions. What assumptions are central to the
organizational behavior paradigm? What are the inherent limitations of using standard operating
procedures to predict outputs in international affairs? Can organizational behavior constrain
“rationality?” How might Model II contribute to a broader understanding of deterrence
or force posture?
Chapter 4, “The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Second Cut,” examines the planning
and implementation process in the build-up of Soviet missiles, imposition of the US blockade,
and withdrawal of Soviet missiles through the organizational behavior lens. The examples of
Jupiter missiles in Turkey and the detection of missiles in Cuba illustrate the way organizational
behaviors, designed to streamline operations within governments and between partners, became
significant factors during the crisis. How did advances in technology alter the risk of escalation
during the crisis? In what ways does this analysis underscore the benefits and potential drawbacks
of standard procedures?
Chapter 5, “Model III: Governmental Politics Paradigm.” The Governmental Politics
Paradigm focuses on the internal politics of government where decisions are the result of bargaining
games among players in government. Model III recognizes governments are comprised of many actors and
focuses on the intra-group dynamics as individual actors pursue a range of interests. In contrast to
Models I and II, government actions are understood as political resultants: a product of conflict and
compromise among government officials. While competing viewpoints can allow a more comprehensive
analysis of problems, differences in expected outcomes, the complexity of joint action, and groupthink
can negate the benefits of multiple perspectives in the decision-making process. The Governmental
Politics Paradigm offers a framework for analysts to gather available information on individual
differences in perceptions and priorities to determine competing interests. What role might regime
type (democracy or autocracy) play in the Governmental Politics Paradigm?
Chapter 6, “The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Third Cut.” The third vantage point,
Governmental Politics (Model III), is applied to members of President Kennedy’s inner-circle
and the known Soviet decision-makers. This analysis reveals the personal perspectives of government
officials as they persuade Kennedy and Khrushchev to adopt a course of action. How did the composition
of the Soviet inner-circle differ from decision-makers in the American inner-circle? Does this analysis
reveal any important distinctions in American and Soviet civil-military relations? What is the difference
between consensus and groupthink?
Conclusion/Synthesis Questions: Do the authors effectively question the utility of the
Rational Actor Model? How might competing conceptual models be combined to better explain or
predict behavior in crisis decision making? What strategic lessons can be learned from the
Cuban Missile Crisis? Are the Model I, II, and III questions (pp. 389-390) useful in gaining a
better understanding of current foreign affairs?