Risk of unintentional nuclear war due to international crises

In international crisis situations, decision-makers suffer from stress which causes a number of cognitive and behavioural maladaptations (distorted perception and sub-optimal decision-making). These maladaptations greatly enhance the risk of crucial decisions not being made correctly and rationally, thus leading to nuclear war by miscalculation.

Similar maladaptations may occur due to organizational problems of decision-making units: contraction of the decision-making group, information overflow, 'group-think', internal dissension, and inflexible standard operating procedures, may result in poor quality decisions being made in a crisis situation. Strategic vulnerability, urgency, strategic instability and crisis instability inevitably affect the performance of those responsible for decision-making. Thus, an inherently bad situation automatically worsens rather than progresses decision-making. The rules governing the use of force as a 'continuation of policy by other means', as employed by the powers for conveying signals, are utterly fragile and prone to misunderstanding, especially between opponents committed to systems of different ideological orientation. It may therefore be difficult to avoid fatal miscalculations regarding the use of nuclear weapons. Crisis bargaining entails the risk of events getting out of control due to the 'logic of events', military necessity, low-level actions taken by subordinate commanders and organizational routine and confusion due to the malfunctioning of command, control and communications systems. The trend towards global militarization and poorly defined, ambiguous commitments in the Third World fosters the inclination to use force in crisis bargaining. The risks inherent in this trend are enhanced by a network of strategic interdependence which makes the success of efforts to localize crises doubtful. Hence there is a risk of unintentional escalation (both geographically and militarily) of international crises.

The risks are hard to estimate. Whether positive or negative influences prevail depends to a large extent on the special circumstances of a crisis. Although the governments concerned are generally aware of the problems and dangers involved, the unpredictable and uncertain nature of specific situations may still produce a set of circumstances which might simply override all precautionary measures.
Counter Claim:
Although extreme stress has a disruptive effect in most situations, to some extent stress experienced by decision-makers faced with a crisis situation tends to improve their perceptive and behavioural performance. Also, during crisis situations governments try to assume full control of all details of the making and execution of decisions, thus reducing the likelihood of organizational maladaptation by involvement in and meticulous handling of all aspects. Governments also generally tend to behave with utmost care and circumspection as soon as military force is involved in crisis bargaining. Existing mechanisms of communication contribute to avoiding misunderstandings.
Problem Type:
F: Fuzzy exceptional problems
Date of last update
01.01.2000 – 00:00 CET