Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling described the tens of thousands dead in the Korean War as “undoubtedly worth it” because the United States needed to defend its reputation for resolve. In 2013, President Barack Obama implicitly disagreed with Schelling, when he refused to carry out military operations based on his ‘red line,’ after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons. Of all the hot-button debates about the use of military force, few arouse such recurring, intractable debates as whether, and when, it is worth fighting for reputation.
Robert Jervis is at the same time a giant and a gadfly, a leader and a subversive in the field of international relations. In his career, Jervis has often been very much a theorist in the mainstream political science tradition. In some of his most famous works—including “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma” and The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution—Jervis has shown his skill at creating deductively derived theories about how states should respond to structural and technological changes in international security affairs. Those works are extraordinary and have made an enormous contribution to the literature. But Jervis often notes with frustration that actual policy makers often diverged from the expectations and prescriptions of his theories. He laments that, despite the inescapable background condition of mutual nuclear vulnerability, the two Cold-War superpowers still developed destabilizing offensive nuclear weapons designed to target their enemies’ arsenals, planned to fight ‘limited’ nuclear wars of various levels of intensity, and obsessed about local conventional balances of power around the world. Jervis thought it would have been safer and less fiscally burdensome if Washington and Moscow had fully accepted the condition of mutually assured destruction and properly understood the stabilizing effects that condition should produce at all levels of potential military conflict.