For as long as I can remember—and long before I knew there was a field called Political Science with a specialization in International Politics—I was intrigued by politics. This was due to a combination of what must have been my in-born nature, the strongly political atmosphere of New York in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and, perhaps most of all, “events, dear boy, events,” in the words that Prime Minister Harold Macmillan used to explain to an interviewer why his policies had changed.[1] Since I was born in 1940, my first memories were of World War II and then the Cold War. The early years of the latter led me to the question I would grapple with later in exploring deterrence and the spiral model as explanations of and prescriptions for conflict.[2] In fact, I remember pestering my parents about what they thought the U.S. should do in response to the Soviet Union shooting down what I thought were innocent American airplanes in the late 1940’s (I would have been shocked had I been told that the Soviets were correct to label these spy missions). Needless to say, this question recurs not only in my scholarship, but, more importantly, in world politics. When I started writing this essay in late January 2020, the newspapers carried a story about the American strikes against Iranian backed militias in Syria and Iraq in retaliation for a rocket barrage that killed an American contractor. “The key question” according to the American reporter, “is whether the American counter attack can end the cycle of violence of escalate it.”[3]

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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.[1] 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.[2]

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