Thomas Schelling won the Nobel prize in economics (2005) “for having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis.” Watching events unfold in Ukraine reminds me of one of his lesser-known metaphors about fighting in a canoe.

For those of you who have not experienced the pleasure of gliding across a northwoods lake or river in a canoe, I’ll just note that a canoe has a point at both ends, which make it maneuverable but also potentially tippy. In contrast, a rowboat has a point at one end but is flat on the other end, which makes it more stable. From this standpoint, are small conflicts between great powers “better” in some sense than larger ones? Yes. But if there is too great a willingness to engage in many smaller conflicts, then the chance that one of them will escalate in the tippy canoe to a larger conflict is worrisome. Is a fight more likely to dump you into the water in a canoe or a rowboat? Once the fight starts, a canoe is tippier. But if neither party wants to end up in the water (in this case, a metaphor for a much broader war or a nuclear exchange), then they might be less likely to start a fight in a canoe than in a rowboat in the first place.

Here is some Schelling on conflict (and canoes) between the western and Soviet blocs from his 1966 book, Arms and Influence (available via JSTOR).

Engaging in well-isolated small wars or comparatively safe forms of harassment ought to be less unattractive than wrestling on the brink of a big war. But the reason why most contests, military or not, will be contests of nerve is simply that brinkmanship is unavoidable and potent. It would be hard to design a war, involving the forces of East and West on any scale, in which the risk of its getting out of control were not of commensurate importance
with the other costs and dangers involved. Limited war, as remarked earlier, is like fighting in a canoe. A blow hard enough to hurt is in some danger of overturning the canoe. One may
stand up to strike a better blow, but if the other yields it may not have been the harder blow that worried him. …

Stability, of course, is not the only thing a country seeks in its military forces. In fact a case can be made that some instability can induce prudence in military affairs. If there were no danger of crises getting out of hand, or of small wars blowing up into large ones, the inhibition on small wars and other disruptive events might be less. The fear of “accidental war”—of an unpremeditated war, one that arises out of aggravated misunderstandings, false alarms, menacing alert postures, and a recognized urgency of striking quickly in the event of war—may tend to police the world against overt disturbances and adventures. A canoe can be safer than a rowboat if it induces more caution in the passengers, particularly if they are otherwise inclined to squabble and fight among themselves. Still, the danger is almost
bound to be too little stability, not too much of it; and we can hope for technological developments that make the military environment more stable, not less …

Here’s one more comment from Schelling, about the importance of each party in a great power confrontation having clear expectations of how the other party will react–and about reacting during even small confrontations in a way that creates a belief in ultimate firmness in what actions or reactions are likely. Schelling wrote:

It might be hard to persuade the Soviets, if the United States yielded on Cuba and then on Puerto Rico, that it would go to war over Key West. No service is done to the other side by behaving in a way that undermines its belief in one’s ultimate firmness. It may be safer in a long run to hew to the center of the road than to yield six inches on successive nights, if one really intends to stop yielding before he is pushed onto the shoulder. It may save both parties a collision.

It is often argued that “face” is a frivolous asset to preserve, and that it is a sign of immaturity that a government can’t swallow its pride and lose face. It is undoubtedly true that false pride often tempts a government’s officials to take irrational risks or to do undignified things—to bully some small country that insults them, for example. But there is also the more serious
kind of “face,” the kind that in modern jargon is known as a country’s “image,” consisting of other countries’ beliefs (their leaders’ beliefs, that is) about how the country can be expected to behave. It relates not to a country’s “worth” or “status” or even “honor,” but to its reputation for action. If the question is raised whether this kind of “face” is worth fighting over, the answer is that this kind of face is one of the few things worth fighting over. Few parts of the world are intrinsically worth the risk of serious war by themselves, especially when taken slice by slice, but defending them or running risks to protect them may preserve one’s commitments to action in other parts of the world and at later times.

“Face” is merely the interdependence of a country’s commitments; it is a country’s reputation for action, the expectations other countries have about its behavior. We lost thirty thousand dead in Korea to save face for the United States and the United Nations, not to save South Korea for the South Koreans, and it was undoubtedly worth it. Soviet expectations about the behavior of the United States are one of the most valuable assets we possess in world affairs.

Still, the value of “face” is not absolute. That preserving face—maintaining others’ expectations about one’s own behavior—can be worth some cost and risk does not mean that in every instance it is worth the cost or risk of that occasion. In particular, “face” should not be allowed to attach itself to an unworthy enterprise if a clash is inevitable. Like any threat, the commitment of face is costly when it fails. Equally important is to help to decouple an adversary’s prestige and reputation from a dispute; if we cannot afford to back down we must hope that he can and, if necessary, help him.

In the present context, several thoughts flow from these lines of thinking.

  1. When it comes to the United States and Russia, both armed with nuclear weapons, we are still fighting in a canoe. We do not wish to be dumped into the waters of a nuclear exchange, or even a head-to-head military confrontation. Thus, we stick to responses that limited, like economic and diplomatic sanctions and tacitly encouraging others to send weapons and supplies to Ukraine. However, we do not send in air forces or ground troops.
  2. The unity and fierceness of the global response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is useful for global security not primarily for the people of Ukraine–any more than US participation in the Korean war was primarily about the people of Korea–but because it lays down a marker for those governments thinking about crossing national boundaries in the future.
  3. There are too many imponderables that could be affecting Vladimir Putin’s decision process to make any definite claims, but one wonders if his decision to invade Ukraine might have been affected by earlier western actions. For example, what if there had been a stronger western reaction when Soviet troops essentially levelled the city of Grozny in Chechnya about 20 years ago? What if the countries of western Europe had been more willing to keep their promises to commit 2% of GDP to military spending over the last two decades? What if Germany had not been so extraordinarily eager to become dependent on inflows of Russian-exported oil and gas? What if various assassinations that appeared to be engineered by Russia had been met with greater pushback? What if the Winter Olympics in 2014 had not been held in Sochi? What if the Russia-Ukraine conflict of 2014, which ended with Russia annexing Crimea and other areas, had received greater pushback when Joe Biden was vice-president? What if the American pullout from Afghanistan last summer had been better-managed? What if there had been a greater effort in the last decade or so to build soft connections from Ukraine to the EU and the United States–travel, cultural exchanges, students and faculty, and so on? Perhaps none of these would have mattered. Or perhaps the highly undesirable outcome now occurred in substantial part because of decisions made and not made in the last 20 years.
  4. When in a conflict, the temptation is always to push harder, but pushing harder can be counterproductive. Russia is not going to surrender to Ukraine, and Russia is not likely to leave Ukraine (at least in the near-term and not without tremendous destruction) without having something it can brandish as a “victory.” If the goal is to get Russia out of Ukraine sooner rather than later, it is worth thinking about what face-saving “victory” Russia can claim. As Schelling wrote: “[I]f we cannot afford to back down we must hope that he can and, if necessary, help him.” I don’t have any deep insight here, except for remembering the old adage that when a conflict seems irresolvable, it can be useful to “expand the pie” by widening the range of topics under negotiation. Negotiations over more topics could offer Russia more options for conceding on the key point–in this case, getting Russian troops out of Ukraine–while being able to claim an overall success. Personally, I’d be happy to offer US support for holding the 2030 Winter Olympics in Sochi, along with some similar gestures, as a tradeoff for the withdrawal of Russian troops.