THOMAS C. SCHELLING: A REMINISCENCE

Robert Jervis in War on the Rocks:

ScreenHunter_2481 Dec. 29 18.23So much has been written about Tom Schelling’s enormous intellectual contributions. I would like to supplement these articles with a more personal account.

I first “met” Tom in print. As a junior at Oberlin College, I ran across The Strategy of Conflict. Without seeing all of its implications and nuances, I found it eye-opening. This is what politics, especially international politics, was all about: strategic interaction, which meant that each side was trying to anticipate how the other side would respond to its moves, knowing that the other side was doing likewise. One didn’t need formal game theory to grasp this or to follow out many of its leads. Among the most famous concepts he developed were the strategy of commitment and the reciprocal fear of surprise attack. Fifty years later, it is easy to forget how radical these ideas were at the time. The pre-Schelling literature on bargaining had noticed that actors sometimes staked out positions in public that made retreat much more difficult, but these incidents seemed aberrations, errors, or the product of emotions.

The academic community and members of the educated public simply did not understand what was going on. We had all missed one key idea. An actor that staked its reputation on standing firm and increased the costs it would pay upon backing down also increased the chance that its adversary, understanding this and seeing that the actor was now less likely to retreat, would have to make the concessions that were necessary to avoid a mutually destructive conflict.

More here.

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