10 December 2014

Blinders, Blunders, and Wars What America and China Can Learn

What America and China Can Learn

The history of wars caused by misjudgments, from Napoleon's invasion of Russia to America's invasion of Iraq, reveals that leaders relied on cognitive models, or simplified representations of their worlds, that were seriously at odds with objective reality. Blinders, Blunders, and Wars analyzes eight historical examples of strategic blunders regarding war and peace and four examples of decisions that turned out well, and then applies those lessons to the current Sino-American case. Leaders' egos, intuitions, unwarranted self-confidence, and aversion to information that contradicted their views prevented them from correcting their models. Yet advisors and bureaucracies can be inadequate safeguards and can, out of fawning or fear, reinforce leaders' flawed thinking.

War between China and the United States is more likely to occur by blunder than from rational premeditation. Yet flawed Chinese and American cognitive models of one another are creating strategic distrust, which could increase the danger of misjudgment by either or both, the likelihood of crises, and the possibility of war. Although these American and Chinese leaders have unprecedented access to information, there is no guarantee they will use it well when faced with choices concerning war and peace. They can learn from Blinders, Blunders, and Wars.

As a general remedy, the authors recommend the establishment of a government body providing independent analysis and advice on war-and-peace decisions by critiquing information use, assumptions, assessments, reasoning, options, and plans. For the Sino-U.S. case, they offer a set of measures to bring the models each has of the other into line with objective reality.

Key Findings

Strategic Blunders Can Happen When Leaders Rely on Defective Cognitive Models of Reality and Have No One to Correct Them.

Strategic blunders can result from faulty intuition, egotism, arrogance, hubris, grand but flawed strategic ideas, underestimating the enemy and the difficulties and duration of conflict, overconfidence in war plans, ignoring what could go wrong, stifling debate, shunning independent advice, and penalizing dissent.

These conditions are especially dangerous when combined with excessive risk taking based on an overestimation of one's ability to control events.

The Key to Bridging the Gap Between a Defective Model and Objective Reality Is Information, Amply Supplied and Well Used.

Decisionmakers may be more receptive to information that supports rather than threatens their beliefs, preconceptions, and models.

Institutions close to decisionmakers can be drawn into the same subjective perception of reality.

Government institutions are not dependable safeguards against strategic mistakes.

Improvements are needed in how leaders and institutions use information so that better cognitive models will enable them to make better choices.


Form a strategic advisory body within the National Security Council with access to all intelligence and the best possible analytic capabilities. This body would be obligated to provide the President and the rest of the National Security Council with impartial analysis of underlying beliefs, objectives, assumptions, estimates of the adversary, prospects for success, options, contingencies, and risks. The process would be covered by executive privilege, but the body's output would be a matter of historical and eventually public record.

The strategic advisory body should set and insist on the highest standards of analytic objectivity and rigor. The entity would be responsible for reviewing the integrity of the analysis conducted by the institutions responsible for staffing the decisionmaker (such as the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Council).

The independent analysis performed for and by the strategic advisory body should make use of proven enhancements in analyst-computer teaming capabilities and methods.

The presidents of the United States and China should form the sort of relationship that goes well beyond occasional summits and having a hotline. The two need a facility for communication and a rapport.

Institutional connections between the United States and China should go beyond the existing U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue with the goal of mining information from institutional links that can correct errors in models of reality and prevent blunders.

Intellectual connectivity should continue to expand, especially as it involves Chinese and American strategic communities.

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