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  • Print publication year: 2005
  • Online publication date: October 2009

10 - Escalation in Negotiation: Analysis of Some Simple Game Models



The many negotiation tactics called “escalation” have at least one feature in common: they are all risky. One famous metaphor for escalation, recounted by O'Neill (1991; see also PBS 1983) makes this point graphically:

In July 1964, US Undersecretary of State George Ball tried to dissuade Lyndon Johnson from sending ground forces to Vietnam en masse. Johnson intended to pressure the North Vietnamese to end the war on his terms, but Ball feared that escalation would become an autonomous force, impelling both sides to higher and higher levels of violence. “Once on a tiger's back,” his memo argued, “we cannot be sure of picking a place to dismount.”

The struggle in Vietnam can be interpreted as an implicit negotiation in which the status quo was simply the continuation of the conflict at its current level. From this perspective, Johnson's escalation strategy was to render the status quo less preferable for the opponent – ideally, to make it unendurable – and thereby pave the way for a resolution that Johnson preferred. This tactic, which can be called settlement pressure escalation, is implemented by reducing the opponent's comfort level – withholding services, impounding assets, supporting its domestic opposition, etc. Settlement pressure escalation is sometimes seen as a good if costly bet, which the initiator “wins” if the target gives in first. However, as more recent events in the former Yugoslavia clearly demonstrate, this bet is risky – success is far from certain, and the initiator's costs can easily exceed those of the target.