Air University Press


War and Chance: Assessing Uncertainty in International Politics

  • Published

War and Chance: Assessing Uncertainty in International Politics by Jeffrey A. Friedman. Oxford University Press, 2019, 228 pp. 

Though many theorists and scholars have written about the element of chance in warfare, almost an equal number have made this topic unhelpfully more abstract and inaccessible. In this monograph, Jeffery A. Friedman, a professor of government at Dartmouth College who received his Ph.D. from Harvard University, attacks the concept of uncertainty in national-level decision-making to attempt to prove that uncertainty should be better framed, thus allowing for more informed decisions by government leaders. His admirable blending of the fields of study of psychology, statistics, probability, international relations, and history initially lends the reader some hope that this abstract topic will be given some substance. However, his book is more suited for academics and scholars than practitioners.

Friedman’s thesis in War and Chance is twofold. First, he argues that foreign policy officials try to avoid the challenge of probabilistic reasoning; second, he contends that assessments of uncertainty in the complex world of international politics are more valuable than conventional wisdom portrays. Central to his argument is an inherent international relations cost-benefit balance for higher-level decision-making, in which a higher probability of success makes the benefits outweigh the costs. Since uncertainty is prevalent in international politics, that probability of success becomes important.  Subsequently, probability behaves according to mathematical rules including arithmetic and logic, which need to be applied to better guide decision-making in uncertain situations. The focus of the majority of his book is building this argument by refuting common counter-arguments. It is not until the final chapter that a recommendation emerges.

Friedman uses historical data, contemporary military publications, survey data, and theoretical frameworks through a multi-disciplinary approach to support his thesis. His framework, though it presents a holistic view, imperfectly attempts to derive objectiveness from subjective data. Early chapters focus on outlining the ambiguity within current national policy decision-making and explaining that a better structure for subjective topics can lead to coherent decisions. Through a geopolitical forecasting test case, Friedman asserts that analysts can estimate subjective probabilities with precision, certainly enough precision to aid decision-makers while downplaying the concern of assumed intellectual rigor. Confusingly, he asserts that tactical-level assessments are difficult to draw conclusions from that become useful at the policy level, while also using tactical-level scenarios in survey questions to dispel illusions of rigor. If these types of tactical-level hostage rescue scenarios can be used to make reasonable assessments of uncertainty, how, then, are they also difficult to draw conclusions from?  Friedman finishes his argument with his recommended solution, the self-titled basic standard set of norms for national policy decision-making. His basic standard includes four elements: describing uncertainty surrounding predictions, ceasing the use of relative probability, portraying uncertainty reliably and consistently, and distinctly identifying concepts of probability and confidence.

There is merit to many of his ideas; however, there are some definitional and logical issues that detract from his argument’s practicality and thus implementation. Continually throughout his book, he employs vague assessments by the military and intelligence community. One example is his dissatisfaction with seemingly vague public record statements by senior leaders in President John F. Kennedy’s Administration, 1961-1963, regarding the probability of success in Vietnam. This could lead a reader to assume that perhaps both the military community and intelligence community do not know what they are doing or the only source of information for decision-making in international politics comes from those sources. Logically, many government agencies play a role in providing this information, including the State Department, the primary department tasked with diplomacy. Friedman seldom mentions the State Department. He uses terms like “national security officials” as synonyms for practitioners of “international politics” or “geopolitics” and consistently refers to military or intelligence personnel. The reality of these terms includes people from many more organizations.

In his review of contemporary guidelines for assessing uncertainty, Friedman uses only intelligence community or military rubrics. Further, the majority of these rubrics are published by their respective organization for tactical-level use as opposed to strategic-level guidance. Only the Joint Chiefs of Staff Risk Assessment system portrays a strategic-level framework from which to provide national command authority leaders with military perspectives for inclusion in true geopolitical decision-making. After Friedman introduces the basic standard, there is little mention of who should implement it, when, and how that would happen. Presumably, the basic standard would apply to any agency or organization providing advice or recommendations to the Executive branch. Despite his praiseworthy intention to create a common lexicon to discuss and debate uncertainty, the scale of implementing such a lexicon and the abstractness of his concept leave this reader unconvinced that implementation in its current form is possible.

Chance and uncertainty are topics that will remain incredibly relevant for practitioners of warfare and policymakers alike. Friedman’s effort to add scientific rigor to artful assessments from analysts hopefully encourages additional study and discourse. Addressing the critiques mentioned is a worthwhile initial improvement step. Making the recommendations more concrete and actionable for policymakers is a critical second improvement step, especially considering that his writing was not easily accessible for mid-career military officers. Presently, this book is suited for two small sub-sets of people within the international political community of interest. First, the multi-disciplinary approach is useful for scholars and academics seeking either to expand upon Friedman’s work or utilize a similar framework to make these recommendations easier to implement. Second, the concepts within the basic standard might be useful to strategic-level leaders who often receive uncertain analysis or recommended courses of action. This would allow those leaders an additional framework to probe the recommendations they receive to ensure the clearest understanding. These readers, however, should focus on Chapter Seven and read the preceding chapters as time and interest allow. This will perhaps lessen the inaccessibility by focusing on the least abstract and therefore most useable chapter.

Major Spencer Reed, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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