Book Review: The Strategy of Conflict

By Jake Cornelius Monday, May 11, 2009

I get a kick out of seeing how people respond to various stressful circumstances. Not to be mean, mind you, but simply how they choose to confront a threat or a dilemma, or how they handle a tricky negotiation. Most people are rational and so there aren’t too many surprises. When rational meets irrational, or when irrational meets irrational, the ensuing conflict can be hilarious or horrifying. Most of the time though, it is just a matter of wondering who will do what next.

On a grand scale, this is known as the study of the conflict of strategy. It's mathematical sister is game theory; the stuff that A Beautiful Mind's John Nash won the 1994 Nobel in Economics for his work. Conflict strategy is about human behavior, bargaining and negotiation. In 1960, Thomas C. Schelling wrote The Strategy of Conflict: the book that practically became a handbook for diplomats and was routinely prescribed as a textbook for Political Science majors. Schelling was the 2005 Nobel Laureate in Economics. Although this book was intended to theorize international politics during the Cold War, the principles are as true as ever, and by reducing the players down to an individual or group level, Schelling makes large concepts fairly easy to comprehend.

I bring this book to your attention for its thorough and thoughtful analysis of negotiation and bargaining. Schelling's discussion about these is some of the most interesting theory reading I've ever done. Some of the scenarios include: How does one person make another person believe something? How does one convince someone else that they are not willing to pay more, or accept less, than stated? What are the costs of a stalemate? Might burning your bridges be in your best interest?  What strategic role can communication play when bargaining? Should I get somebody to negotiate for me? These scenarios are paraphrased just to give you the gist; they are rather complex, but well and intriguingly presented.

The last third of the book is directed more towards international politics and is a real playground for international relations junkies like myself. Some topics covered here are: Reciprocal Fear of Surprise Attack; Surprise Attack and Disarmament; Nuclear Weapons and Limited War. As large as these topics are, Schelling brings it down to a scale that is workable and applicable to many business situations. And that scalability, that ability to examine, analyze and disseminate the theory of the strategy of conflict are some of the major reasons that this book is so useful. The discussion of the theory provides for the analysis of both sides of a conflict and makes us aware that sometimes our greatest opponent may be ourselves.

If you got anything out of Sun Tzu's Art of War, or Nicolo Machiavelli's The Prince, you will come away from The Strategy of Conflict with a much deeper and thorough understanding of human behavior.

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