Back to the Brink

March 10th 2016 - 12:00

High-stakes crises between states are dotting the world map. The annexation of Crimea locked Russia and the West into a standoff, while recent months witnessed flaring tensions between Turkey and Russia as well as between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Rather than isolated incidents, these events mark a larger trend: the comeback of interstate crisis. For decision makers, who have largely shifted attention to the unconventional threats of terrorists and failed states, now is the time to return to the lessons of crisis management of the past. It is time to reacquire crisis literacy.

Watch the introductory video to this study below.

The quintessential characteristic of crisis is escalation, the spiral of aggressive moves and countermoves that states adopt in response to a perceived threat. Crises need not be violent, but the interactive, multidimensional, and self-reinforcing elements of escalation make the course of a crisis hard to predict. This is all the more true now that contemporary crises move beyond military hostilities and escalate by spreading out over the map, stretching out over time, and venturing into other domains. The essence of crisis management lies not in the avoidance of crisis altogether, but in the careful balance of preventing war and protecting one’s core values and interests.

Drawing on theoretical crisis scholarship and the empirical record, this report offers nine insights for defense and security organizations to prepare for future crises. Decision makers should not rely on ad hoc measures, but invest in crisis informatics before violence erupts; respond to the complexities of crisis with hybrid escalation dominance and different deterrent strategies; distinguish what interests are vital; avoid rash chicken games but know when not to shy away; gain a much deeper understanding of motivations and constraints of the adversary; and engage allies and adversaries to tackle crisis stability head on.

Do you want to know more? Download the report via the button on the right.

Introductory video:

Tim Sweijs is a Senior Strategist. He is the initiator, creator, and author of numerous studies, methodologies, and tools for research projects in horizon scanning, conflict analysis, international and national security risk assessment, and capability development. He has led multicenter research projects for both private and public sector organizations – including the European Commission and various European governments.

Frank Bekkers is Director of the Security Program. He is also theme leader of the Strategy and Change Program. He studied Applied Mathematics at the University of Amsterdam and spent most of his career at the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), specializing in the area of Defence, Safety & Security. At TNO, he held a range of positions, including program manager, senior research scientist, group manager and account director. From 1996-1997, he worked as program manager for Call Media and Intelligent Networks for the telecom company KPN.

Stephan De Spiegeleire is senior scientist at HCSS. He has Master’s degrees from the Graduate Institute in Geneva and Columbia University in New York, as well as a C.Phil. degree in Political Science from UCLA. He worked for the RAND Corporation for nearly ten years, interrupted by stints at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik and the WEU’s Institute for Security Studies. Mr. De Spiegeleire started out as a Soviet specialist, but has since branched out into several fields of international security and defense policy.

Willem Oosterveld is a Strategic Analyst at HCSS. He holds degrees in political science, law and history, having studied in Amsterdam, Leiden, Paris, New York and Harvard. A former Fulbright scholar, he earned a PhD in the history of international law from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.