The Rubicon Theory of War

There is a very interesting concept in foreign policy analysis known as the Rubicon Theory of War, a psychological concept of overconfidence that has been applied by Johnson and Tiersey to international affairs.

WWI USA War With Germany

WWI USA War With Germany

The basic idea is that decision makers are likely to act with overconfidence if war appears to be imminent, even though it need not actually be the case. The psychological effect is the change in mindset from a deliberative one to an implemental one. Conversely, decision makers will act in a deliberative manner in case the prospect of war appears distant. The graph below depicts the differences in approach when one is in a deliberative or implemental mindset.

In case the mindset of the decision maker (changes to) is an implemental one, this also increases the change of war, because, they might tend to

(1) overestimate the likelihood of victory; (2) overestimate the benefits of war; (3) underestimate the costs of war; (4) believe that they can control events; (5) perceive a negotiated solution as less attractive or less necessary, or both; (6) harden demands; and (7) take provocative steps that make war more probable. All of these effects may push decisionmakers or their adversaries over the brink.

Rubicon Theory of War

Psychological differences in decision making in Rubicon Theory of War under different mindsets, from Johnson and Tiersey (2011)

In Practice

There are many practical examples of such behaviour. The case study in the article of Johnson and Tierney was on World War I. It showed that initial overconfident behaviour when war is (or appears) imminent is not guaranteed. For instance, the head of the Hungarian government, Count István Tisza, was very skeptical of a military confrontation with Serbia, but

even this holdout was eventually dragged across the Rubicon, triggering an implemental mind-set. As Miklós Molnár wrote, “Tisza finally relented under pressure from Austrian ministers and with agreement from Berlin. He was then in the front line, concentrating all his efforts on winning the war.

The authors also present a very interesting poll about the confidence of the US public in the quick victory of the US from Iraq in 2003. As it became really clear that the war was going to happen, there was a surge in the public’s belief that the war will be swift and successful, while, in the period when war was not imminent, public perception was that a war with Iraq would be slow and costly.

So, it seems the public psyche is similarly affected by a sense of overconfidence. However, I would argue that the government’s framing of their policy as a guaranteed success plays a large role on the public’s perceptions.

All in all, the concept is very interesting and relevant in the study of war. As for the applicability in foreign policy decision making, of course the majority of the decisions made are not on war. As Johnson and Tierney also argue, relevant research could be on the role of the Rubicon theory in different settings, like crisis situations. Diplomatic ‘crises’ are more common than declarations of war.

Reference: Dominic D.P. Johnson and Dominic Tierney, “The Rubicon Theory of War: How the Path to Conflict Reaches the Point of No Return,” International Security, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Summer 2011), pp. 7-40


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