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Uncertain Perceptions: U.S. Cold War Crisis Decision Making.

The role of misperception in foreign policy decision making, particularly during crises, has been a central topic of research for scholars interested in cognitive explanations of international behavior, including classic works by Snyder, Jervis, Holsti, Lebow, George, and others. Robert McCalla's new book on the cold war crisis perceptions of U.S. decision makers contributes to this important line of research. The two major shortcomings of the cognitive approach to foreign policy analysis have been the lack of unifying theory and the difficulty in empirically testing hypotheses about cognitive processes. McCalla seeks to address both of these problems, so I will assess the book in light of these objectives.

The book is organized around five propositions, which form the core of McCalla's theoretical contribution, and five case studies of cold war crises against which the propositions are examined. All of the propositions are grounded in prior work, including the familiar hypotheses that "actors will tend to assume that their opponent(s) see the world in the same way as they themselves see it" and that "decision makers will tend to see crises as the result of deliberate actions by their opponents" (p. 191). In addition, McCalla presents a model of information flow to suggest when preconception will persist and when beliefs will be revised. He distinguishes situational misperceptions, where the actor is misled by faulty information, from dispositional misperceptions, where the actor's own belief systems distort perception. He suggests that unintended crises arising from situational misperceptions will be much easier to defuse since new, more accurate, information should lead to revised perceptions. McCalla further argues that dispositional misperceptions may be a less frequent cause of international crises than is usually supposed. To test the five propositions, he conducts comparative case studies of the Iranian crisis (1946), the Berlin blockade (1948-49), the Berlin Wall crisis (1961), the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), and the 1973 Middle East War.

Though Uncertain Perceptions is very useful on several other dimensions, I do not feel that it takes us very far toward a theory of foreign policy perceptions. Other than distinguishing situational from dispositional misperceptions, very little of the theory is new. And there is little attempt to draw the propositions and the information integration model together into a theoretical whole. Most disturbing to me - and this is a complaint I have with most work in the area - the book displays virtually no awareness of advances in cognitive psychology and behavioral decision theory. These are important bodies of work that any research on decision making should carefully consider. I fear we are unlikely to invent plausible theories of perception and decision making solely from the weak evidence available to foreign policy analysts.

I am also unsure about the degree to which we can disentangle situational and dispositional mispercepetions - McCalla's most original contribution. The interpretation of any event or crisis will surely be affected by the quality of information, but it must also be affected by the decision makers' prior beliefs and images. Perhaps faulty information will conjure up the "wrong" images and lead decision makers to unintended crises, but the way the problem is framed depends on how prior, dispositional, beliefs are related to the problem. There is also some circularity in the way situational and dispositional misperceptions are operationalized. Situational misperceptions are detected when decision makers prove willing to alter their interpretations of a crisis; but this is also the basic proposition McCalla would like to test. In effect, the operationalized hypothesis must read "when decision makers are willing to change their beliefs, they will be willing to change their beliefs."

Finding empirical evidence that bears on cognitive hypotheses has been another serious problem for foreign policy researchers, so the comparative case studies in this book are a useful addition to the body of case evidence for the importance of beliefs and perceptions. McCalla's case studies are interesting and well-written; they are excellent illustrations of the propositions. Unfortunately, even within the limits of comparative case studies, the results do not support the propositions very strongly. To his credit, McCalla generally resists the temptation to massage the case studies until they fall into line with his theory. But this leaves him with a rather awkward concluding chapter in which he argues that his hypotheses have been generally supported while presenting a table of results that generally belie this conclusion.

Despite these criticisms, Uncertain Perceptions is a useful addition to the literature on foreign policy cognition. It does not succeed in revolutionizing the approach, theoretically or empirically, but it does contribute to the cumulation of case evidence. McCalla has done an excellent job illustrating the importance of perceptions in U.S. foreign policy making, though several of his specific hypotheses find little support. Unifying theory, including contact with cognitive psychology and decision theory, and generalizable empirical work remains to be done.
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Author:Taber, Charles S.
Publication:American Political Science Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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