the Unexpected in International Relations

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Occasionally when I talk to people about studying nuclear weapons policy I’ll mention the idea that two states might slide into a conflict that neither intended. This sometimes provokes strange looks because the idea that states could both ‘accidentally’ end up in a war is strange. But nevertheless the Unexpected can play a major role in strategy and diplomacy. I’m reminded of this as the President has cancelled a meeting with Vladimir Putin in response to Russia’s offer of asylum to E. Snowden. Now it may be that this was just one pasty I.T. guy too far and that this is the just another symptom of a larger rift between Russia and the US. Okay- but please don’t tell me that at the beginning of the year you had money on a naive nerd causing a diplomatic row between the states with the largest nuclear arsenals in the world. In The limits of Safety Scott Sagan discusses how unexpected interactions in complex systems can create completely unanticipated failures. It is worth remembering that unexpected situations on the world stage can and do occur and that what is ‘unthinkable’ today may occur despite being the least desirable outcome for all the parties involved.

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