Risk and Presidential Decision-Making: The Emergence of Foreign Policy Crises. By Luca Trenta. London: Routledge, 2016. 256 pp.
In the May 2011 edition of the American Historical Association's newsletter, Perspectives on History, David Paull Nickles lamented the "estrangement" that has taken place between diplomatic historians and political scientists. For instance, whereas diplomatic historians have given greater emphasis to the role played by culture, many international relations theorists prefer the world of rational-choice theory, which assumes that people make logical decisions. But there is hope, Nickles continued, for some political scientists have drawn upon psychology and neuroscience to offer works that transcend the divide with diplomatic historians.
Luca Trenta's new book continues this trend against rational-choice theory by offering an interpretation that emphasizes the role played by risk in decision making at the presidential level. His argument is threefold. First, presidents always take risk into account in their decisions. Second, too many scholars have contended that decision making during the Cold War focused on "long-term strategies" (4), while those in the post-Cold War were more short term in orientation. In fact, though, "risk management" (4), whether during or after the Cold War, has involved short-term considerations and was designed to minimize the dangers inherent in the course adopted. Finally, the option a president selects contains risks of its own that can make controlling the situation even more difficult.
In developing this thesis, Trenta relies on three case studies: the John F. Kennedy administration's handling of relations with Cuba in the 18 months prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Carter White House's reaction to the events of 1977-1979 that precipitated the Iran Hostage Crisis, and President Bill Clinton's response to the Balkan crisis of 1992-1995. In each case, he demonstrates that the chief executive, influenced by the political and international environments, faced uncertainties that were key to the risk trade-offs he considered. In all three, the White House emphasized short-term considerations, thus disproving the Cold War/post-Cold War dichotomy cited above. Moreover, those decisions generated new risks. Kennedy's actions convinced the Soviets and Cubans that he intended to invade Cuba. Carter and his aides were so determined to support the Shah that they ignored the opposition or failed...