RAND and Rational Choice Theory

Soldiers of Reason by Alex Abella focuses on the history of the RAND Corporation, a government-sponsored think tank that was highly influential in setting the underpinnings of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War.  In terms that sometimes border on conspiracy theory, Abella casts RAND as the primary strategic force driving American foreign policy since the end of World War II. But Abella’s account of RAND drives far deeper than just another analysis of Cold War foreign policy or academic assault on U.S. empire.  He mounts a fundamental critique of rational choice theory itself.

Arising out of a surprisingly far-sighted effort by Air Force General Curtis LeMay to maintain a powerful and stridently independent civilian brain trust after the end of World War II, RAND rose to become perhaps the most influential collection of academics in the history of the world.  In particular, Abella highlights the development of deterrence
theory as the core of American nuclear strategy and the development of
the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) as influential
applications of RAND’s uniquely quantitative methodological influence
on U.S. policymaking.  From these roots in nuclear planning for the Air
Force, Abella traces the influence of RAND’s quantitative approach
though Robert McNamara’s "whiz kids" that transformed the Pentagon only
to fall from grace in Vietnam through to post-Cold War efforts to
diversify into a wide range of economic and political development
projects.

Notably, Abella gives credit to RAND not only for deterrence theory
and nuclear strategizing, but also for nearly all political
applications of rational choice and game theory.  Abella argues that
rational choice theory was more than merely a useful econometric tool,
but it was also a political response to the challenge imposed by
communism’s overarching narrative of history.  By positing a world
driven by the rational choices of self-interested individuals instead
of the deterministic marching of classes, rational choice theory
constituted the liberal response to marxist teleology. This view predetermined both a methodological and a normative approach that has resonated across all domains of American policymaking.

Abella’s critique of
RAND is not merely a critique of well-motivated but unexamined political assumptions about
the superiority of American values by its acolytes, but it is also a broader critique
of the entire rational choice approach.   Specifically, Abella highlights the seemless road from a "flexible response" nuclear doctrine that assumes mutual rationality and exogenous preferences to provide a check against nuclear war with a cost-effective investment in nuclear forces, to the tragedies of Vietnam where assumptions of shared rationality and use of force as a communicative tool foundered in a chasm of undetected cultural and social difference between the two sides.  To paraphrase Abella, the fundamental assumption of shared rationality that posits that both sides of a nuclear confrontation share an infinite negative utility for the outcome of destroying the Earth’s biosphere does not transfer well to situations of lesser conflict like that in Vietnam (or in Iraq).  The exalted reputation of rational choice theory in security studies may, in fact, be built on a foundation of "easy cases".

While Abella may be criticized for occasional forays into conspiracy theory, his expose on RAND offers much grist for the running debate about the utility and appropriateness of rational choice theory at the core of international relations theory and foreign policy praxis.

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