To mobilize or not to mobilize: Catch-22s in international crises

Steven J. Brams

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    In his classic novel Catch-22 (1961), Joseph Heller describes a thoroughly frustrating situation faced by a combat pilot in World War II. This is generalized to a 'generic' 2 X 2 strict ordinal game, in which whatever strategy the column player chooses, the best response of the row player is to inflict on the column player a worst or next-worst outcome, and possibly vice versa. In the 12 specific games subsumed by the generic game, which are called catch-22 games, 'moving power' is 'effective,' based on the theory of moves (TOM). A generic 'Mobilization Game' applicable to international crises, in which the rules of TOM are somewhat modified, is used to divide the catch-22 games into two mutually exclusive classes. Predictions for each class are compared with the behavior of decision-makers in two Egyptian-Israeli crises. In the 1960 Rotem crisis, Egypt retracted its mobilization after a discreet countermobilization by Israel, which is consistent with being in a class I game in which a status-quo state has moving power. In the 1967 crisis, escalation moved up in stages from a class I to a class II game, which precipitated war and is consistent with cycling wherein both a status-quo and a revisionist state think they have moving power. It is argued that catch-22 games better model the dynamics of conflict spirals than does the usual static representation of the security dilemma as a Prisoners' Dilemma. How such conflict spirals might be ameliorated is discussed with respect to recent conflicts in South Africa, Northern Ireland, and the former Yugoslavia.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)621-640
    Number of pages20
    JournalInternational Studies Quarterly
    Issue number4
    StatePublished - Dec 1999

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Sociology and Political Science
    • Political Science and International Relations


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