#BookReview – Essence of Decision – Reviewed by David Hood

Graham Tillett Allison Jr. is an American political scientist and professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He is renowned for his contribution to the bureaucratic analysis of decision making. Philip David Zelikow is an American attorney, diplomat and academic. He is the White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Allison published Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1971, revolutionising the study of international relations. A heavily revised second edition, co-authored with Zelikow, was published in 1999 to account for new and declassified materials about the Crisis. The book remains a pivotal text in understanding strategic decision-making. In this review, David Hood explores the models developed to evaluate decision-making and how they can be applied to the military context.

The subtitle should not mislead readers. While Essence of Decision[1] sets out to explain strategic decision-making in the Cuban Missile Crisis, it also explores foreign policy decision-making generally.[2] Allison and Zelikow argue that their analysis is also applicable to sub-strategic decision-making, particularly within organisations immersed in highly unpredictable environments and crises—for example, military organisations.[3] Consequently, Essence of Decision is important reading for anyone wanting to understand better how governments and militaries make decisions.

The book is well structured and easy to follow. Three conceptual models are presented: the Rational Actor Model (Chapter 1), the Organisational Behaviour Model (Chapter 3), and the Governmental Politics Model (Chapter 5). Complimentary chapters apply these models to the Cuban Missile Crisis as a case study. Questions are provided to aid the decision-making ‘analyst’ explain or predict events.[4] The concluding chapter includes a summary table for all three models, which this reviewer found useful to guide thinking and comprehension.[5]

The Rational Actor Model is the model most often used, and used implicitly, to explain foreign policy decisions.[6] Within this model, government action is a product of choice. Decisions can be explained by recounting aims and ‘calculations’—rational assessment of choices—because rational actors seek consistent, value-maximising outcomes based on specified constraints. Government is assumed to be a united, monolithic actor, following a logic of consequences.[7]


Popularised by political realism and game theory, the Rational Actor Model is attractive mainly because behaviour can be fully explained in terms of the goals being sought. However, Allison and Zelikow argue that the model can also be powerfully misleading because much of the real explanation for outcomes is inherent in assumptions and evidence external to rationality.[8] Furthermore, when attempting to evaluate government actions, ‘there exists no pattern of activity for which an imaginative analyst cannot… construct an account of preference-maximising choice for any action or set of actions performed’.[9] Many other studies show individuals to be non-rational, especially in dynamic or crisis situations.[10]

Allison and Zelikow argue that in general, the Rational Actor Model does not correctly explain many of the actions that occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis. For example, it is unlikely that rational motives—such as a perceived need to defend Cuba, or a desire to force the removal of U.S. forces from Berlin—were behind the Soviet Union’s decision to place offensive missiles in Cuba. Furthermore, rational motives do not fully explain why the U.S. chose to respond with a maritime blockade.[11]

The next conceptual model analysed—the Organisational Behaviour Model—recognises that governments are not monoliths, but ‘vast conglomerate[s] of loosely allied organisations, each with a substantial life of its own… Government leaders can substantially disturb, but rarely precisely control, the specific behaviour of these organisations’. Government actions are, therefore, less deliberate choices and more ‘outputs of large organisations functioning according to standard patterns of behaviour’.[12] Tensions caused by different organisational cultures, motivations, priorities and processes all influence decisions. Government action is, therefore, an output of organisational behaviour. Governments follow a logic of appropriateness.[13]

In explaining decision-making during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Allison and Zelikow suggest the Organisational Behaviour Model performs reasonably well, highlighting the difficulty in making coherent, contextually relevant, decisions. For example, engrained practises within the Soviet Strategic Rocket Force, applicable to the defence of the Soviet Union—such as not camouflaging or hardening ballistic missiles—were inappropriately applied to the deployment of missiles into Cuba. This behaviour was never questioned because the emphasis on secrecy meant that organisations responsible for missile deployment understood little about each other’s activities. Consequently, Soviet missiles were discovered before they became fully operational. Allison and Zelikow suggest that this, and other decisions regarding the missile deployment, unintentionally increased the chance that conflict could occur. On the U.S. side, the Navy’s culture of autonomy; and operational procedures such as radio silence and the aggressive pursuit of enemy submarines, meant that controlling the interactions with Soviet forces during the blockade was not possible from the White House. This caused great tensions between the government and the Navy during the Cuban blockade.[14] ‘Only barely did the leaders of both governments manage to control organisational programs that threatened to drag both countries over the cliff. In several instances, both Americans and Soviets were just plain lucky’.[15]

The final conceptual model—the Governmental Politics Model—recognises that individuals within the government are players in a game of politics. Outcomes are formed, and deformed, by the often-passionate competition between players who share power.[16]

Constitutional prescription, political tradition, government practise, and democratic theory all converge to accentuate differences among the needs and interests of individuals… and to divide influence among them. Each participant sits in a seat that confers separate responsibilities. Each is committed to fulfilling his responsibilities as he sees them. Thus, those who share with the [head of government] the job of governance cannot be entirely responsive to his command… Besides, they are bound to judge his preferences in the light of their own responsibilities, not his… [H]is authority guarantees only an extensive clerkship… His bargaining advantages are rarely sufficient to assure enactment of his will.[17]

Government action is, therefore, a result of bargaining games, thus making the outcomes themselves collages.[18] Allison and Zelikow do not say so, but one might suggest that governments follow a logic of politics.

Applied to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Governmental Politics Model explains some actions well and demonstrates that compromises are often made during government decision-making processes. For example, the U.S. decision to impose a maritime blockade, linked to a demand for removal of missiles under threat of direct military action, emerged as a collage whose pieces were formed by the differing interests and perspectives of several key players. These included President Kennedy (who needed to demonstrate strong action after the Bay of Pigs affair); John McCone (the conservative and opinionated CIA Director, who favoured direct action short of invasion); and Defence Secretary Robert McNamara and UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (who were both sceptical of the need for military action and concerned with escalation).[19] Attorney General Robert Kennedy, a key advisor and confidant to his brother, recalled after the Crisis that the ‘fourteen [advisors] involved were very significant—bright, able, dedicated people, all of whom had the greatest affection for the U.S. … If six of them had been President of the U.S., I think that the world might have been blown up’.[20]

The concluding chapter emphasises that all three conceptual models have strengths and deficiencies and are best used together to illuminate foreign policy decision-making.[21]

One might assume those dominant characteristics of the military, such as a hierarchical structure; the emphasis on rules, discipline and training; and a culture that subordinates individual desires to the needs of the collective, mean that military decisions are predominantly products of rational choice, i.e. are best explained using the Rational Actor Model. Military culture is indeed a powerful force. Significant levels of training, and a preponderance of procedures, exist to support rational, repeatable decision-making. The application of historical knowledge is also espoused to support rational decision-making.[22] However, humans are rationalising, not rational, creatures. Other forces—both organisational and individual—conspire to marginalise rational decision-making efforts. Political scientist Edward Luttwak has even argued that strategists must behave illogically to effect good strategy.

Several attributes of the military serve to produce decisions as outputs of organisational behaviour. For example, by its very nature, Mission Command distributes decision-making, meaning disparate organisational behaviours influence higher-level objectives, sometimes negatively. For the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), while the six Force Element Groups (FEGs) provide the same basic function, they are largely separate stovepipes and make decisions according to their own entrenched and arguably self-centred viewpoints. This can make the employment of combined-FEG forces problematic.

Finally, many military decisions remain the result of bargaining games between individuals who ‘play politics’. In his exploration of the problems associated with the ‘normal’ theory of civil-military relations, political scientist Eliot Cohen suggests the Western militaries have become increasingly like political entities where individuals within the military behave as players in a game of politics. Political adviser Rosa Brooks argues that the expansion of military activity into non-traditional, complex, arenas—so-called Military Operations Other Than War—has caused the military to behave more politically as it defends against economic, ethical, and legal challenges. Moreover, we have likely all witnessed, if not been affected by, decisions made by individuals who are overly-competitive or controlling; self-serving; have impulses of grandeur; like to grand-stand, or are uncompromising in the face of even overwhelming evidence that discredits their view. Psychologist Norman Dixon argued that individuals with such traits particularly afflict the military, suggesting they are both attracted to, and rewarded within, the military organisation.

The need for multiple conceptual models infers that understanding how decisions are made is a complex activity. This is emphasised by the title of the book itself and its epigraph, both of which borrow from Kennedy’s famous reflection on the Cuban Missile Crisis:

[T]he essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer—often, indeed, to the decider himself… To govern, as wise men have said, is to choose… [A decision-maker] must choose among men, among measures, among methods… [he may have] extraordinary powers. Yet it is also true that he must wield these powers under extraordinary limitations—and it is these limitations which so often give the problem of choice its complexity and even poignancy… There will always be the dark and tangled stretches in the decision-making process—mysterious even to those who may be most intimately involved.

Historian Michael Howard and others have lamented the difficulties for historians in deciphering truth from the historical record.[23] But if the decision-makers themselves cannot know the essence of their decisions, then there is no ‘horse’s mouth’, and the historian/analyst faces a near-impossible task. Furthermore, if fully understanding why decisions were made is difficult, it is equally difficult to learn the right lessons from them. However, as Professor Hedley Bull concluded, ‘[i]t is better to recognise that we are in darkness than to pretend that we can see light’.[24] Applying these sobering realisations to the military environment should serve best to motivate. Like the historian, the analyst must forge a path from ignorance to understanding, as best they can. Essence of Decision provides us with a robust conceptual framework to interpret decisions. Its application is left to us.


Wing Commander David Hood is an Aeronautical Engineer working for the Royal Australian Air Force. He holds a Master of Gas Turbine Technology (Cranfield, UK) and a Master of Military and Defence Studies (Australian National University). Wing Commander Hood is currently Commanding Officer of Air Training and Aviation Commons Systems Program Office (ATACSPO).


[1] Graham T. Allison and Philip Zelikow, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Longman, 1999).

[2] Ibid., pp.-xi, 3-7.

[3] Ibid., p.7, 9.

[4] Ibid., pp.3-7, 23, 26, 27, 389, 390.

[5] Ibid., p.391.

[6] Ibid., p.13, 15, 16, 19, 26, 402.

[7] Ibid., pp.13-18, 24-26, 49, 146.

[8] Ibid., p.19, 45, 49, 50.

[9] Ibid., p.25, 26.

[10] For example, see: Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2017); Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (London: Penguin, 2011); Yale R. Magrassis and Charles Derber, Glorious Causes: The Irrationality of Capitalism, War and Politics (UK: Taylor & Francis, 2019); David Livingstone Smith, The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War (NY: St Martin’s Press, 2007).

[11] Essence of Decision, chapter 2.

[12] Ibid., p.143.

[13] Ibid., pp.143-147, 153-156, 164-185.

[14] Ibid., chapter 4.

[15] Ibid., p.396.

[16] Ibid., p.255, 256, 259.

[17] Ibid., p.259.

[18] Ibid., p255, 257, 294-313.

[19] Ibid., chapter 6.

[20] Ibid., p.325, 346.

[21] Ibid., pp.383-392, 401-405.

[22] For example, see: Byerly, Joe, Three Truths About The Personal Study of War (Blog), From the Green Notebook, 7 Jun 2015, accessed 21 Apr 2020, https://fromthegreennotebook.com/2015/06/07/three-truths-about-the-personal-atudy-of-war/?pdf=757.; Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (NY: The Free Press, 1986); Australian Department of Defence, ADFP 5.0.1: Joint Military Appreciation Process (Canberra: DPLIS, 2019); Australian Department of Defence, Good Decision-Making in Defence: A Guide for Decision-Makers and Those who Brief Them (Canberra: Defence Publishing Service, 2015).

[23] Anonymous, Finding Truth in History (Blog), Farnam Street, Oct 2017, accessed 21 Apr 2020, https://fs.blog/2017/10/finding-truth-history/.; Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and The Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2013).; Michael Howard, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’, Royal Unites Services Institution, 107: 625 (1962), pp.4-10.; Arthur Schlesinger, ‘The Historian and History’, Foreign Affairs, 41:3 (1963), pp. 491-497.

[24] Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics (London: MacMillan Press, 1995), p.308.


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