Daniel Altman is a MacArthur Nuclear Security Predoctoral Fellow at CISAC for the 2014-2015 academic year. He is a doctoral candidate in the MIT Political Science Department and a member of the MIT Security Studies Program.
His dissertation, “Red Lines and Faits Accomplis in Interstate Coercion and Crisis,” builds on neglected insights from Thomas Schelling to offer a theoretical framework for explaining crisis behavior and outcomes. The conventional wisdom understands crises by supposing that policymakers think primarily in the form of the question, “What can we do to convince the other side that we are willing to fight in order to get them to back down?” This dissertation instead approaches crises as if states ask themselves, “What can we get away with unilaterally taking without starting a war?” The result is a theory of coercive conflict that explains why deterrent red lines which contain any of four characteristics (types of gray areas, essentially) are especially vulnerable to faits accomplis. It tests this theory against the conventional wisdom with case studies of the 1948-1949 Berlin Blockade Crisis and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as a quantitative analysis of interstate crises over territory from 1918 to 2007. The quantitative analysis compiles original data on all "land grab" faits accomplis since 1918 and operationalizes weak red lines as either a small island located awkwardly between two states or the interior of a border ambiguity. It shows that the majority of land grabs have targeted gray areas in red lines, that these weak red lines increase the likelihood of a land grab, and that states which do attempt a land grab against a strong red line very rarely get away with it without starting a war.
He is working on several additional research projects on topics which include misperception as a cause of war, trade as a cause of peace, and the use of preventive force against nuclear programs. One of these, "The Strategist's Curse: A Theory of False Optimism as a Cause of War," is forthcoming in Security Studies.