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Allison: Conceptual models and the Cuban Missile Crisis

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Allison. 1969. Conceptual models and the Cuban Missile Crisis. American Political Science Review 63: 689-718.

In Brief

Allison presents three models of government (and bureaucratic) action, any of which might correctly explain what happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A central point is the difficulty in proving exactly why a government follows a particular course of action.

Main Argument

The following quotation provides a quick overview of Allison's three conceptual models:

"A central metaphor illuminates differences among these models. Foreign policy has often been compared to moves, sequences of moves, and games of chess. If one were limited to observations on a screen upon which moves in the chess game were projected without information as to how the pieces came to be moved, he would assume--as Model 1 does--that an individual chess player was moving the pieces with reference to plans and maneuvers toward the goal of winning the game. But a pattern of moves can be imagined that would lead the serious observer, after matching several games, to consider the hypothesis [Model 2] that the chess player was not a single individual but rather a loose alliance of semi-independent organizations, each of which moved its set of pieces according to standard operating procedures. For example, movement of separate sets of pieces might proceed in turn, each according to a routine, the king's rook, bishop, and their pawns repeatedly attacking the opponent according to a fixed plan. Furthermore, it is conceivable that the pattern of play [Model 3] would suggest to an observer that a number of distinct players, with distinct objectives but shared power over the pieces, were determining the moves as the resultant of collegial bargaining. For example, the black rook's move might contribute to the loss of a black knight with no comparable gain for the black team, but with the black rook becoming the principal guardian of the 'palace' on that side of the board."

Allison presents three models, producing decisions, outputs, or outcomes.

Model 1

The state acts as a unitary rational actor to make "decisions."

Model 2

The sub-units of the state act according to pre-determined procedures to produce an "output." The state is still essentially a unitary actor, but the analogy is now a quarterback, not a chess player. Just as a quarterback calls certain (pre-planned) plays, the government can only dictate policy options that are already in the standard operating procedures (SOPs).

Model 3

In this model, "where you stand depends on where you sit." Those in charge of various state responsibilities (Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, etc.) make predictable arguments based on their present position. Policy "outcomes" are the result of negotiations among these leaders. This model dispenses fully with the "unitary" government idea. "The decisions and actions of governments are essentially intra-national political outcomes: outcomes in the sense that what happens is not chosen as a solution to a problem but rather results from compromise, coalition, competition, and confusion among government officials who see different faces of an issue; political in the sense that the activity from which the outcomes emerge is best characterized as bargaining."


Allison analyzes the Cuban missile crisis. His point is not so much to explain what happened as to show that alternative conceptual models (2 and 3) might also be important. We need to be aware of what our underlying assumptions are.