Grappling with the Fait Accompli: A Classical Tactic in the Modern Strategic Landscape
Good scholarship doesn’t need to fit within a 2×2 matrix, but it sure helps make sense of things when it does. It’s in this spirit of conceptual clarity that I developed the diagram below depicting variations in the fait accompli, an age-old but underappreciated tactic of the disgruntled and strategically minded. Rather than the naked use of force or threat-making alone—situations whose logics are straightforward even if the best responses aren’t—the fait accompli is a move that pursues an advantage by making it difficult for a competitor to retaliate or counter.
This 2×2 diagram is part of a lecture I give at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies on revisionist tactics short of war — what many now call “gray zone” conflicts. Although most security studies scholars and analysts understand broadly what a fait accompli is — literally an “accomplished fact” — the tactic itself has rarely been an object of analysis (two recent rare exceptions are discussed more below). This is a serious oversight, because in the so-called “gray zone” of conflict, the fait accompli is a common means by which states pursue revisionist agendas.
Several years ago, I started pondering the fait accompli problem as a strategist at the Pentagon. I and many others looked out at the international security environment and found that straightforward coercive diplomacy, war planning, and force development didn’t do much to address many of the situations that concerned us. Remembering that I originally came across the term “fait accompli” somewhere in my prior studies of coercion and bargaining, I returned to the security studies literature to see what it had to say about measured revisionism in general and the fait accompli in particular. Surprisingly little, as it turns out.
Sure enough, when I started revisiting the classics, almost none listed “fait accompli” in the appendix. Yet in scouring the bodies of the texts, it wasn’t hard to find casual references to faits accomplis by Thomas Schelling, Robert Jervis, Glenn Snyder and Paul Diesing, Oran Young, Alexander George, and a couple others. These authors also employed synonyms for such measured revisionism, such as Schelling’s famous description of “salami tactics.” But in nearly every case, the fait accompli and its corollaries were treated as offhand references in a larger analysis focused primarily on coercion and crisis. There seemed both a practical danger and a conceptual inadequacy in treating all problems of competition as ones that could be framed so narrowly. By the time a crisis begins, the deck is often stacked strongly in favor of one side or the other based on the antecedents of the crisis and its immediate surrounding circumstances.
As unilateral acts that contravene a competitor’s preferences, faits accomplis aren’t always acts of coercion, but can qualify as such. A fait accompli can communicate a threat — and coercion by definition requires threat-making — but in many cases it deliberately avoids doing so. As Young long ago characterized it in Politics of Force, the fait accompli is “the initiative that forces the opponent to initiate” or stand down; it often defers the immediate decision for violence or threats. And as I show in the diagram above, there are clear examples of faits accomplis that are decisive or gradual and coercive or non-coercive.
In the coercive bargaining literature, Schelling’s “salami tactics” are a gradualist form of fait accompli: While “…not quite invoking the [defender’s retaliation] commitment,” they manage to make “the commitment appear porous and infirm.” North Korea’s history of small-scale, limited violence aimed at eroding the deterrence credibility of the U.S.-South Korea alliance is a classic example; a recurring deliberate probe, calibrated to minimize the chance that it crosses alliance “red lines” for retaliation.
But faits accomplis can also be decisive or involve no threat-making or “red line” erosion whatsoever. Abdel Nasser’s 1956 nationalization of the Suez Canal is commonly referenced as a fait accompli in the security studies canon, yet as an act it was neither gradualist nor coercive. In a recent study, Daniel Altman found that territorial acquisition by military fait accompli was more successful than attempts to acquire territory by coercion. In a forthcoming article, Ahmer Tarar, also focusing narrowly on military faits accomplis, argues that this tactic is the consequence of a commitment problem in which the revisionist doesn’t believe the defender will avoid military preparations that would nullify or raise the costs of a fait accompli. These authors conceive of the fait accompli in narrow military terms involving territory, but they nevertheless convey that it can be an alternative to coercion.
Notwithstanding these rare and recent exceptions, the fait accompli escapes direct observation in most contemporary and historical analysis, which might explain why the term “gray zone” has become so popular in policy circles. Policymakers are concerned about something that’s mostly uncategorized and under-conceptualized.
The fait accompli is not without risks. Egypt’s Nasser, for example, likely didn’t intend to trigger an Israeli invasion when he nationalized the Suez Canal. Risks notwithstanding, the fait accompli can still reap gains for those who employ it partly because it circumvents conventional frames that policymakers rely on to make sense of international competition: putting out the political fires of the day (crisis management), defense budgeting (planning for the size and shape of future forces), or long-range storytelling (crafting statements of strategy that reconcile crisis management and force development). If these are the only modes in which policymakers are able to think and act, then they’re likely to be outmaneuvered by strategically minded adversaries. The policy planning functions housed in the State Department and White House would address this kind of challenge in theory, but events suggest they certainly don’t do so in practice.
The 2×2 ideal-type examples in the diagram above highlight several instances that seem to confirm this. The vexing nature of the fait accompli is on display in Russian annexation of Crimea, Chinese land reclamation in the South China Sea, and the ongoing saga involving North Korean provocations. These are all instances in which the United States has been — and in some ways continues to be — outmaneuvered by competitors that challenge the status quo without resorting to war in a traditional sense. The United States is opposed to what these countries are doing, but doesn’t wish to reach for “the threat that leaves something to chance” to halt or reverse them.
These problems aren’t amenable to resolution by crisis management — better thought of as policy triage — at the National Security Council, nor by force structure decisions in the Pentagon. The anemic U.S. response in these instances can be viewed as reflecting a reasonable aversion to coercive contests because the terms and stakes don’t quite call for it (by design). If the threat of violence is the only U.S. recourse to revisionist challenges, then Washington is more likely to be boxed into an unsavory binary: either repeatedly risk war where the stakes suggest the United States shouldn’t, or simply show restraint, paralyzed by the pace and scope of first-mover aggressors.
Adversaries resort to the fait accompli because they see it as effective. The best counter or mitigating measure greatly depends on circumstances. To seize the strategic high ground is to shape future decisions and bargaining situations in your favor, and that requires understanding context, which in turn requires understanding the problem.
So while I won’t be able to solve any of America’s national security challenges in the space of a short article, a simple 2×2 diagram at least helps get the diagnosis right. And once policymakers understand the problem correctly, perhaps they’ll rediscover the importance of the old dark arts of statecraft that too many scholars put aside at the end of the Cold War, as if Schelling had the last word.
Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks, an associate professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is also the author of the new book Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in US-North Korea Relations (Cambridge University Press). The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, DKI-APCSS, or the U.S. Government.