Wohlforth uses the vast, nearby, now finished postwar conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union to probe mainstream theoretical notions at the core of Western, particularly U.S., academic international affairs studies. The key issue is power, an admittedly elusive concept that plays a critical role in the abstractions of the scholar and an equally salient one, albeit less intellectual, in the fears and hopes of the policymaker. Wohlforth has rewarding things to say about the way Cold War leaders appraised power and how their views evolved.
For Wohlforth's political science colleagues, the result is a serious, highly intelligent refinement of central notions, but with no breakthrough onto new theoretical paths (in fairness to him, this is as he meant it to be). For general readers, who may find academic theory of this sort too remote from their practical interests and needs, the author's well-focused quest provides compact, powerful insights into the fundamentals of this long-dominant contest. They are accessible because he makes an effort to keep professional jargon and conceptual shorthand out of the writing.
One cannot put this solid book down, however, without being reminded of how disturbingly inapt and weak preeminent theory has been, not only in anticipating but, to its greater discredit, in accounting for the stunning way the Cold War ended. In this respect, Wohlforth's argument cannot do better than the theory with which he has his conversation.