In This Review

The Vulnerability of Empire
The Vulnerability of Empire
By Charles A. Kupchan
Cornell University Press, 1994, 527 pp.

This book purports to explain why imperial powers pursue policies that are ultimately self-undermining. The author argues that sudden shifts in the international balance of power impel states toward overly competitive or overly cooperative strategies. Once having chosen a path, they become locked into it even when external conditions change because the strategy has become a cultural artifact. The author creates an elaborate theoretical model of state behavior with many independent variables (for example, whether the state is rising or declining, vulnerable or invulnerable) based on only five cases -- Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and the United States. The predictive value and policy relevance of this model are questionable since the same external environment can lead to diametrically opposite responses of cooperation or competition; which response is right in principle or degree cannot be known except by hindsight. Since the author admits that what constitutes self-defeating behavior in the first place is dependent on his own subjective judgment, many people will legitimately disagree with his starting premise.