Great powers have frequently become embroiled in costly wars in peripheral regions that pose no direct threat. And in most such cases-Vietnam, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan-the geopolitical risks and expenditures of blood and treasure ultimately outweigh any potential strategic gains. In this historically rich and theoretically elegant study, Taliaferro tackles the question of why states persist in such counterproductive interventions. He combines realist and psychological theories of foreign policy to argue that an aversion to loss drives most decision-making. Thus, senior leaders are frequently willing to pursue risky strategies in order to avoid perceived loss (in relative power position or international prestige). In Wilhelmine Germany's involvement in Morocco, Japan's move to war in 1940-41, and the U.S. intervention in Korea, leaders are found to be so sensitive to the perception of lost prestige or position that they resist cool-headed calculations of cost and benefit. Of course, judgments about risk and cost are always easier to make in retrospect, and even then, it is more art than science. But this book nonetheless provides a useful cautionary message as the United States embarks on far-flung counterterrorism operations in the periphery.
Get the best of Foreign Affairs' book reviews delivered to you.
More Reviews on Political and Legal From This Issue