In This Review

Intentions in Great Power Politics: Uncertainty and the Roots of Conflict
Intentions in Great Power Politics: Uncertainty and the Roots of Conflict
By Sebastian Rosato
Yale University Press, 2021, 376 pp.

One of the oldest insights in the study of international relations is that peaceful relations among great powers hinge on trust. In this engaging book, Rosato surveys great-power relations across the modern era and concludes that it is mistrust—not trust—that is deeply rooted and ubiquitous. His key claim is that a state can build trust only when it has credible knowledge of another state’s true intentions and that, even under the best of circumstances, acquiring such knowledge is difficult. Obviously, mistrust is famously a defining feature of great-power politics: think, for instance, of Anglo-German and Franco-German relations in the decades before World War I. But Rosato concludes that even in more favorable situations (such as relations between the United Kingdom and the United States at the turn of the twentieth century), leaders were never able to acquire “first hand information” of the other state’s true intentions. Rosato’s argument verges on a simple truism: there are inherent epistemological limits on what a state can know for sure about another state. His theory yields a “depressing prediction” regarding U.S.-Chinese relations, which he sees as burdened with cultural, ideological, and institutional barriers to understanding each other’s intentions.