Balancing Risks

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Great powers often initiate risky military and diplomatic inventions in far-off, peripheral regions that pose no direct threat to them, risking direct confrontation with rivals in strategically inconsequential places. Why do powerful countries behave in a way that leads to entrapment in prolonged, expensive, and self-defeating conflicts?Jeffrey W. Taliaferro suggests that such interventions are driven by the refusal of senior officials to accept losses in their state's relative power, international status, or prestige. Instead of cutting their losses, leaders often continue to invest blood and money in failed excursions into the periphery. Their policies may seem to be driven by rational concerns about power and security, but Taliaferro deems them to be at odds with the master explanation of political realism.Taliaferro constructs a "balance-of-risk" theory of foreign policy that draws on defensive realism (in international relations) and prospect theory (in psychology). He illustrates the power of this new theory in several case narratives: Germany's initiation and escalation of the 1905 and 1911 Moroccan crises, the United States' involvement in the Korean War in 1950–52, and Japan's entanglement in the second Sino-Japanese war in 1937–40 and its decisions for war with the U.S. in 1940–41.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Taliaferro skillfully blends two lines of theorizing defensive realism and prospect theory, to explain the conditions under which leaders of great powers are more or less likely to adopt risky foreign military policies. . . . Balancing Risks is a thoroughly researched and well written addition to the literature."—Spencer D. Bakich, Virginia Quarterly Review

"Great powers have frequently become embroiled in costly wars in peripheral regions that pose no direct threat. . . . In this historically rich and theoretically elegant study, Taliaferro tackles the question of why states persist in such counterproductive interventions. . . . It provides a useful cautionary message as the United States embarks on far-flung counterterrorism operations in the periphery."—Foreign Affairs, Vol. 83, no. 5

"Why do great powers persist in peripheral interventions? Challenging both offensive realism and domestic coalition theories, Jeffrey W. Taliaferro offers a plausible solution, arguing that prospect theory explains why great powers persist in otherwise counterproductive interventions. This book has much to recommend it: it is historically rich, methodologically well designed, and is well written."—Michael Desch, Director, Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, University of Kentucky

"Balancing Risks offers a cogent analysis bearing on the lessons of great powers initiating military or diplomatic interventions outside of their security interests. Jeffrey W. Taliaferro provides three theories of foreign policy to explain why great powers risk serious consequences by intervening on the periphery. The theoretical argument is strong, the case selection masterful, and the policy implications should be required reading for all students and practitioners."—Larry Berman, author of No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger and Betrayal in Vietnam

"Balancing Risks marries international relations theory and psychology to produce a powerful argument that explains why great powers intervene in seemingly unimportant regions. Jeffrey W. Taliaferro makes a convincing case that it is fear of loss rather than hope for gain that drives these interventions. At a time when American intervention in the Third World again dominates the foreign policy of the United States, Taliaferro's views need to be given careful consideration both by scholars and policymakers."—Steven R. David, Professor of Political Science, Director of International Studies Program, The Johns Hopkins University

"Jeffrey Taliaferro's Balancing Risks is a creative synthesis of realism and psychological theory. His case studies on pre-World War I crises, Japan in 1940-41, and the Korean war combine richly detailed historical narrative with psychological insights and geopolitical observations. Through original archival research, he shows that leaders are most likely to choose risky options in a desperate attempt to recover declining prestige, status, or power. Psychological pressures overcome efforts at rational calculation of costs and benefits. Taliaferro uses prospect theory to explain a familiar paradox—foreign policy leaders who are reluctant to undertake bold foreign policy initiatives engage in costly, imprudent interventions in areas of relatively low strategic importance. His findings should be considered by U.S. policymakers who have committed vast resources to intervention in order to avert the possibility of further terrorist attacks."—Deborah Welch Larson, Professor of Political Science, University of California, Los Angeles

Foreign Affairs
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801442216
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2004
  • Series: Cornell Studies in Security Affairs Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.38 (h) x 1.13 (d)

Table of Contents

Tables and figures
Note on translations, romanization, and stylistic conventions
1 Power politics and the balance of risk 1
2 Explaining great power involvement in the periphery 29
3 Germany and the 1905 Morocco crisis 55
4 Japan and the 1940-41 war decisions 94
5 The United States and the Korean War (1950-51) 132
6 The limits of great power intervention in the periphery 173
7 Implications of the argument 218
Notes 241
Index 297
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