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Journal of Cold War Studies 6.1 (2004) 95-96

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Michael Dean McGinnis and John T. Williams, Compound Dilemmas: Democracy, Collective Action, and Superpower Rivalry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. 184 pp. $57.50.

Is democracy a liability or an asset for effective national security policymaking? In this innovative examination of the U.S.-Soviet relationship, Michael McGinnis and John Williams argue that democratic politics did not significantly hinder the U.S. government's ability to implement coherent defense policies during the Cold War. Although domestic actors who stood to benefit from the U.S.-Soviet rivalry consistently lobbied for more active foreign and military policies and for larger defense budgets, McGinnis and Williams argue that this maneuvering "did not undermine the ability of the United States to act as a rational rival with the Soviet Union" (p.31).

In making this case, the authors construct a rational-choice model that draws on principal-agent theory and the logic of collective action. The argument is straightforward: Because there was "good information" about the Soviet Union's capabilities for war fighting (pp.5, 34), successive U.S. administrations could more easily monitor and control the actions of bureaucratic agents. In addition, U.S. intelligence services had incentives to present accurate assessments of the Soviet threat. The result was that U.S. decision makers could form reasonably sound expectations of Soviet behavior.

Central to the book's thesis is the notion that simple distinctions between domestic and international levels of analysis are unhelpful. Although this is not a new claim, McGinnis and Williams usefully combine domestic and international politics in a different way from previous approaches. In particular, their "rational expectations model of superpower rivalry" (p.7) can be juxtaposed with analyses that are more consistent with constructivism than with rational choice, such as Aaron L. Friedberg's recent study of the Cold War, In the Shadow of the Garrison State: America's Anti-Statism and Its Cold War Grand Strategy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000). Although Friedberg also emphasizes the domestic foundations of military and defense policy and also contends that U.S. Cold War policy was effective in the long run, he focuses more on ideology and identity than on parochial interest-group pressures.

The analysis in Compound Dilemmas of the Cold War as a rivalry contributes to a burgeoning research agenda on interstate rivalries and builds on seminal work in this area by Paul F. Diehl and Gary Goertz, particularly their War and Peace in International Rivalry (Ann Arbor: University of Michican Press, 2000). McGinnis and Williams are well versed in this literature and provide a comprehensive bibliography. [End Page 95] Uninitiated readers, however, may be left without a clear sense of how the book fits into the larger debates and how it both builds on and challenges previously published studies on international rivalries. In particular, the authors might have expanded their discussion of why certain rivalries heat up. On several occasions (e.g., pp.3, 125) they argue that the superpowers avoided direct confrontation because of the nuclear stalemate. Yet in an excellent but all-too-brief concluding chapter McGinnis and Williams also suggest that the superpowers' economic isolation might have played a role in keeping the Cold War cold. In addition, their claim that "the economies of rival states may need to be unusually immune from international competition if their rivalry is to achieve long-term stability" (p.126) is an important hypothesis and relatively understudied in the literature, which tends to focus more on dyadic levels of democracy or on the number and intensity of territorial disagreements in determining the war-proneness of rivals.

McGinnis and Williams might also have speculated further on how enduring rivalries end. They plausibly suggest that a gradual series of cooperative moves, yielding "progressively bigger surprises" (p.117)—such as Mikhail Gorbachev's initiatives in the late 1980s—are needed to end a rivalry. Yet, the easing of that particular rivalry—the Cold War—resulted from very unusual circumstances. Superpower rivalry "finally dissipated only...