In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Journal of Cold War Studies 3.1 (2001) 132-133

[Access article in PDF]

Book Review

In the Shadow of Power:
States and Strategies in International Politics

Robert Powell, In the Shadow of Power: States and Strategies in International Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999. 310 pp. $55.00 (hardcover), $19.95 (softcover).

The international relations subfield, like the rest of political science, remains bitterly divided over the utility of formal theory. This was evident in the recent acrimonious exchange published in International Security and reprinted in Michael E. Brown et al., eds., Rational Choice and Security Studies: Stephen Walt and His Critics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000). Although the debate usually takes the form of a dialogue between competing standpoints, proponents often are really addressing the partisans of their own perspective. Robert Powell's In the Shadow of Power is a welcome attempt to make the modeling enterprise accessible and understandable to nonpractitioners. Along the way it makes a concise and coherent case for why modeling can increase our understanding of international relations.

In the Shadow of Power follows the traditional portrayal of the international system as a Hobbesian state of nature, without any overarching authority to prevent conflict. Powell argues, however, that this characterization by itself is too broad to be useful. He suggests that we can more productively describe state interaction in terms of commitment issues, informational problems, and the underlying technology of coercion. Powell models a state's foreign policy decisions as attempts to maximize its absolute level of welfare, which is constituted by present and future consumption. Because states cannot credibly commit to refrain from attacking one another, each is forced to divert scarce resources from consumption to defense. Starting with this basic model, Powell deduces a series of conclusions about international politics, many of which contradict well-established theories. For example, he argues that states do not seek to maximize power; that concerns about relative gains do not prevent cooperation; that neither a preponderance of power nor a disparity of power is associated with greater risks of war; and that states generally neither balance against nor bandwagon with states that threaten them.

Formal modelers and scholars whom Powell labels "ordinary language" theorists often seem to be talking past each other, as if differences in approach and notation render their positions incommensurable. In the Shadow of Power shows that both the purposes and the tools of formal theory can be made understandable to a broader academic community. In three respects, however, the book may have some difficulty crossing over. First, despite Powell's well-meaning attempt to reach out beyond the modeling community, he cannot seem to help slipping in a dig or two at "plain language" [End Page 132] theorizing. To be sure, In the Shadow of Power is admirably explicit in its self-conscious acknowledgment of the strengths and weaknesses of formal models. The discussion on pp. 23-39 of the uses and limits of modeling is particularly helpful (see also pp. 204-213). Despite this modest self-assessment, Powell is sometimes explicit in his rather hegemonic claims that modeling has vastly improved the subfield and that "plain language" theorists have been superseded. Though much less pugnacious than some, this outlook is an unfortunate characteristic for a book that is aimed at a nonpartisan audience.

Second, Powell correctly observes that his models' assumptions must be compatible with the international relations theories he wants to debunk, or else they will have nothing to say about those theories (p. 57). Such compatibility is also a predicate to engaging the "plain language" theorists Powell is trying to reach. The problem is that Powell does not really satisfy this relevance condition. For example, he simply asserts (on p. 57) that, because his guns-versus-butter model assumes that states must survive to maximize current and future consumption, the model is compatible with neorealism, which also assumes that states seek to survive. But most neorealist theories, including Kenneth Waltz's, are silent on state preferences about internal consumption. Accordingly, Powell needs to be more explicit about how...