Tufts University

Asking Why

Jeff TaliaferroTaking an approach that blends political science and psychology, Tufts' Jeff Taliaferro sheds new light on the reasons states become embroiled in risky and counterproductive military situations.

When Associate Professor of Political Science Jeff Taliaferro sits in his office, he's surrounded by shelves of books, many of which have been the key force in shaping his political outlook—as well as his development into one of the nation's premier experts on political science and international relations.

"What I consider to be a good book in political science and in the international relations subfield," says the intense and articulate Taliaferro, "is a book that not only addresses big and important phenomena about world politics or the foreign policies of countries, but that also leads one to ask additional questions."

According to the American Political Science Association (APSA), Taliaferro's "Balancing Risks: Great Power Intervention in the Periphery" is just such a book. This summer, APSA named "Balancing Risks" the 2005 winner of its prestigious Jervis-Schroeder Award, which is given to the year's best book in international history and politics.

"The book was an effort to combine all of my interests—in history, in psychological theory, in theories of international relations—to explain this puzzle: why have successive great powers—regardless of regime type, regardless of who happens to be in charge of them—initiated high-risk diplomatic and military interventions in the 'periphery,' regions their leaders deem to be tangential to their core interests?" Taliaferro explains. "Why do they continue to pour blood and treasure into vastly expensive and arguably counterproductive intervention strategies?"

In order to answer those questions, Taliaferro takes an approach that combines psychological and political theory.

"In order to understand the foreign policies of great powers, it's not enough to look at the number of tanks a state has, or the size of its economy," Taliaferro says. "Instead, you have to look at how those leaders are thinking about the balance of power—how are they thinking about their state's position relative to other states?"

Taliaferro has long been interested in exploring military and diplomatic history from a standpoint that integrates psychology and political science. While attending graduate school at Harvard in the 1990s, the Michigan-born, New Jersey-raised PhD candidate read political scientist Robert Jervis's "Perception and Misperception." Taliaferro describes the book as "a very ambitious attempt to merge two very different fields of study—cognitive psychology and international relations."

"['Perception and Misperception'] had a tremendous influence on my development," says Taliaferro. "I'm deeply gratified that I'm receiving an award for my work, and that it's an award that's named in honor of one of the scholars who's had a profound influence on my thinking."

Another profound influence on Taliaferro's thinking? Prospect theory, a psychological rationale of how people make decisions in risky situations that was developed in the 1970s by Amos Tversky and 2004 Nobel Laureate in Economics Daniel Kahneman (who gave Tufts University's Schneider Lecture last year).

"What Kahneman and Tversky were trying to do was explain how human beings actually make decisions," Taliaferro explains. "They did a whole series of experimental studies and found that when presented with very simple gambles, people tended to systematically violate all of the axioms of rational choice."

For Taliaferro, it was a natural step to apply prospect theory to military history, an area historically rife with decisions he describes as "mind-bogglingly dumb." After all, what prospect theory proposed about people's attitudes towards risk—particularly, that those attitudes vary from situation to situation and are very rarely rooted in logic or rationality—could go a long way in explaining why great powers, Taliaferro says, "repeatedly exhibit types of behavior rarely seen outside of psychiatric wards."

Jeff Taliaferro

"I always saw teaching and research as part of the same activity: the discovery and advancement of knowledge. I don't think you can really separate them at any intellectual level."

As may already be evident, Taliaferro's outlook on world politics is not exactly sunny. "I always joke with my students and say, 'Never underestimate the depths of my pessimism,'" laughs Taliaferro, a self-described realist.

"For me, being a realist means dealing with the world and trying to understand the world as it is, and not as I would like it to be," explains Taliaferro. It's no surprise, then, that "Balancing Risk" contains no prescriptions or quick fixes for avoiding counterproductive international entanglements.

"The point of the book is to show why these things happen, but I don't think there is a solution," he says. "I don't think there is a way that you can change the nature of international politics, the nature of great powers, the nature of individual leaders so that people like to win more than they hate to lose."

Taliaferro explains that world leaders, just like ordinary individuals, are sensitive to what others think of them, especially when it comes to a perceived loss of power or status. That sensitivity can often drive irrational tactics.

"Once leaders embark upon very risky courses of action, and those actions do not go well, it is extraordinarily hard for them to back up, to reassess, and pursue alternate strategies. Instead," he says, "they do the exact opposite. If something isn't working, they simply escalate their commitment to the original strategy. So escalation of commitment to recover sunk costs is a perennial theme in my work."

Taliaferro's students have played a key role in that work's development. "I always saw teaching and research as part of the same activity: the discovery and advancement of knowledge. I don't think you can really separate them at any intellectual level," he says, noting that the classes he's taught at Tufts over the years have always been "very close" in theme and subject to his research interests.

When he was writing "Balancing Risk," for example, the students in his popular "Rise and Fall of Great Powers" course helped Taliaferro to refine his arguments, raising what he describes as "very thought-provoking questions." They were a particular help, he says, in developing the sections of his book focusing on pre-World War I German colonial expansion and Japanese imperialism throughout the 1930s and 1940s. "I learn as much from my students," Taliaferro says, "as I hope they learn from me."

He also values the scholarship of his colleagues in a department which he says is now "stronger than it ever was."

"We're a department with 18 full-time faculty members, and there have been seven new books published by members of this department in the last two years—seven!" marvels Taliaferro. "These are very ambitious scholars who are also committed to teaching, so for me it's an intellectually exciting place to be."

He is looking to add another volume to that shelf with a new project, further developing the "balance of risk" theory by examining the role of preemptive force in United States foreign policy since 1945.

"There have been several instances in which administrations, both Republican and Democrat, have thought about initiating preventive military strikes on adversaries suspected of acquiring or known to have acquired nuclear weapons," says Taliaferro, offering the possibility of President Truman attacking the Soviet Union in 1948 or President Clinton launching a war against North Korea in 1992 as examples.

As he proceeds with his new project, Taliaferro is right where he likes to be—up to his elbows in military history books and government documents, working to piece together the decision-making process. "It's an aspect of my research that I enjoy just as much as the theoretical part."

And it's an aspect of his research that he enjoys despite its sobering conclusions. "Yes, there are good things in the world, but there are bad things also, and bad things will always happen," Taliaferro says matter-of-factly. "There will always be another area of conflict; there will always be a next war; there will always be the unintended outcome of a particular state's foreign policy. You just can't get around that."

But as Taliaferro has proven with "Balancing Risk," you can understand—at least in part—the reasons why.

Profile written by Patrice Taddonio, Class of 2006

Patrice Taddonio, a native of Holland, Pennsylvania, is an English major and a communications and media studies minor. Currently the Tufts Daily's head features editor, she interned with the Improper Bostonian magazine during her sophomore year, and worked as a temporary text editor with the Associated Press at last July's Democratic National Convention. A member of the Class of 2006 and a songwriter, Taddonio has also performed on guitar and vocals at on-campus venues and at Boston-area benefits.

Photos by Melody Ko, University Photographer

This story originally ran on Oct. 17, 2005