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Failing to Win

Failing to Win

Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics

Dominic D. P. Johnson, Dominic Tierney

ISBN 9780674023246

Publication date: 10/30/2006

How do people decide which country came out ahead in a war or a crisis? Why, for instance, was the Mayaguez Incident in May 1975--where 41 U.S. soldiers were killed and dozens more wounded in a botched hostage rescue mission--perceived as a triumph and the 1992-94 U.S. humanitarian intervention in Somalia, which saved thousands of lives, viewed as a disaster? In Failing to Win, Dominic Johnson and Dominic Tierney dissect the psychological factors that predispose leaders, media, and the public to perceive outcomes as victories or defeats--often creating wide gaps between perceptions and reality.

To make their case, Johnson and Tierney employ two frameworks: "Scorekeeping," which focuses on actual material gains and losses; and "Match-fixing," where evaluations become skewed by mindsets, symbolic events, and media and elite spin. In case studies ranging from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the current War on Terror, the authors show that much of what we accept about international politics and world history is not what it seems--and why, in a time when citizens offer or withdraw support based on an imagined view of the outcome rather than the result on the ground, perceptions of success or failure can shape the results of wars, the fate of leaders, and the "lessons" we draw from history.


  • This is one of those books that leads the reader to ask why it had not been done before. I am amazed that both academics and members of the interested public had generally assumed that in most cases it was self-evident who had won or lost an encounter. The authors show that this is simply not the case, and in doing so have put this important question on our agenda.

    —Robert Jervis, Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics, Columbia University


  • Dominic D. P. Johnson is Alistair Buchan Professor of International Relations at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.
  • Dominic Tierney is Associate Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College, Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

Book Details

  • 360 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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