The Price of Prestige: Conspicuous Consumption in International Relations, Lilach Gilady

Reviewed by Paul Musgrave

Lilach Gilady thinks that international relations scholars should pay more attention to prestige in world politics. In her view, states engage in conspicuous consumption to impress audiences with wastefulness, rather as male peacocks invest in ostentatious and useless plumage to advertise their reproductive fitness.

Gilady argues her case with aplomb, with cases spanning historical eras, geographic regions, and topical areas. Throughout, she documents how states’ decisions to invest in costly projects, such as aircraft carriers or Big Science, cannot be explained by the utility they receive from them. Rather, she argues, we must turn to the framework of conspicuous consumption first laid out by Thorstein Veblen. Resolving puzzles such as why Brazil maintains an aircraft carrier or “middle states” invest so heavily in international development therefore becomes an exercise in identifying how such displays could impress some audience.

Gilady's short but impressive book deserves an audience. She succeeds best on establishing her claim that state actors derive substantial utility from increasing their relative position in some status hierarchy. But she does not establish quite as well as one might have wished that states’ pursuit of prestige results in increased prestige, as her theory at times seems to imply

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