Robert Powell

Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley

Robert Powell is a leading scholar on the application of game theory to international conflicts, from nuclear confrontations to global terrorism and multi-sided civil conflicts in failing states.

Powell is the Robson Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of an acclaimed book on nuclear deterrence theory, In the Shadow of Power: States and Strategies in International Politics. He has also developed models to explain prolonged civil or regional wars that impoverish all sides, even when the end results seem apparent from the start.

One major theme of his work is that wars stem from uncertainty and the absence of “bright lines” that define the commitments on each side. A second major theme is that violent conflict is more likely in situations that lack credible contract enforcement. In those situations, bargaining breaks down because opposing sides have no confidence that agreements will be kept.

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and huge increases in spending for homeland security, Powell proposed a “min-max” strategy for allocating limited resources to defend an almost infinite number of potential targets. Using game-theory and other economic principles, the strategy calls for making the targets that are most attractive to terrorists also the ones that are most costly to attack – and then working down the list of less attractive sites. In economic terms, the goal is to minimize the payoffs to prospective attackers by equalizing the net costs and benefits of attacking different sites.

In a separate strand of research, Powell developed a model with Ernesto Dal Bó to explain why nations with spoils-based governments are at higher risk of descending into civil war.

Powell is now focusing heavily on the analysis of multi-sided conflicts, such as the civil war that has spread from Syria to Iraq. Traditional two-sided models for conflict, like the Cold War stand-off between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., tend to break down in wars with third-party players, conflicting goals, and fluid alliances.

Powell earned a BS in mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, a master’s degree in international relations at the University of Cambridge, and a Ph.D. in economics at UC Berkeley. He joined UC Berkeley in 1990 and has received numerous honors over the course of his career. He has been a Fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 2005.