Talking Great-Power Competition in the Heart of Empires Past

17 July 2022, 1255 EDT

It turns out that it’s hard to write a roundup of happenings at the Duck of Minerva when there aren’t many to speak of. Much of that’s on me. What’s my excuse? Well, the kid finally contracted COVID. The rest of my family succumbed in short order.

So that was fun. On the upside, none of us get seriously ill. On the downside, we got to experience post-COVID fatigue, with a helping of mental fog on the side.

We recovered just in time to take our long-planned trip to Thessaloniki

The official purpose of the trip: to participate in 2022 European Workshops in International Studies (EWIS). The unofficial purpose: to give my wife a chance to see the city where her grandmother spent twenty years as a refugee.

Despite the summer heat, Thessaloniki made for excellent conferencing and touristing. Terrific food. Not too expensive. Plenty of things to see, but without being overwhelming. The program co-chairs, Drs. Beste İşleyen and Revecca Pediput together a top-notch conference experience. The University of Macedonia was a great host. A+. Would do it again.

What is EWIS? It’s basically a wrapper for a large number of independent workshops. There’s a plenary panel or two at the start; the conference provides common lunch and coffee breaks. Other than that, participants spend their time in small-group meetings.

Great-Power Competition

I took part in Nicholas Kitchen’s workshop on “(Re-)Theorising Great Power Competition.” He posted his main takeaways in a short thread on Twitter. I mostly agree with what Nick writes, and I’ll elaborate some issues below. However, I remain unconvinced by efforts to turn great-power competition into “GPC” – that is, into some kind of paradigm or theoretical framework.

K.I.T.T. says “GPC is Just Another Word for Offensive Realism”

In practice, GPC usually devolves into a gloss on realism. 

The most common variant claims that U.S. relative decline – along with the concomitant emergence of China and Russia as great-power challengers – means that we live in an increasingly realpolitik world. If the United States and other “western powers” don’t get their realism on then they are going to have to pay the piper.

GPC discourse is closely connected to the “Twenty-Five Years’ Crisis” hypothesis. The hypotheses holds that from circa 1989-1993 until 2017, the United States and its allies naïvely sought to put an end to power-political competition by building liberal international order. Most GPC boosters believe that this was a colossal blunder. “The West” twiddled its thumbs while China became a global power and Russia rebuilt its military and political capacity. Worse, it actually aided and abetted their rise in the hope of transforming both countries into “responsible stakeholders.

The Twenty-Five Years’ Crisis

This account echoes – sometimes explicitly – E.H. Carr’s description of the interwar period as the “Twenty Years Crisis.” During the 1920s and 1930s, Britain and France supposedly put their faith in the League of Nations and other trappings of what we’d now call “liberal order.” By doing so, realists claim, the democratic great powers neglected to practice the kind steely-eyed realpolitik they might have averted the Second World War. 

There’s some truth to the “Twenty-Five Year’s Crisis” hypothesis. There’s also a lot wrong with it:

  • It grossly exaggerates the degree that U.S. policymakers abandoned power politics during the “unipolar moment;” and
  • It almost never seriously assesses relevant counterfactuals – that is, how different policies might have played out. 

We should also pay close attention to the political valence of its narrative. At least in the United States, “Twenty-Five Years’ Crisis” discourse plays a central role in efforts to justify Trump foreign policy. As Nadia Schadlow – who wrote the 2017 National Security Strategy – puts it:

And yet even as the [COVID] emergency has proved him right in fundamental ways—about China specifically and foreign policy more generally—many respectable people in the United States are letting their disdain for the president blind them to what is really going on in the world. Far from discrediting Trump’s point of view, the COVID-19 crisis reveals what his strategy asserted: that the world is a competitive arena in which great power rivals like China seek advantage, that the state remains the irreplaceable agent of international power and effective action, that international institutions have limited capacity to transform the behavior and preferences of states.In particular, Schadlow argues, Trump challenged the foolhardy worldview of liberal internationalism:The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy challenged the assumption that international organizations are always driven by a common global good. China’s undue influence in key international organizations was evident most recently, when the World Health Organization hesitated to declare COVID-19 a public-health emergency of international concern. WHO officials amplified Chinese officials’ early claims that the virus posed no danger of human-to-human transmission. The head of the organization even congratulated China’s top leadership for its “openness to sharing information.” Apparently seeking to avoid Beijing’s wrath, the WHO refused to respond to Taiwan’s early concerns about human-to-human transmission of the virus outbreak in Wuhan.

Here’s the thing, though. No one with even the slightest policy influence believes that “international organizations are always driven by a common global good.” This is the kind of caricature that shows up a lot in apologias for Trump foreign policy.

From my perspective, this kind of thing underscores the downside risks of adopting “America First” interpretations of the post-Cold War period. It’s only a short hop from “Twenty Five Years’ Crisis” discourse to treating U.S. foreign policy as a choice between “nationalists” and “globalists” – and just another short jump to policies that directly undermine U.S. national security.

Taking “Great-Power Competition” Seriously

Now, I am emphatically not arguing that international-relations scholars should run screaming from the concept of great-power competition. We can learn a lot from examining GPC as, say, a rhetorical commonplace or shifty signifier. It also strikes me as potentially fruitful to treat lower-case, spelled out “great-power competition” as an explicit object of analysis. At the very least, I think it would be interesting for scholars to examine how different theoretical perspective might, first, conceptualize and, second, develop accounts of great-power competition. 

In our article about Project Apollo and the Ming Treasure Fleets, for example, Paul Musgrave and I suggest that great-power competition is a global social field. At some basic level, military capabilities have always been important “field-relevant capital” in the arena of great-power competition. Nonetheless, the relative importance of different resources, capabilities, and practices (very much including military ones) clearly varies across time and space. European governments no longer care about diplomatic priority at the Vatican; the ability to perform Confucian rituals won’t get rulers very far these days. 

In the 1950s and 1960s scientific achievement mattered a great deal – or at least governments thought that it did – to great-power standing. The emergence of space exploration as a crucial subfield, and especially firsts in space exploration, took both U.S. and Soviet leaders by surprise. Although I’ve read studies that argue the U.S. sought to deemphasize the importance of international sports competition, the Olympics did become a site of great-power competition during the Cold War.

One way of studying changes in great-power competition might involve looking at changes in the relationship between it and other international fields – that is, where and when different domains of (potential) competition become sources of “field-relevant capital” for great-power competition.We might therefore conceptualize great-power competition as varying in scope – the ratio of potential fields of competition to actual fields of competition – and intensity – the costs great powers are willing to absorb for each increment of relative advantage in the field (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Varieties of Great-Power Relations

I’m just spitballing here on the specifics. Regardless of which analytic you favor, we need to move beyond current public-facing discussions of variation in the texture of great-power competition, as well as that involving other kinds of actors. These tend to list attributes of categories like “Cold Wars” but almost never use those attributes to generate broader property spaces.

Indeed, there are plenty of different ways to answer the two questions that I posed earlier. 

  • Michael Mazarr describe a world of “great-power competition” as one in which “ordering mechanisms remain weak. Players seek power, influence, wealth, and status unencumbered by shared international institutions, norms, or rules.” 

Perhaps, then, we should think about great-power competition in terms of the presence and strength of different kinds of ordering mechanisms. For that matter, we could get a lot of mileage out of studying the norms, rules, practices, and symbolic dimensions of great-power competition. The nice thing is that we already have plenty of work to draw upon – as well as on the role of status and prestige in power-political competition.

First-wave constructivist research tended to treat “norms” and “power politics” as rival explanations for state behavior, but that never made much analytical sense. It was just a weird artifact of how realism and realist theory developed in the post-war period – and the fact that realists served as important targets for and critics of constructivist theory. 

  • Securitization theory provides another avenue for theorizing great-power competition. Maybe we should look at, say, the degree and extent to which relations among great-powers are securitized, or that great powers securitizes relations among other political communities.

(Some readers will know that I’ve been working on a co-authored book on power politics. As a result, my mind keeps on wandering to the relationship between securitization and, for lack of a better term, power-politicization. If actors come to see a set of relations (or field, or issue area, or whatever) as power-political in character, is that another way of saying that they’ve become securitized? I’m not sure.)

  • Michael Brense and Van Jackson just published a piece in Foreign Affairsentitled “Great-Power Competition Is Bad for Democracy.” Although they make a good case, I’m not sure we’ve done the careful work necessary to know – or at least know with sufficient confidence to tell liberals and progressives how to proceed. 

There might be value in scholarship that explicitly looks at how variation in great-power competition affects matters of “domestic politics” – including state formation, regime type, and treatment of minorities. There’s a lot of work on these topics already, but, as far as I know, it hasn’t been systematically yoked into a research program on great-power competition.

Why? How about “Why Not?”

Let’s be clear: “GPC” is likely a fad. There’s a nonzero chance that the broader concept of “great-power competition” will prove an intellectual road to nowhere. But we’re stuck with it for the immediate future. Scholars of international relations might as well turn that lemon into lemonade, and figure out whether there’s a there there.

It’s not like we’ve spent much time thinking systematically about “great-power competition” qua “great-power competition.” It isn’t one of those concepts we largely take for granted.

The closest analogies I can think of are “revisionism,” “hegemony,” and maybe “balancing.” Scholars thought those terms was self-evident. It turned out that each of them was a hot mess. Compared to “great-power competition,” they were masterpieces of conceptual elaboration. 

So there’s no great harm in using “great-power competition” as an excuse to rearrange some deck chairs. If it allows us to decouple great-power competition from realism, so much the better.

By this I don’t mean that we should take away realism’s great-power toys. Rather, it is long past time that all the kids got to play with them.