America is the Preeminent Revisionist Power

1 January 2023, 1347 EST

The Biden administration’s jarring revisionism on economic policy toward China (and by extension the world) is reviving discussions (most acute during the Trump and George W. Bush years) about whether it’s right to label the United States a revisionist power.

There’s a lot at stake in whether the United States is perceived as—or actually is—a “revisionist” (vice “status quo”) power.

Theories predicting war are built out of the distinction between revisionist and status quo states. And if the world understands the United States as revisionist, then it is the one upending patterns of world order.

That doesn’t mean others aren’t also revisionist. But in certain (if rapidly narrowing) ways, it remains the preeminent global power. That makes the case for resisting or subverting America’s politically volatile whims more compelling than in a different historical conjuncture.

The thing is, this is thoroughly covered ground in international relations. But, as with most things that are important, there’s nothing remotely like a consensus about the United States.

The baseline presumption permeating the field is of course that the United States is a status quo power. 

Many, many IR scholars have theorized revisionism in one way or another. The tendency has been not weighing in definitively about whether the United States is a revisionist power while also subtly implying (in my reading anyway) that they think the United States is a status quo (not revisionist) power. An unsurprising bias in a US-centric field.

Most versions of hegemonic stability theory—which present hegemonic concentrations of power as a stabilizing force in world politics—suggest the United States is a status quo power.

The same could be said for power-transition theory, even though it technically allows for the dominant power to be a revisionist punching down at the rising power (one of two paths to war in that frame).

Much of the work on liberal hegemony and “liberal international order” also intrinsically positions the United States in an exceptionalist posture—a nation defending standards it previously set and/or inherited from the British empire. So a status quo power.

Of course, offensive realists believe we’re all revisionist, some are just more capable than others. Alex Cooley and Dan Nexon’s work during the Trump years showed pathways of US revisionism that was leading toward the end of US hegemony.

And some empirics-heavy work has hinted at US revisionism. David Shambaugh, for example, finds some analytical merit in the longstanding Chinese accusations that the United States is a revisionist of global proportions.

Steve Chan, Weixing Hu, and Kai He establish clear standards for what constitutes a revisionist orientation (policy statements, institutional participation, and the direction of UN votes), finding that the United States has some very revisionist coloring—at least compared to China. After Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, moreover, many governments perceived the United States as revisionist (I mean, how could they not?).

In Robert Jervis’s rendering of the security dilemma (which for my money is the most important concept in security studies), the question of revisionist intentions is vital because whether accommodative or coercive policies toward a competitor make more sense depends on the revisionist-status quo distinction.

By definition, you cannot even have a security dilemma if one of the powers involved in a situation is a revisionist. The dilemma is that policies you implement to make yourself secure even though you’re a status-quo actor get misperceived as proof of your revisionist intentions, which is why the other guy reciprocates and yadayadayadah—we’re all less secure.

For Jervis and many security scholars, revisionism is specifically about the willingness to use and threaten force for political ends. Hitler, or imperial Germany, is what a lot of scholars have in mind. For most others, revisionism is about a desire to alter patterns of global order, which may or may not require force.

But what if America is both? Well, that’s complicating—both in terms of our self-image and in terms of what to do about it.

In my new bookPacific Power Paradox, I show that you can’t really understand the perils and promise of Asia’s regional order today unless you recognize that the United States has been both a revisionist and status quo power since the 1970s—sometimes simultaneously.

Contra so much US foreign policy orthodoxy, I take pains to show how assuming the United States is only a status-quo power (paradoxically) increases the risks of war. Denying American revisionism makes US foreign policy more dangerous than it might otherwise be.

Common sense should dictate that to be the hegemon is to be the preeminent revisionist power. Hegemons impose orders that didn’t exist before and expect others to sign up.

Hegemons risk and wage wars in order to realize some aspect (real or imagined) of their preferred “orders.”

Hegemons deploy forces abroad globally and out-arms-race themselves for the sake of “order maintenance,” leaving officials in the awkward position of labeling the lower-rung competitors “pacing threats” that are also somehow existential threats. Of course, the high-minded rhetoric of American exceptionalism obscures this reality.

What we’re seeing from the Biden administration in real time—and at a global level—suggests that the US pursuit of primacy is forcing it into revisionism toward prevailing patterns of global order, risks of war be damned. Changes in economic policy are what’s drawing attention, but these moves would only shock those who naturalized America’s past revisionist behavior.

This is cross-posted at Van’s newsletter.