Article Review 154- “The Durability of a Unipolar System”11 min read

In his recent article in Security Studies, Yuan-kang Wang tackles a vitally important question in international relations: is unipolarity durable?[1] Two opposing views can be derived from the extant literature. Declinists posit that unipolarity is doomed due to the formation of counter-unipolar balancing coalitions, the unipole’s imperial overstretch, and the uneven growth rate between the unipole and the potential challenger.[2] Primacists generally focus on the case of the United States and postulate that American unipolarity will endure because balancing under unipolarity is too costly to be considered as a viable option.[3] While much of this literature has approached the question through the use of theoretical frameworks that privilege structure over agency, Wang offers something novel.

H-Diplo | ISSF Article Review 154
issforum.org

Editor: Diane Labrosse
Commissioning Editor: Seth Offenbach
Production Editor:  George Fujii

Yuan-kang Wang.  “The Durability of a Unipolar System: Lessons from East Asian History.”  Security Studies 29:5 (2020):  832-863.
DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1080/09636412.2020.1859127..

Published by ISSF on 4 January 2022

https://issforum.org/to/iar154

 

Review by Ronan Tse-min Fu, Institute of Political Science at Academia Sinica

In his recent article in Security Studies, Yuan-kang Wang tackles a vitally important question in international relations: is unipolarity durable?[1] Two opposing views can be derived from the extant literature. Declinists posit that unipolarity is doomed due to the formation of counter-unipolar balancing coalitions, the unipole’s imperial overstretch, and the uneven growth rate between the unipole and the potential challenger.[2] Primacists generally focus on the case of the United States and postulate that American unipolarity will endure because balancing under unipolarity is too costly to be considered as a viable option.[3] While much of this literature has approached the question through the use of theoretical frameworks that privilege structure over agency, Wang offers something novel.

By bringing agency back in, Wang theorizes that the lifespan of unipolarity is determined by how strategic interactions between the unipole and potential challengers unfold. Given that the unipole and the potential challenger can employ different strategies under unipolarity, thereby generating different outcomes for their strategic encounters, the durability of unipolarity is contingent rather than preordained. Neither the preservation nor the end of unipolarity is an inevitable outcome. Ultimately, unipolar durability is an outcome of strategic interaction between the unipole’s efforts to maintain its power preponderance and the potential challengers’ attempts to reach power parity (845-846).

But under what circumstances will unipolarity endure? To answer this question, Wang suggests that we need to model the strategic dynamic regarding the unipole’s attempts to maintain its preeminence and the challenger’s efforts to narrow the power gap. Building on Victoria Hui’s framework of competing logics, Wang captures this strategic dynamic through the logic of primacy versus the logic of resistance framework.[4] The logic of primacy instructs the unipole to go to great lengths to maintain its power preponderance and entails four strategies: rejuvenation, wedge, containment, and preventive war (841-843). The logic of resistance guides the challenger to pursue strategies that can potentially rewrite the balance of power between itself and the unipole. Following this strategic logic, four strategies are available to the potential challenger: internal balancing, calculated expansion, alliance-making, and strategic deception (843-845). Based on this theoretical framework, Wang hypothesizes that unipolarity will be stable and long-lived if: the unipole adopts strategies based on the logic of primacy; the potential challenger does not employ strategies suggested by the logic of resistance. Unipolarity is durable in this configuration because the distribution of power is constantly in the unipole’s favor. A redistribution of power is thus close to impossible (845).

Wang further lays out three different scenarios, depending on the combination of logics pursued by the unipole and the challenger. First, if the unipole does not abide by the logic of primacy but the challenger sticks to the logic of resistance, unipolarity will be not durable. Such a strategic interaction will likely lead to a significant redistribution of military power in the challenger’s favor, resulting in the termination of unipolarity. Second, if both the unipole and the challenger are sensitive to their position in the international system in terms of relative power, suggesting that the unipole embraces the logic of primacy and the challenger acts on the basis of the logic of resistance, unipolar durability will be contingent on whether the unipole is outmaneuvered by the challenger. Namely, when the challenger outmatches the unipole in terms of the effort it makes to shape the balance of power in its favor, unipolarity will end. Third, if neither the unipole nor the challenger pays heed to the issue of relative power, meaning that the unipole refutes the logic of primacy and the challenger rejects the logic of resistance, unipolar durability will be indeterminate (845-846). The theory cannot shed further light on such a scenario.

Wang’s paper is an impressive contribution to international relations theory and our understanding of unipolarity. It is theoretically innovative, synthesizing the strategic interaction approach and the framework of competing logics to establish its main claims. It is a welcome correction to existing theories on unipolarity that overly prioritize structure over agency. As Wang cogently postulates, agential strategies can prolong or shorten the lifespan of unipolarity, thereby determining the durability of the structure. The argument also pushes back at the bulk of the literature on unipolar durability which, in Wang’s words, suffers from a “defensive bias toward the balancing mechanism” (838). Specifically, the existing arguments predominantly concentrate on the defensive measures second-ranked states may adopt to challenge the unipole. While it is obviously wrong to ignore the fact that second-ranked states can go to great lengths to try to replace the unipole as the most powerful state in the system, Wang rightly points out that it is equally wrong to omit the possibility that the unipole can be proactive in preserving its position in the system and keeping second-ranked states on a tight leash.

Wang tests his theoretical argument against the empirical record of East Asian unipolarity (Ming China, 1368-1644; Qing China, 1644-1912). He finds that the establishment of Ming unipolarity was largely due to the Ming’s vigorous pursuit of the primacy logic and ended because the Manchus fully followed the logic of resistance, whereas the Ming failed to stick to the logic of primacy. In his second case study Wang demonstrates that Qing unipolarity was an outcome of the strategic interaction between Qing and the Zunghars. As such, Wang’s article is an outstanding contribution to the ongoing effort to enhance the study of international relations by further integrating historical IR in East Asia into the field, using historical East Asia as an opportunity to test and develop general arguments about unipolar durability.[5] As Wang notes, most of the extant arguments on unipolar durability have been tailor-made for the single case of the United States and therefore have external validity problems.

All papers have limitations, and this one is no exception. Here I want to advance three criticisms. First, Wang’s discussion of the strategies available to actors is incomplete and suffers from a “competition bias.” [6] As David Lake and Robert Powell point out, a good model of strategic interaction must clearly specify the actions available to actors such that we could summarize what could happen as the actors interact.[7] Without this, we cannot possibly delineate the set of possible ways that strategic interaction can unfold. Wang does a nice job of describing the “competitive” measures that the unipole and the potential challenger can take against each other, but he pays almost no attention to the “cooperative” measures that can be employed.[8] Given that Wang’s argument is a generalized theoretical claim that is not tailor-made for a specific space or specific period of time, he should have included cooperative measures in the theoretical treatment or discussion.

Precisely because Wang’s argument pays insufficient attention to cooperative strategies, his theory does not consider a scenario in which unipolar durability can be achieved even if the unipole does not employ any of the four competitive strategies he specifies. Specifically, if the unipole pursues the “logic of restraint” and is willing to send costly signals to prove to the world that it will not abuse its unrivaled capabilities, second-ranked states might thus form a fairly low level of threat perception toward the unipole and decide to embrace the “logic of accommodation” and not challenge the unipole, which would lead to the stability and durability of unipolarity.[9] In other words, unipolarity is durable if the unipole pursues the logic of restraint and second-ranked states embrace the logic of accommodation.

Finally, Wang could have done more to clarify how actual empirical cases can be mapped onto his framework of strategic interactions of competing logics. Oftentimes it is not entirely clear how we should position the empirical case in his theoretical framework. Consider, for example, Wang’s discussion of the strategies adopted by the Zunghars (855-858). Wang argues that the Zunghars only partially embraced the logic of resistance. It is not clear, however, how we should code partial pursuit of the logic resistance. Since Wang dichotomizes the logic of resistance as a variable, is it a 0 or a 1? Wang’s classification scheme will likely fail the inter-coder reliability test. Additionally, Wang needs to be clearer on whether his framework is more concerned with the adoption of strategies than it is with the political consequences of the adoption of certain strategies. These are two different constructs but are conflated for the most part in the empirical section.

Wang’s theory thus suffers from a competition bias because it does not discuss cooperative strategies, its scope condition of unipolar durability the theory specifies is incomplete, and the operationalization and measurement strategies the paper employs could have been clearer. Despite these limitations, Wang’s piece is an important contribution to the literature on unipolarity. It demonstrates that the durability of unipolar moment is a function of the strategic interaction between the unipole and the challenger and offers important insights both into the historical East Asian cases and American grand strategy. Wang’s illuminating paper challenges several pieces of conventional wisdom in international relations. Even if one is not convinced by the scope condition under which unipolarity is durable as laid out by Wang, any scholar of international relations theory and unipolarity will need to wrestle with his argument.

 

Ronan Tse-min Fu is an Assistant Research Fellow in the Institute of Political Science at Academia Sinica (IPSAS), Taiwan. Prior to joining IPSAS, he was a Columbia-Harvard China and the World Program Postdoctoral Fellow at Columbia University. His work has appeared in International Security, International Studies Quarterly, Journal of Conflict Resolution, and Political Geography.

©2021 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License

[1] Wang defines “unipolarity” as an anarchical system with only one great power (834). A “unipole” is a great power that outmatches other states in critical dimensions of capabilities, particularly military capabilities (835). Unipolarity is considered durable or stable if “the underlying distribution of military power is resilient to challenges by second-ranked political units” (836).

[2] Kenneth N. Waltz, “The Emerging Structure of International Politics,” International Security 18:2 (1993): 44-79; Christopher Layne, “The Unipolar Illusion: Why New Great Powers Will Rise,” International Security 17:4 (1993): 5-51.

[3] Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, World out of Balance: International Relations and the Challenge of American Primacy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in the Twenty-First Century: China’s Rise and the Fate of America’s Global Position,” International Security 40:3 (2016): 7-53.

[4] Victoria Tin-bor Hui, War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[5] Some recent works that also seek to incorporate historical IR in East Asia into the study of international relations theory include: David C. Kang, Meredith Shaw, and Ronan Tse-min Fu, “Measuring War in Early Modern East Asia, 1368–1841: Introducing Chinese and Korean Language Sources,” International Studies Quarterly 60:4 (2016): 766-777; David C. Kang, Dat X. Nguyen, Ronan Tse-min Fu, and Meredith Shaw, “War, Rebellion, and Intervention under Hierarchy: Vietnam–China Relations, 1365 to 1841,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 63:4 (2018): 896-922; Weiwen Yin, “Climate Shocks, Political Institutions, and Nomadic Invasions in Early Modern East Asia,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 64:6 (2020): 1043-1069.

[6] Charles L. Glaser, “Realists as Optimists: Cooperation as Self-Help,” International Security 19:3 (1994): 50-90.

[7] David A. Lake and Robert Powell, eds., Strategic Choice and International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

[8] Charles L. Glaser, Rational Theory of International Politics: The Logic of Competition and Cooperation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[9] G. John Ikenberry, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); Barry R. Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy, Reprint edition ed. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015); Evelyn Goh, “Great Powers and Hierarchical Order in Southeast Asia: Analyzing Regional Security Strategies,” International Security 32:3 (2007): 113-157.