In Rising Titans, Falling States: How Great Powers Exploit Power Shifts, Joshua Shifrinson offers an essential contribution to the renascent literature in international relations on rising great powers. While much of this literature has focused on the strategies that declining powers adopt toward rising powers, Shifrinson flips this question on its head, inquiring about the strategies that rising powers pursue toward declining powers. Based on a combination of two different variables–the declining power’s strategic value and its military posture (i.e., its military capability as it declines)—Shifrinson predicts four different types of strategies ranging from most supportive to most predatory–strengthening, bolstering, weakening, and relegation. After developing his theoretical argument, Shifrinson offers two extended cases studies to test his arguments as well as shorter case studies in the conclusion to augment his empirical analysis. First, he examines Great Britain’s decline after World War II and the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union over Britain’s fate. Second, he examines U.S. strategies toward a declining Russia at the end of the Cold War. What one takes away from Shifrinson’s book is a fuller appreciation of the ways in which great powers are often not simply content with the power they have at the moment but are, in fact, always seeking ways to exploit changes in the international system to their advantage. Whether it be through strengthening or predation, rising great powers never let a good crisis—or power transition—go to waste.
Although every negotiator I have talked to has stressed the importance of the personal relations with his or her opposite numbers, most academic theorizing ignores this dimension entirely. Nicolas Wheeler joins Marcus Holmes, whose Face-to-face Diplomacy will soon be reviewed on ISSF, in arguing that academic research has paid a steep price for neglecting what practitioners understand. At a time of both heightened international tensions and an American president enamored of summit meetings, Wheeler’s Trusting Enemies is especially welcome. In it, he brings together literatures that are often separate: interpersonal relations on the one hand and inter-state rapprochements on the other; how states signal on the one hand and how they perceive on the other. Having written on both of the latter topics, I can testify to the fact that they are not only usually treated separately, but that rational choice is the common approach for the former while social psychology and constructivism predominate in the latter endeavor.
Over the past ten years, revived debates on realism have generated one of the most fertile, and promising, bodies of literature in contemporary political theory. Though empirically accurate, this statement might sound historically counter-intuitive, and thus invites some clarifications. A time-honored vision of politics, the realist approach to human affairs can in fact claim a distinguished pedigree that stretches back to the very beginnings of historical political theory.
Since the periods of decolonization and the Cold War, Africa has been the site of numerous protracted conflicts. Some countries have experienced repeated cycles of violence and civil war, while other countries have headed off major conflict and maintained relative peace. What factors account for these differences? In a clear, compelling, theoretically innovative study, Philip Roessler argues that civil wars often emerge from power struggles among political elites. In fragile, ethnically divided states, powerholders have greater fear of coups d’état staged by rivals at the core than civil wars waged by excluded minorities on the periphery. As a result, powerholders in weak states are likely to incorporate potential rivals at the center in a system of ethnic power sharing and to exclude regional and ethnic minorities on the margins. While such tactics may work in the short term, ongoing rivalry at the center, compounded by political exclusion elsewhere, may eventually lead to the coup–civil war trap. In such cases, rival power aspirants may mobilize marginalized groups, with civil war as an outcome.
John Mearsheimer has written a stinging indictment of post-Cold War policy as being founded on a form of liberalism that ignores the realities of nationalism and the limits of the power of even the strongest states. It is reviewed here by four scholars of differing political and intellectual orientations, all of whom agree that this is an important and stimulating book. The clarity of the argument, the verve of the writing, and a willingness to stake out a strong claim on an important subject are the hallmarks of Mearsheimer’s scholarship and fully on display here. For Jennifer Pitts, this book is bracing and salutary; Jack Snyder says that this is “an incisive book that deeply analyzes the tendency of self-deluded post-Cold War liberalism to overreach in its efforts to remake the entire world in a liberal mold.” For William Wohlforth, Mearsheimer gives us “refreshingly bracing prose whose bluntness cannot conceal the profound learning it conveys,” and Christopher Layne writes that the great Delusion “Is an important book.”
No president has cast as much uncertainty over American alliances as Donald Trump. Despite the assiduous damage control of his rotating secretaries of State and Defense and national security advisors, comments from the chief executive matter; uncertainty has increased. Moreover, the unexpected willingness of the president to undertake direct, high-level contacts with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are both promising and unsettling. Do these contacts augur peace on the peninsula? Or are they but another example of the long-standing North Korean effort to drive wedges between the alliance partners? And looming still larger over these questions is the role that China’s rise might have in determining the alliance’s future. Will it, for example, strengthen as China’s capabilities increase and become more threatening? Or will the desire to accommodate Beijing pull South Korea away from the United States?
The relationship between war, taxes, and public opinion has long interested scholars of democracy and international security. In theory the fiscal costs of war should restrain leaders from starting them, especially if those costs are born by the public on whose support they rely. According to Sarah Kreps, however, American leaders have not been constrained in this way for decades. They have learned to find alternatives to the kind of war taxes that concentrate public attention. They have also fought prolonged wars with volunteer forces. No draft, no tax, no protest.
I think it is fair to say that over the past hundred years most academic students of international politics have urged the United States to take a more active position in the world, one that was more commensurate with its economic power and stake in what was happening around the globe. Roughly a decade ago this began to shift, with many in the field, especially those of the Realist persuasion, urging that it would be better for the U.S. and for others for it to be less assertive. Stephen Walt’s The Hell of Good Intentions is one of the strongest statements, of this view; our reviewers’ evaluations are not surprisingly correlated with their own views of the subject. Michael Desch has written in a vein similar to Walt’s and says that “many superlatives” can be applied to “Walt’s fine book”; Paul MacDonald has written about the virtues of retrenchment and finds the book “provocative” and “persuasive;” Sergey Radchenko, an historian from the UK who has not been deeply involved in debates on current American foreign policy says that Walt’s damning description “rings true”; Kori Schake is a distinguished member of the foreign policy establishment that Walt so strongly criticizes and perceives this book as “not so much a work of scholarship as a diatribe.”
In this roundtable, four of international relations’ finest scholars evaluate Marcus Holmes’s Face-to-Face Diplomacy: Social Neuroscience and International Relations, a bold effort to bring research on brains to bear on questions of high-stakes summitry. While international relations scholars identify uncertainty, particularly the problem of judging the intentions of other states, as a central and essentially unsolvable problematique, Holmes disagrees. Research shows that our neural architecture is set up to simulate the mental states of others when we meet face-to-face, something that we do unconsciously and intuitively. Holmes draws the conclusions of this central claim for the study of diplomacy, a process that is finally receiving the theoretical and empirical attention it deserves. All of the reviewers agree that this interdisciplinary-inspired book offers a new look at an old question of international relations. Andrew Ross writes, “Holmes leverages this account of intersubjectivity to dismantle an entire edifice of theorizing built on the problem of other minds, inaccessible intentions, and the distrust that ensues therein. The result is a potential game-changer not only for the study of diplomacy but also for efforts to understand other forms of social interaction in international affairs.” They also praise him for his adroit use of history. The book explores the power of face-to-face diplomacy in case studies that include the interactions of presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush with Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, the Munich summit between British prime minister Neville Chamberlain and Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler, and the Camp David summit in which President Jimmy Carter brokered peace between Egypt and Israel.
After the end of the Cold War many scholars thought that other states would balance against the United States since it now lacked a rival superpower to check it, and with the apparent abuse of its power epitomized by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 these expectations were heightened. In parallel, many observers thought that China’s rise would call up a local counter-balancing coalition. These predictions did not come true, leading scholars to wonder whether balance of power theory was obsolete—or even wrong. T.V. Paul shined a new light on this question with his seminal article, “Soft Balancing in the Age of U.S. Primacy,” in 2005. Since then, the concept of “soft balancing” has become a staple of the literature, with multiple applications and critiques. To this Paul has now added a full volume that pushes the argument further.