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.[1] 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.

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Paul MacDonald and Joseph Parent bring to book-length form a very sensible and persuasive argument that they have been making for some time. Great power decline is not necessarily dangerous or even destabilizing. Countries can pursue strategies of retrenchment, either of “self-help” by cutting back spending or rejuvenating their economy, or of external adjustment in paring back commitments or cementing new friendships. Such strategies, MacDonald and Parent argue, need not be destabilizing. The countries experiencing decline can regain strength and confidence.

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Some policy-relevant books grow less relevant as time passes from the moment they are published, much like the value of a new car once the owner drives it off the lot. Seva Gunitsky’s Great Powers and Domestic Reforms in the Twentieth Century, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press, is a book that has grown significantly more relevant and important since it was written, making the author prescient, lucky, or both. In 2016, for example, few public commentators predicted that the U.S.’s status as a leader of the liberal international order would decline with such rapidity. Similarly, U.S. support for democracy in other countries was not a top foreign policy priority (also true for most of U.S. history), but nor was it being consistently undermined by the U.S. president and his administration, as it is at present.

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International Security coverIn his recent article “The Inscrutable Intentions of Great Powers,” Sebastian Rosato argues that it is far more difficult for states to signal their intentions than existing scholarship recognizes. He claims that the various signaling mechanisms proposed in the IR literature — both domestic-level characteristics and international-level behaviors — “at best…allow for marginal reductions in uncertainty” (51). Thus, Rosato supports the ‘offensive realist’ worldview that “great powers focus on the balance of power” and that “self-help is persistent, balancing is endless, the security dilemma is intractable…competition is the norm and cooperation is both rare and fleeting” (88).

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Cover of The Great Powers and the International SystemIt is difficult for me to imagine an international relations (IR) scholar not being interested enough in Bear Braumoeller’s The Great Powers and the International System to read this review symposium. I’ll warrant that I’m biased on the matter, having been nurtured on systemic IR theory as an undergraduate and graduate student, liking books that combine rigorous theory and international history, and being interested in the substantive questions and specific historical periods discussed in the book. But those of you who may not share this background and disposition please consider these points: The Great Powers and the International System was selected as the best book of the year by the International Studies Association; it advances huge arguments with major implications for big swaths of international history; it grapples with questions that have exercised the minds of thinkers for centuries, primarily whether leaders shape or are shaped by grand historical forces; it generates non-obvious and counterintuitive arguments about questions long at the center of the field; unlike most ‘big swing’ theory books, it features a major effort to subject arguments to empirical account; if you like math, it’s got it—both for working out the theory and testing it; if you like to see abstract arguments that are expressed and tested with symbols and numbers forced to confront the real stuff of international politics in real case studies, it’s got that too; it is highly likely to become a central book in the field, informing a lot of subsequent scholarship; and, finally, to assess the book critically, H-Diplo’s ISSF editors have assembled here an academic dream team (more on that below).

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