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.
The fog of war plays a prominent role in Carl von Clausewitz’s reflections on armed struggle. In Ann Hironaka’s rethinking of war, that fog becomes all consuming, obscuring the information needed to understand and prepare for battle. Victory in war is unpredictable and tantamount to random in clashes between competitors with roughly comparable power (41). Power being hard to measure, strategists can rarely know how costly a war will be. Predictions of casualties in the 1991 Gulf War, for example, were too low by an order of magnitude (10). Strategists commonly miscalculate the best strategy in a given context, for example, seeing the offense as having the advantage on the eve of World War I while expecting the defense to dominate in World War II. With profound uncertainty encumbering military analysis, defining the national security interest of the state becomes arbitrary, Hironaka argues.
A refreshing look at re-conceptualizing the concept of polarity, Benjamin Zala’s “Polarity Analysis and Collective Perceptions of Power: The Need for a New Approach” attempts to offer a new approach in bypassing the definitional, conceptual, and measurement confusions plaguing research on polarity. Seeking to methodologically distance itself from the traditional scholarship on polarity, which revolves around distribution of resources/material capabilities, positional analysis, and hegemonic behavior, Zala proposes an approach that concentrates on perception, agency, and performativity. The author’s proposal, to a strong extent, contrasts the body of literature produced after the end of the Cold War, which brought about the expansive debate over unipolarity, with the debate ranging from modes of counterbalancing, to traditional considerations, to soft-balancing, to scholarly disputes over durability/stability, to the peacefulness and structural coherence of the new unipolar system. Zala’s concern is to provide the theoretical justification for a shift in the operationalization of polarity from explanatory and positional considerations based on capabilities and resources to an ordering concept where status is privileged over capabilities. The author’s attempt at such theory-development revolves around two general approaches: 1) utilizing the notion of perception to qualify status and polar ordering, and 2) offering a case study from the Cold War when the U.S. attempted to restructure the bipolar system into a tripolar configuration by elevating China to polar status.
John Thompson has been thinking deeply about American politics and foreign policy for almost fifty years. Previously, he has written luminously about the Progressive era and Woodrow Wilson. Now, he has integrated the conclusions of several important articles that he has written over the years and congealed his thinking about the motivations undergirding America’s assumption of global responsibilities.
In his first inaugural address, in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt reassured a country consumed by the Great Depression that Americans would “face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of unity.” Yet at times of great political challenge, agreement on a clear, resounding objective does not guarantee unity of effort inside political movements. National movements provide an extreme example of this problem. They can ill afford what Nelson Mandela, one of the leading figures of the African National Congress, in 1976 called “the luxury of division and disunity.”  Yet many are riven by those same internecine forces even as they fight for freedom and rights through national independence.
One could not ask for a more timely book than Hal Brands’s What Good is Grand Strategy? In the same month that Brands’s book was published a rather important figure in American political life offered his own answer. As reported by David Remnick in January 2014, President Obama dismissed the need for a new grand strategy with a statement seemingly designed to incur the wrath of political scientists and historians; “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now.” Frank Costigliola and Niall Ferguson, historians who probably agree on little else, argued in the pages of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal that the insights of a George Kennan were exactly what the president needed. Later in the year, Hillary Clinton, his former Secretary of State, voiced the same critical perspective about Obama’s supposed lack of interest in foundational strategic principles: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
Easy answers to the numerous problems posed by the proliferation of nuclear weapons will not be found in Paul Bracken’s The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics. In fact, Bracken has very little to say about what are often considered to be the perennial nuclear issues of the post-Cold War world. How should America, Western Europe and Israel deal with the problem of Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons? Will the nuclear rivalry between Pakistan and India become as stable as the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union eventually became? What countries are likely to pursue and/or acquire nuclear weapons in the coming decades? How can the nuclear proliferation regime be strengthened and extended into the twenty-first century?
In A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, Aaron Friedberg argues that fundamental ideological differences, coupled with tensions inherent in power transition, have placed the United States (U.S.) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on a path toward increasing competition, and, potentially, collision. For all its apprehensiveness about the trajectory of U.S.-China relations, the book offers a familiar proposal for American policymakers. Friedberg proposes to augment ongoing economic, social, and political exchanges between the two countries with more honesty and openness about Sino-American differences. He argues that a reduction in the U.S. appetite for cheap imports and credit, as well as the continued development of American military capabilities and political partnerships in Asia, should accompany this greater frankness. That Friedberg adds another influential voice calling for movement in this direction suggests the development of what may be an emerging mainstream view about China policy in American academic and policymaking circles.