The Struggle for Recognition in International Relations: Status, Revisionism, and Rising Powers
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This event took place on Thursday, October 10, 2019
GILES ALSTON: Good evening, and thank you all for joining us. On behalf of Rachel Meyer, the director of the Bard Program on Globalization and International Affairs (BGIA), everybody associated with the program, and our hosts here at the Carnegie Council, welcome to the second of our four James Chace Lectures for this autumn. Details of the next two are available on our website at BGIA.Bard.edu, and the featured topics I think are "Music and Memory" and "The Prospect of Conflict in Outer Space," so we are nothing if not eclectic.
The lecture series is named for James Chace, a unique individual in the area of studying and practicing international relations (IR), and I think he—both as a historian of how those in government cope with real-world problems, and as really the father of the BGIA program—would be particularly happy with this evening's event. It brings together two members of the extended Bard family.
You've got details and information about both of them on the slightly garish yellow sheet in front of you, but I did just want to underscore that Professor Pampinella has been a fellow at the Bard Center for Civic Engagement (CCE). He led the pioneering summer program that is run in conjunction with the State Department, which brings dozens of foreign academics here to study the making of U.S. foreign policy.
Professor Murray—who told me that she has been teaching since 8:30 this morning which makes this, I think, a feat of endurance for which we're very grateful—has been teaching at Bard since 2010, where she has been instrumental in establishing its Global and International Studies program, which she co-directs.
I do think James would also have appreciated the topic of tonight's event. Michelle has promised to provide us with the analytical tools for looking at one of the big challenges facing the United States at the moment. Stephen and Michelle will talk for about an hour. That will include time for a Q&A after 35–40 minutes.
Thank you again for coming. Stephen, let me hand it over to you.
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: Thanks so much. Everyone, welcome to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Again, my name is Stephen Pampinella. I'm at State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz. Dr. Michelle Murray, of course, is at Bard College.
One very quick thank-you before we jump right into it, because time is limited. We want to thank James Ketterer, who is watching from Egypt currently. Jim was formerly the dean of international studies at Bard College and hired me to be the academic director of the CCE program, where we hosted scholars from abroad to learn about U.S. foreign policy. Jim, if you're watching, thanks as always, and we look forward to you coming back home—temporarily, he's going back to Cairo.
That being said, let's talk about Dr. Murray's book, entitled The Struggle for Recognition in International Relations: Status, Revisionism, and Rising Powers. This is a book that makes important contributions to international relations theory, particularly constructivism, and it also has significant policy implications for the U.S.-China relationship today.
With that being said, let's jump right in. I think the first question to ask is one that sets the stage for our audience, both here and watching at home. Dr. Murray, could you please tell us: What is the conventional wisdom on power transitions among rising and declining powers in international relations, and how does your book challenge that conventional wisdom?
MICHELLE MURRAY: Great. Thank you, Steve.
The conventional wisdom on power transitions in international relations is twofold. The first is that they are intrinsically destabilizing to the international order. Put simply, power transitions usually end in war.
The second is that the primary cause of this conflict during a power transition is differential rates of growth among the great powers. That is, power transitions are principally a material phenomenon. It's the growing material power of one state and the declining material power of another that sets the stage for conflict. The logic here is pretty straightforward: As a rising power gets more powerful, it wants influence in the system that's commensurate with that power. At the very same time, the established power fears that rising power's growth and tries to contain that power. It's those incompatible preferences—the established power's desire to keep things as they are, the rising power's desire to change them—that leads to conflict.
I should say there's something very appealing about this argument. It captures something that seems right about power transitions. Throughout history, rising powers have traditionally been revisionist powers. They engage in aggressive, expansionist foreign policy. It captures something about that.
But in my book, I argue against both of those points. In the first instance, I make the observation simply that not all power transitions do end in war. We have examples—depending on how you count—throughout history of rising powers being able to rise without starting conflict. So, shift in the distribution of power alone is not a sufficient cause of conflict during a power transition.
We'll talk about this a bit later, I think, but one canonical case of this is the rise of the United States. The United States rose to world power status at the turn of the 20th century, and we didn't have great-power war with Britain. That's an important case.
Second, I argue that power transitions are principally a social phenomenon, not a material phenomenon. That is, they're about rising powers trying to establish great-power identity. That means great powers want status, and I think that power transitions are importantly about a struggle for status.
Establishing an identity, achieving status in the system, I argue, requires recognition. You can't be something without other actors recognizing you as it, you can't have status. The example I always use is, my parents might think I'm the greatest IR scholar in the world, but that doesn't matter because I need recognition from the people who matter in order to have that status in the profession. The same thing with rising powers, they need recognition in order to live the kind of life in international affairs that they want to live.
For me, that's what power transitions are fundamentally about. They're trying to secure a place atop a social hierarchy in the international order, and they're trying to cope with the uncertainty that this process brings to them. Most basically, my book offers a social theory of power transitions, which is a direct contradiction I should say or challenge to the idea that these are really just about shifts in the material balance of power.
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: The social element of this theory is quite fascinating. Could you describe in a little more detail what a social theory of power transitions might entail? In particular, could you describe where revisionism comes from? How does revisionism by a rising power emerge in your theory?
MICHELLE MURRAY: The short answer to this is that I say revisionism is a social construct. Essentially, there's nothing that makes a state inherently a revisionist power. Revisionism is in the eye of the beholder. Different states engaging in the very same objective behavior sometimes are perceived as being revisionist and sometimes are perceived as being legitimate. It's that social process of recognition that shapes this.
The argument in the book is quite complicated, so I'm going to try to be relatively simple. If you're really interested in social theory, there's a lot more there.
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: And you should be.
MICHELLE MURRAY: The basics of it is that mine is a social theory of power transitions because I suggest that a lot of the material competition that we see out there in the world—the wars, the security dilemmas, the arms races—are at their core about the social anxieties that rising powers have as they try to secure their status in the system, and they're worried that the established powers in the system won't recognize them as such. That's the core idea that animates the book, that the material competition that I say the conventional wisdom captures is at its root social, and it grows out of the anxiety that rising powers have about establishing their identity. That's the first piece.
The second piece is that whether or not this aggressive behavior is viewed as threatening or legitimate is a function of the social relationships that the great powers have. It's not just simply about those shifts in the balance of power, but it's about the social structures that relate those states to each other. These are the two broad steps of the argument, where I say social factors decisively shape state behavior and shape the outcome of the power transition. I'll flush out each of those pieces in a little bit more detail, because I think it gives us the tools to think about some of the implications that Steve alluded to.
In the first piece—state behavior—why is it that rising powers pursue risky and aggressive foreign policies? Why do they tend to be expansionist? I begin with the simple assumption that rising powers want to be recognized. That's what I said, that they are fundamentally trying to establish a status in the system. But the process of establishing an identity is a deeply uncertain process because it relies on—in fact, it depends on—the uncertain responses of other states. Like I said, you have to be recognized in order to have a status, but you never actually know if another state or another power is going to recognize you. They fear being misrecognized, and this makes them feel socially insecure.
To cope with this uncertainty, I argue, and to retain some control over the meaning of their identity, states anchor their aspirant identity—their desire to be a great power—in what I call "symbolic material practices." What this means is that there are certain things that great powers have to do in order to be recognizable as great powers, in order for other actors in the system to look at them and say, "Hey, that's a great power." They possess certain kinds of military power. All states have some form of military power, more or less, but great powers have specific kinds, what I call "exemplary" military power. At the turn of the 20th century, it was battleships. That was the mark of a great power in the system.
Nuclear weapons arguably could be considered this, nowadays, aircraft carriers. If you are to be a world power, a superpower, you have a carrier fleet that allows you to project power throughout the system. These forms of power are sophisticated. They're difficult. They're a sign that a state is something special. They're not just a kind of regular old military power in the system.
In addition to building these particular kinds of capabilities, they also engage in certain kinds of foreign policies. Great powers are able to do things in the system that regular states can't. They might have a sphere of influence, for example, where there are weaker states that fall under their control. They have a seat at certain tables in international organizations. They have a voice in the international system that other states don't have.
I argue that as a rising power wants to establish its status, it starts to act like a great power. It does the things that great powers do in order to be seen that way. The function of this—or what those actions are doing—is that it's securing or making them feel a little more confident in their identity. The identity is insecure because it needs to be recognized in order to be real. So, as they're going out into the world looking for that recognition, the material world reflects back to them the identity that they seek, so they can say to themselves: "I look like a great power. I do the things that great powers do. Recognize me as a great power."
But there's a dilemma to this, because those actions that these rising powers take in order to be recognizable as a great power in the system can be profoundly destabilizing. Building a carrier fleet, building a fleet of battleships, and acquiring nuclear weapons threaten other states, and those states might react by trying to stop you from doing that. It sets off a spiral where states end up engaging in aggressive behavior in order to be recognized, which then has the unexpected consequence of prompting containment.
That's my answer to why rising powers act so aggressively and are expansionist. It's that social anxiety about wanting to be recognized. How they cope with that is by building these capabilities, engaging in expansionism.
The second piece of the argument is about the outcome of the power transition. All rising powers behave this way, but not all rising powers prompt suspicion among the established powers. Not all rising powers who are doing these things are understood to be threats to the international order. For me, why that's the case depends on recognition. It depends on whether the established powers recognize these states as legitimate great powers or as illegitimate great powers.
When a rising power is recognized, not only is its identity reaffirmed—it's getting that acknowledgement, that recognition that it wants, it's achieving the status that it desires in the international system—but its power is also legitimated. Recognition has a function of legitimating power, of saying: "You are entitled to have an aircraft carrier. You're entitled to this sphere of influence without the interference of other great powers."
A recognized rising power has a right to alter the norms and rules of the system. It's one of the things that great powers can do, they can help define what the international order is. Its power, put simply, is understood to be for legitimate purposes. That's what recognition does. As a rising power comes up and it's acting aggressively, that aggression is essentially understood to be okay because you are a great power, and great powers are authorized to act in these sets of ways.
When a rising power is not recognized, however, its military power is constructed as illegitimate and as a threat to the international order. Misrecognized rising powers are viewed as threats that need to be contained, and they're understood to have revisionist intentions. That's where the label of "revisionism" comes. It doesn't originate out of an objective assessment of a foreign policy behavior, but rather out of the social perception that established powers have.
As a consequence, the established powers respond, like I was saying, with military buildups of their own to contain that rising power's influence in the system, and to maintain their own position in the international order.
Recognition, I argue in the book, is more likely to emerge when there's what some scholars have called a "positive identity link" between the rising power and the established power that essentially shrinks the distance between them. A shared identity presumes that two states can identify with each other in ways that enable them to understand themselves as belonging to a single community. As a rising power emerges, if that established power views them or can understand them as part of the same kind of "team"—for lack of a better word—then they're able to recognize them and allow them to rise peacefully.
I should be clear here. This membership on the same team is not about material interests. It's not that these great powers share the same interests in a certain part of the world or have compatible preferences. It's about understanding themselves as being the same kind of state, as being the same kind of great power, as being part of a single community.
For me it's those two pieces—how social anxiety prompts expansionist foreign policy, but then in turn, how that is perceived by the established powers and under what conditions it's understood to be legitimate.
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: Interesting. The two cases, Dr. Murray, that you use to illustrate this theory are from the turn of the 20th century. We have two power transitions going on in that period, the United Kingdom and Imperial Germany, but also the United Kingdom and the United States. One of these, of course, ends in war—the United Kingdom and Imperial Germany, you have World War I—but the other ends peacefully with the United Kingdom and the United States.
How does that particular case illustrate your theory? What's going on in this case, and how does that demonstrate the validity of a social theory of power transitions?
MICHELLE MURRAY: At the turn of the 20th century—the late 1890s or so—interestingly, right at the same time just about that Imperial Germany is building its battle fleet and is starting to think of itself as a world power, the United States is doing the same thing. The United States had a history of being aggressive and expansionist. It expanded across the entire continent, hit the Pacific Ocean, and then as Mahan said, "began to look outward," to conceptualize itself as a world power, as having a position in the world.
Before 1890-ish, the United States had historically maintained a defensive military posture, which required a very small navy. It didn't build a big naval force. There were lots of reasons, like a suspicion of a strong central state and other things that kept its military on the smaller side. It wasn't in any kind of position to project power out into the world. But in 1890 it abandoned that defensive position and undertook a sweeping program of naval expansion that just jettisoned the United States to world power status fairly quickly. In a very short amount of time, it had one of the most powerful navies in the world. It created its navy nearly overnight, and it had this large fleet of battleships that was designed purposefully to rival European powers, most notably Britain.
Britain at the time is the hallmark of a world power. It's the state that everyone is emulating. To be a world power is to look like Britain, and, of course, their fleet is what governed their global empire. These were the markers of world power status at the time.
This emergence of the United States was a direct challenge to British interests and its position in the world, particularly in the Western Hemisphere. At the time, the British have a lot of interests in the Western Hemisphere, a lot of commerce, trade, and economic interests in the region. Suddenly, the United States is in the position to disrupt that, so there's a direct threat to British interests.
The table is set, actually. These two powers had gone to war twice in the previous hundred years, they had an antagonistic relationship, they viewed each other as adversaries for a good part of that time. There's not the kind of feel-good relationship that we understand the United States and Britain to have today. So, there was every reason to expect war.
Yet, what we see is a peaceful power transition. Instead, Britain recognizes the United States, which constructs its foreign policy and therefore constructs its foreign policy as legitimate, facilitating its peaceful rise. To be sure, the United States acted aggressively, but even so, Britain did not perceive the United States as a threat.
There's a line in the book that I draw from work that I think Dale Copeland did: The U.S. took seven or eight times as much territory as Imperial Germany at that time, so the United States is out conquering the world. The United States is behaving aggressively. It's doing all the things that an aspiring great power does: it builds this navy out of nowhere, it suddenly has a sphere of influence in the Caribbean and in the Pacific, it's demanding a seat at the table in international negotiations. So, it's starting to act like a world power. It's engaging in all of those material practices that I theorize about in the book.
That's the first piece. The United States is behaving aggressively. But Britain then, in the second piece, recognizes it. What led to this outcome?
Things didn't start all rosy. It wasn't just simply friendship from the beginning. Recognition, I argue, became possible when diplomats in the United States and Britain began to frame their interactions in a different way, specifically in terms of a shared Anglo-American collective identity.
There was a moment during the Venezuelan Crisis in 1895 where this talk of Anglo-Saxonism—which was a powerful discourse at the time; it was popular in the United States, it was popular in Britain, it was a kind of English-speaking nationalism based on shared history; there was a racial dimension to it, a cultural dimension to it, a language dimension to it—mobilized around foreign policy to essentially argue that the United States and Britain were on the same team, that they were part of this shared collective that had a similar goal and purpose in the world. Once framed in these terms, the issues at stake between the United States and the United Kingdom shifted from being indivisible—that is, zero-sum, as they were between the United States and Imperial Germany. Every battleship that Germany built was nonnegotiably a threat to England, not the case with the United States.
So, they became compatible. When these issues became compatible, they became subject to negotiation. It didn't mean that everybody had the same preferences or the same interests, but they now understood their interests as something that they could negotiate with each other. Again, to contrast it to Imperial Germany, that was never the case. There was never space for negotiation over, for example, Germany's battleship program. This was made possible by reframing their interests as part of a common project, by fighting against the other world powers together as Anglo-Saxons.
This is a cultural discourse. It's not just simply that they were white and English-speaking and shared the same kind of racial history. That has been the case since the beginning. There is something that's mobilized around this discourse to make a new kind of argument about the social relationship between Britain and the United States that gets mobilized to promote cooperation between the two. What you see then, is that they managed to negotiate something that was in the beginning not negotiable in Venezuela.
During the Spanish-American War, Britain helps essentially facilitate at various key moments the United States' rise and victory in that war, essentially refusing to mediate on behalf of European powers like Spain. Then, they wrap it up when they negotiate over the Panama Canal, essentially saying that this is going to be our space. Again, Britain has a material interest in not letting that happen, but because of this shared frame that they develop, that kind of cooperation is made possible.
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: Fascinating. It's a really interesting account of this pivotal period in U.S. history and U.S. foreign policy history that I think really robustly brings in IR theory, which people sometimes think is too complex and doesn't have relevance to the real world, but I think clearly in the historical discussion you have in the book, it does.
Then, there's also a policy dimension to this as well. We, of course, are in the midst of—well, some might debate whether or not it has begun or will in the future—a power transition that is occurring between the United States and China, China being a rising power given its vast economic growth, the United States, if not stagnating, in decline.
It leads us to wonder, then, after reading this book, what potentially can we learn about this power transition from your work? Is there a way that the United States can legitimate China as a great power and ensure that this power transition also ends in peace, or is conflict inevitable?
MICHELLE MURRAY: I think that is the question. That's why somebody who looks at my book will be interested in reading my book—unless you're a history buff and want to just read about these old cases. That's where the payoff is, it's where we get something useful. So, think: Okay, what do these historical cases, this theoretical framework, what lessons does it bring to current international politics?
I think it's also interesting with the cases of the book to think about this question because oftentimes when talking about China people refer to Imperial Germany, and they ask, "Is Asia 1914 Europe? Is it going to be same kind of thing?"—entangling alliances, rising powers, declining powers. There are a lot of the same dynamics.
That analogy and comparison is made quite often. One of the things the book does is say, "Yes, maybe, but also there was this other thing going on at that time, too. There was another power transition happening, and so we should look at both of these cases side by side and think, All right. What lessons can we draw for the future?"
I have a couple of things to raise. My ideas on this are evolving, in part because U.S. foreign policy is evolving, every day.
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: Every day.
MICHELLE MURRAY: I think a lot has changed since the 2016 election, and a lot of the stable currents in U.S. foreign policy are disrupted, which on the one hand makes prediction difficult, and on the other hand is also a moment of opportunity because all of the forces that we think discipline U.S. foreign policy are perhaps up for grabs. Anyway, I'll lay out a few ideas that I have here.
The first thing I think is the toughest obstacle to a peaceful power transition, and it's not about China, it's about the United States and the way in which the United States understands itself and its role in the world. For quite a long time—but particularly since the end of the Cold War—the United States has understood itself to be the one indispensable nation, that it was destined to "rule the world," for lack of a better word, that it has a kind of special providence to order the system, created the liberal international order that we see in the world today. I think if the United States wants to facilitate China's peaceful rise, then it's going to have to accept that it is not the sole arbiter of the system. It can't decide simply by itself what it means to be a great power, and that its vision for global leadership is not universal. In the first instance, there's a recognition of ourselves that has to happen, a recognition that the narratives that underpin our identity need to change.
That's tough, right? Identities are powerful things. The narratives that underpin them, particularly in the United States, are deep, they're historical, they tend to be unchanging. They vacillate, but they're in the same lane most of the time. I think that's a really hard question because I think the answers require something quite difficult to happen within the United States in the first instance.
Related to this, I think it includes recognizing that the liberal international order is a Western order, it's an American order. It's not neutral. It places the United States at the center. Some of our colleagues in the field—Bill Wohlforth and Stephen Brooks—argue that that order, in fact, is designed to perpetuate American hegemony. It's not simply to bring goodness to the world and prosperity to the world, it's to perpetuate and essentially let American hegemony live forever. There needs to be a recognition that that is the case.
The two dominant approaches currently to China in U.S. foreign policy do not recognize this about the United States, or de-center the United States from this process. This is obviously true with containment. The point of containment is to prevent China from rising, so obviously there is very little recognition going on there.
But I think perhaps more interestingly, engagement strategies are also not sufficient in this regard, because the goal of engagement is to bring China into the U.S.-led international order, it's to socialize China into Western norms, into America's system of play. So, it does nothing to destabilize the U.S.'s role in defining that order and in leading that order. It's about socialization, not recognition. I think the raw material of U.S. foreign policy right now is not particularly well-equipped to do this.
Second—something else that makes this quite difficult—the U.S. and U.K. power transition teaches us that a shared identity that constructs a rising power and an established power as part of a single community makes recognition possible, or at least makes recognition easier. There's not a lot of raw material to work with between the United States and China. This is not like Anglo-Saxonism at the turn of the 20th century. Anglo-Saxonism, like I said, was a racial and cultural identity construction, and there's no equivalent in play between the United States and China, and indeed a great deal of distance between those two. We don't have a shared history, we don't have common narratives to draw from and create. So, the raw material is not there.
That being said, before the 2016 election I would have said that climate change is a potential area where that narrative could be constructed, an exogenous shock to the system that would create the discursive space to place the United States and China on the same team. Interestingly, I think China has—even if only rhetorically—positioned itself as a leader on climate. I think after the 2016 election it came out and said, "We're prepared to lead in this area." I think there are arguments that its material rise will be aided if they do indeed do that, if they corner the market on solar and wind and things like that. That might actually jettison them materially.
But at the same and with the election of Trump, that has become sort of demobilized off the United States' set of interests. It's reducing its salience. That being said, I think the idea that China and the United States might share a common fate connected to the climate, could be an area where those identities could be constructed.
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: Interesting. I agree that before 2016 it would be unlikely that the United States would be able to rethink its own sense of self, its own identity, and potentially develop a narrative that could find commonalities with China. But it's certainly, I think, true that the longstanding sense of who we are in the United States has been dramatically changed, or at least is in significant flux under the Trump administration. Certainly, Donald Trump does not believe in the kind of liberal exceptionalist identity that we've had that justifies U.S. hegemony, so if there was ever a moment to loosen things up and make possible the kind of shared identity that we're discussing between the United States and China, it would be subsequent elections.
Although, as many say, foreign policy tends to be less of a relevant issue or something that ordinary Americans don't pay much attention to, this coming election and the subsequent next ones will be quite significant for trying to suss out this relationship between these two powers and the ways they think about themselves.
MICHELLE MURRAY: I think one thing that's also interesting about Trump is that Trump is willing to call out American hypocrisy—not consistently.
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: In some ways.
MICHELLE MURRAY: He does do that in some ways. He perpetuates American hypocrisy at the same time. He scrambles things, because those narratives that have been so dominant in U.S. foreign policy don't always emerge out of the discourses.
I think what I worry about in terms of subsequent elections is that there's going to be such a forceful reaction to Trump that it's going to double-down in fact on the narrative, that that space he's opening for redefining, actually will close off in that you actually will see more consolidation behind those ideas.
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: I also tend to think of this in some ways in terms of political parties. I think it's fair to say that the Republican Party has more or less bought into Trumpism—that if you are a sitting U.S. senator, if you want to be reelected, you have to support the president.
For Democrats, some potentially want to go back to the old narrative about liberal exceptionalism, but you do see some questioning of that among some Democratic candidates. Really more than anyone else, I would say it's someone like Bernie Sanders. Whether or not it has been fleshed out, though, is a key question. Some people scoff at the notion of Bernie Sanders having a foreign policy. I at some point probably would agree with that, too, but whether or not some candidate in the Democratic Party can challenge that dominant narrative, I think that moment is now. What it produces, though, is unknown. I think that's wide open. It's interesting to think about then how this will play out in terms of national identity in terms of the different parties that we have in the United States going forward.
QUESTION: My name is Larry Bridwell, and I teach international business at Pace University.
Could you apply your concepts to what's going on in Turkey now, and take it maybe ten years later, and say what's going to be the role of Turkey in the Middle East?
MICHELLE MURRAY: I'm not an expert in Turkish foreign policy, so I can't say a ton, but I do think that the Middle East is an area where you can see Turkey starting to want to carve out a sphere of influence as its space where it can be a dominant power. It chased Europe for so long and has been rejected. It's seeking recognition, frankly, from Europe and not receiving that and turning itself toward the Middle East, so I can definitely see that as an area where Turkey tries to ascend.
I'm not sure what that will mean in terms of stability. At the moment, it doesn't look like a particularly stable situation, but I think the intuition that Turkey is looking toward this area, my framework could apply to that.
Whether that's part of the same kind of framework of power transitions and great-power status, that might be a piece of it, but I think it's more on a regional scale than a global one. I don't think Turkey will ascend to be a global power via its Middle East policy, but it certainly can establish itself as a regional great power or regional power through those means.
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: Then, the notion here of Turkey trying to claim a sphere of influence I think is quite relevant, especially thinking about the—I think it was just today that the Turkish military launched a ground invasion of Northeast Syria, where the Kurds have political control and are seeking to dismantle that governance arrangement. So, clearly there's something happening here in terms of Turkey trying to claim some authority over parts of Syria, and that's certainly something that a state that is claiming to have some kind of status in international relations would want, and it seems they're doing that. It doesn't contribute to stability, certainly.
QUESTION: My name is Peter Russell. Thanks for your provocative thoughts. It made me wonder if you've thought about it in terms of the European Union and Europe.
It strikes me that there are two possible dimensions: One is the European Union as a whole is a great power, sitting next to the United States, China, and Russia, and the second is the process that has gone on over the years that the European Union has been established, where through the accession process the European Union itself has brought in a range of powers, some of which, like Poland, are really beginning to see themselves as one of the majors within the EU context.
MICHELLE MURRAY: I think on that last point you see a lot of internal discord within the European Union, particularly since the 2008 financial crisis, a challenging of German power essentially, an unwillingness to accept the European Union as simply a vehicle for German power.
I think the European Union is an interesting example. I'm not sure it fits my framework all that well. In some sense, it's almost like a post-recognition story.
When I first think of the European Union—in terms of my framework—I think about the founding, the emergence of what became the European Union with the Coal and Steel Community. There, there's actually a recognition of a different kind that happens between France and Germany, where they say to continue to live as independent great powers will spell our demise. So, in some sense they recognized the potential danger of the struggle for recognition, which certainly their history in the 20th century has played out tragically.
In some ways, I see the European Union as a transcendence of that. It's an actor that has tried to leave the struggle for recognition behind by creating institutions that in some ways make it impossible. That doesn't mean that there aren't status plays that happen within the European Union, but they happen in a very different institutional context than they would in a kind of pure anarchy, which was what was happening at the turn of the 20th century, and which is what is happening with the United States today.
I also don't see the European Union as a great power in the traditional sense, because they're not building the military capabilities that we see great powers pursue. In that sense, they're not following the logic that I lay out. All of their attempts to build a European military have failed. I think that could be because the importance of military power to state identity is still very nationalist in its orientation, so they don't want to delegate that kind of authority up to a supranational organization. But I think because they don't have that military arm or face—they dominate in all kinds of other ways, but they haven't entered traditional great-power politics—in some ways it's a disavowal of recognition. It's kind of a post-recognition story.
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: Is it possible, though, that the expansion of the European Union to the East has triggered an identity crisis for another power, for Russia, in particular?
MICHELLE MURRAY: Yes, yes, yes.
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: I think Russia is a case in which your framework could be applicable.
MICHELLE MURRAY: Absolutely. I think the relationship between Europe and Russia is very much a case study in the struggle for recognition. Russia has had a historically fraught relationship with Europe. Russia is a kind of liminal European power. The question of, "Is Russia in Europe or out of Europe?" has always animated foreign policy since the beginning of time, it seems. So, there's that identity story laying in. That traditional sphere of influence in the East—Poland, the former Soviet space—is understood in Russia to be not on the table for Europe. So, when Europe starts expanding into those spaces, that's a kind of affront to Russian status.
At the same time, I think you see Russia—I always get a little bit frustrated when people talk about Russia as a rising power, because Russia's not a rising power. Russia's a declining power, but it's a terribly status-insecure power. Russia wants to restore its greatness in the system, and Eastern Europe is the battleground for that in many ways. You see it developing new kinds of weaponry, these new forms of nuclear weapons, these even more explosive bombs.
Russia in the Middle East, in terms of—
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: In Syria as well.
MICHELLE MURRAY: In Syria acting as a power—that it has been able to dictate in many ways—to limit U.S. power in that region by essentially inserting itself there. These are all ways in which I think Russia is trying to secure its status, or at least alleviate the anxiety it has about its status in the system.
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: Interesting. Other questions.
QUESTION: Hi. İlgü Özler, political science, SUNY New Paltz, and director of SUNY Global Engagement Program in New York City. Thank you so much for this great presentation.
My question has to do with the liberal political order. We throw out the words "liberal political order," yet we know the liberal political order is not really a political order, it's an economic order. Really, politically the United States never prioritized a liberal political order over an economic order in its foreign policy, and neither did it when it comes to the construction of a multilateral system internationally.
I'm just wondering, if we are talking about construction, is there any room for prioritizing a liberal political order, in the true sense we're talking about, with the ideals that were set by an organization like the United Nations, and also thinking about—is there no room for the United States to turn to that order as prioritizing to bring in Chinas, bring in Russias, and bring Turkeys into that order?
Some of it already is there structurally, so why not start to talk about that as opposed to just saying that we're going to go with the old-fashioned way of balancing each other out? If we're constructing something out of this, why not construct that?
MICHELLE MURRAY: I think that's definitely an area of possibility. When I was putting my ideas together, I thought the international liberal order is neither international nor liberal. It's neither of those things, even though we think it is.
I think there's actually another problem that's underlying this, which is that I don't think that the United States and China have the same kind of vision for what world powers do in the world. The United States, particularly post-9/11, has been extremely interventionist—humanitarian intervention, the spread of democracy by economic coercion and military power. China in many ways is a return to that old idea of sovereignty in some respects, but they have I think a much more conservative idea of intervention, that great powers shouldn't be intervening in the world in the way that the United States has.
So, I think in order for the United Nations to be a viable space for this to be constructed, those ideas about what it means to be a world power—what the responsibility of a world power is—have to be negotiated. As I said, particularly post-9/11, I think the United States has a very aggressive idea of what their role in the world is, which is quite interventionist, and which I don't think many—
You see that with China. You see China saying, "We're going to stand for the developing countries." It plays this interesting dual role, where it's at moments saying, "I'm a great power. Let me lead," and at other times stepping back and saying, "No, I represent the forgotten ones in the world, and I'm here with their voices to stop the United States."
I think that would have to be negotiated first, in order for the United Nations to become that kind of forum because there is still that fundamental incompatibility, I think, between the United States' and China's vision that is potentially an area that would be that engine of conflict, if one was to emerge.
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: I think there are two things here. There are identities here and strategies. If the United States defines itself as a liberal exceptionalist state, as this actor that's going to spread democracy around the world, it's not going to share authority with anyone. So, as long as we retain that identity, it is impossible. If you have that strategy, then all you want to do is be a liberal hegemon and lead the world in that way. Again, in that strategy, China has no place.
MICHELLE MURRAY: Also, I think part of the U.S. self-concept would have to be to accept a world order that isn't—whether the world order is liberal or not liberal, the United States thinks it's liberal or at least calls it that, despite its own illiberal policies throughout history. The United States might have to accept some things it doesn't want to, because those things are at odds with its professed exceptionalism.
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: There would have to be more pluralism in the world order than at least the U.S. version of liberalism allows. We'll see if that occurs.
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Alice, and I'm a Student Ambassador at the Carnegie Council.
I think this plays off what you guys were just speaking about. I'm curious about the depth of shared identity in the Britain-U.S. transition and then also in the potential U.S.-China transition. How deep did the identity or interest-sharing go in the 1900s, and how deep would it have to go today? Put differently, do only heads of state need to recognize shared interests, or does some portion of the public need to as well?
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: Great question.
MICHELLE MURRAY: Definitely some portion of the public. Anglo-Saxonism wasn't just an elite phenomenon, it had appeals within broader society. That is not to say that it bubbled up from the ground. It's a more complicated process than that, and I think leaders, heads of state, are rhetorical leaders for lack of a better word, but they have that rhetorical power to shape. They can agenda-set, they can shape the kind of boundaries of the narrative, but those narratives can't be invented out of thin air.
So, there was that raw material: Anglo-Saxonism existed as an idea, as a movement. It had support in popular circles within both the United States and Britain. It was mobilized by leaders, who used it in order to construct that story.
I think, on the one hand, you can't invent it out of thin air and so there has to be something there to mobilize. On the other hand, though, it does also create space for agency and space for leaders to actually construct arguments. If you have a particularly astute leader—I think that's partially what you were leading toward; there are these moments, and we might be in one of those moments—where a leader can tap into something. I don't know the answer to what that would be. Like I said, I thought that climate might be an area where that argument could be made. We don't have the cultural shared resources between the United States and China, so it's not going to be that kind of story.
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: I wonder if the challenges to the white racial identity that we have in the United States, which are quite prominent now in domestic politics—let's say, Black Lives Matter, for example—that if the emergence of a truly multiracial democracy in the United States, does that create some room potentially to see other rising powers that are not white, for lack of a better word, as great powers? That's something I have a little bit of, I guess, hope. How far does that get us? Probably not very far, but I think that's one way in which those cultural resources could potentially emerge. That's one possibility, I think.
MICHELLE MURRAY: I think that would also involve some kind of reckoning on the part of the United States with its own exceptionalism and that that narrative of American exceptionalism is a kind of white story.
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: Yes, absolutely.
MICHELLE MURRAY: So, perhaps demographic change itself will eventually produce that reckoning. I don't know. I think that's a great potential idea, but then it's not next year, that's happening at some unknown point in the future.
QUESTION: As you were answering the previous questions, you mentioned exceptionalism, and I was wondering what your reaction is to Samantha Power's latest book and also the way people have been reviewing it, because if there's an example of exceptionalism at the United Nations, it's Samantha Power.
MICHELLE MURRAY: I haven't read her book, so I don't know the argument she makes in it. I've only seen the way it has been covered in the press. But I do think that particular kind of strand of thinking about the United States' role in the world is right in line with American exceptionalism, that we have an obligation to save people throughout the world, regardless of the consequences that that might produce. I think, in some ways, it's very symptomatic of a kind of American exceptionalism that has defined the U.S. role in the world at least since the end of the Cold War, that kind of rampant humanitarianism that the United States sees for itself.
I think it's a difficult question because there are certainly instances—and she's shaped so profoundly by Rwanda, which is a case where the United States could have done a lot at very little cost but didn't, for a complicated set of reasons. At the same time, I see her as also symbolic of the problems of American exceptionalism, that there's a kind of rhetoric that goes with America that isn't always borne out on the ground, and it's that kind of disconnect between that—
I saw an interesting criticism of her book—again, I haven't read it—that she spends all this time talking about how she pressured the president on Syria, that she wanted the United States to do something in Syria, but there's not a word in the book about the U.S. drone program and the number of people that the United States has killed in the world with its drone program.
That's one of the problems with the way in which the United States understands itself in the world, it doesn't acknowledge what U.S. power has actually brought in its totality, it only talks about saving people, how the United States is saving people and freeing people. I think it's that side of U.S. exceptionalism that is a problem as China rises.
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: I also haven't read the book yet, so let me preface this with that disclaimer. To think of another example where humanitarianism seems to go wrong in a sense is the Libyan intervention in 2011. The United States with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies bombs the regime of Muammar Qaddafi until it effectively collapses under the weight of rebel forces. While this begins with good intentions—to try to defend the city of Benghazi from an atrocity—it then ends as we have Libya today, effectively in a state of civil war and various warlords in charge of various parts of the country. Our desire to want to help people and preserve human life has actually led to a quite dangerous situation now in Libya and also a dangerous situation for North Africa.
At the end of the day, what good can that version of humanitarianism be if it has resulted—at least in this one empirical case—in a destabilizing war? That's a challenge that I don't think liberal humanitarians have reckoned with just yet.
MICHELLE MURRAY: I think that's a conversation fundamentally about U.S. identity because it's a conversation where the United States actually talks about not just the brave face of its foreign policy, but also the difficulties it produces in the world. That doesn't enter the way that we conceptualize our role in the world.
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: No, it doesn't, and it's part of that reckoning I think that you mentioned earlier. We do need to account for the excesses of the kind of liberal foreign policy that we have enacted. That will be part of trying to develop some new approach that could recognize other great powers.
QUESTION: Hi. I'm Craig Charney. I teach about non-state actors in international politics at Bard.
I'm going to ask you the question I told you I wanted to ask: How does your approach apply to the rise of would-be states or state actors? I'm thinking in particular of, let's say, the struggles for recognition of the African National Congress in South Africa, of Solidarność in Poland, or in contrast, we could talk about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) today as well.
MICHELLE MURRAY: I think these actors are certainly struggling for recognition. I think it's recognition of a different kind, it's recognition of their existence as legitimate actors, in some cases as states. So, I don't think it's the same kind of struggle for status in the way that I'm talking about it in the book as great-power status, but it certainly involves challenging powerful states in order to get them to pay attention to them.
One of the things that's interesting about al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, there's a way in which they're exposing U.S. foreign policy. The United States is this unbelievably powerful actor that is brought to its knees for a moment by something that's not recognizable, there's no state that we can point to and say: "You don't have all the traditional markings and trappings of power in the system, yet you're able to essentially shape U.S. foreign policy in important ways." I think that capturing the attention of a powerful actor gets to the essence of what I'm looking at.
QUESTIONER [Mr. Charney]: I'm also struck by your notion of identity, because it seems to me that it actually has a lot of applicability here.
For example, when Mandela and de Klerk finally sat down around the table, they discovered that they were both talking a language of rights, a language of liberalism. When the Poles met around the round table between Solidarność and the communist government, they said, "Let us solve this as Poles"—nationalism was a common ground, actually. Perhaps the rhetoric actually somewhat enabled them to speak to each other.
On the other hand, if we look at ISIS, it is fundamentally opposed I think not just to U.S. foreign policy but to the basis of statehood today, not just Sykes-Picot, but to the notion of states as they exist. Thus, it would be an almost indigestible lump for the international system, wouldn't it be?
MICHELLE MURRAY: I think that's absolutely right, yes.
QUESTION: Anthony Faillace.
Is it your notion that the world's a better place or a worse place because the United States has this exceptional notion of itself—question number one? Question number two: Is it your sense that we're supposed to be accommodating China, or are we supposed to be trying to contain them, because that's an open question as well?
MICHELLE MURRAY: I don't view it as that kind of dichotomous—better place or worse place. I think U.S. power has brought a tremendous amount of stability to the world. I think it has brought prosperity to the world. I think it has done a lot of great things in the world, so I am not in any way just critical of U.S. foreign policy.
At the same time, I think U.S. leadership has not always—as Steve pointed out, look at Libya—we don't always account for the destructive faces of our foreign policy as well. Overall, I don't know if I would want to live in a world where China was the hegemon defining the order. I think there are a lot of good things that come out of U.S. power.
Your second question was, should the United States accommodate or contain China. I think it's neither of those things, because accommodation essentially would be the United States stepping away and saying, "China, you can rise, and you can have your sphere of influence, and you can take over the world."
QUESTIONER [Mr. Faillace]: Total retrenchment.
MICHELLE MURRAY: Right. Retrenchment, stepping back. Containment is also not the right thing, because containment is a recipe for war—if not an actual shooting war, certainly hostility.
I think that's the kind of needle that I'm trying to thread, to actually say that it's neither of those things. The United States shouldn't retreat from the world, but the United States has to find some kind of common space with China, where they recognize that China has a role to play, that China doesn't just simply fold in to the order as the United States has imagined it, but also gets to author it, or we get to author it together. Again, how that looks, how that would happen I think is a really difficult question.
QUESTIONER [Mr. Faillace]: That presupposes that the values are similar enough to do that, which is a huge question right now. The foreign policy community has gotten it completely wrong over the last 10 years or so. Our policy was always, "My god, we'll integrate them in the international system, they'll get richer, they'll be like us. And by the way, technology is going to mean that they're not going to be able to keep control of their population." Both of those premises have been dead wrong.
MICHELLE MURRAY: I agree on that absolutely, 100 percent.
QUESTIONER [Mr. Faillace]: But that reduces the scope for this common space that you're speaking of.
MICHELLE MURRAY: Right. It would involve a tremendous amount of imagination and invention potentially, but there are moments in history. If you view the world as this kind of social space and place that I think it is, that potential is there, but we need the conditions to be in place for those stories to be told. What that story is, I'm not entirely sure.
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: With that, I think we're out of time. Thank you all for joining us this evening. Thanks to the Carnegie Council especially, and thanks to Dr. Michelle Murray.
MICHELLE MURRAY: Thank you, Steve.
STEPHEN PAMPINELLA: Thank you so much. Enjoy the evening.