Worldviews of Aspiring Powers Review, Meredith Oyen

Worldviews of Aspiring Powers Review, Meredith Oyen

Reviewed by Meredith Oyen (University of Maryland Baltimore County)
Published on H-Diplo (April, 2013)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach 

Cover_LargeThe impact of domestic politics on foreign policy is a subject of long-standing interest for both historians of American foreign relations and political scientists concerned with international relations. A new volume edited by Henry R. Nau and Deepa M. Ollapally, Worldviews of Aspiring Powers: Domestic Foreign Policy Debates in China, India, Iran, Japan, and Russia, brings together prominent scholars from across the world to explore the domestic dimension of foreign policy in five important countries. The core argument of this book is that domestic debates powerfully affect foreign policy, sometimes exerting as much influence as external factors. The authors consider the implications of the contesting worldviews not only for each country’s foreign policy, but also for U.S. foreign policy responses. Worldviews of Aspiring Powers therefore offers both a model for future studies of domestic debates in other rising or aspiring powers as well as some thoughtful advice for policymakers.

In order to develop a common vocabulary for discussing and analyzing these debates across the countries under study, Nau’s introductory chapter discusses three aspects of foreign policy under debate everywhere: the scope, means, and goals of policy. By analyzing these three aspects across three broad categories of worldviews–national, regional, and global–he sets up a broad framework of twenty-seven possible worldviews, which the authors of the individual chapter then use as a guide to explore the unique variations of the country under their consideration. Nau makes clear from the outset that reality does not fit the generalized model perfectly, and each country under consideration possesses attributes that make it unique. 

The book’s title makes clear the rationale for selecting these five countries: they are all, in their own ways, “aspiring” to a position in the world they do not yet hold. Not all of them, however, are at comparable stages of development. Japan has risen, though its status as a regional military power is limited; China, India, and Russia are often viewed as rising powers, though each is in some sense “conflicted” about its status; Iran is a potential power, and perhaps the greatest embodiment of the idea of “aspiring.” Though all in a sense “aspiring,” the inclusion of these five governments of “Greater Asia” to the exclusion of others could use further explanation, even if that explanation is simply the limitations of time, travel, and scholarly contacts. That said, the editors themselves acknowledge the need to expand the study, and Deepa M. Ollapally’s conclusion begins to address how to apply their model to Brazil, South Africa, and Turkey.

Each of the five individual country studies consists of a single chapter that combines the research of a U.S.-based specialist with a specialist in the country under consideration. Together, they offer a model for how to think about each country’s foreign policy concerns and debates, as well as explaining where the opinions are coming from and why. International Relations (IR) theorists might find the model itself, as well as the conclusion that in all five countries a realist model dominates, to be the most striking result of the study. For historians interested in the foreign relations and policy choices of the individual countries, the chapters on the internal debates may prove quite useful in unpacking the patterns of debate and schools of thought as they’ve changed over time.

In the opening chapter on China, David Shambaugh and Ren Xiao examine the opinions of scholars of international relations and their publications, as well as public statements from officials and state-sponsored research institutes to reveal a “spectrum” of seven foreign policy worldviews. These range from the insular to the very internationally oriented (p. 49). The contradictions among these views lead the authors to conclude that China is a conflicted power, uncertain in its own identity, and this necessarily makes clear policy prescriptions for the United States difficult to formulate. The authors acknowledge the difficulty of parsing public opinion on foreign policy issues, from the nationalist rhetoric of Chinese “netizens” to the more critical assertions of dissidents, and therefore opt not to include these perspectives in their study.

In India, the main challenge in identifying domestic foreign policy debates is determining whose opinions really matter. Deepa M. Ollapally and Rajesh Rajagopalan focus on the opinions that seem to matter most, those within the government, with two caveats. The first is that personality is unusually important as a determining factor in India. The second caveat is that public opinion, when it matters, acts as a constraint or “veto” on issues of popular importance such as international nonproliferation policy (p. 75). Instead of a spectrum, Ollapally and Rajagopalan identify seven interlocking schools of thought, with a “standard nationalism” rooted in Jawaharlal Nehru and present since India’s founding at the center. This central idea, they suggest, has faced increasing competition from more globally oriented ideas that have gained popularity since the end of the Cold War. Despite the existence of much common ground between these schools of thought, policy toward the United States is, the authors suggest, the major point of dispute; they believe “all other differences in perspective are subsumed under this key issue” (p. 101). This point alone underscores the need for American policymakers to gain a better understanding of the debate in New Delhi.

The chapters on China and India both note the opaque nature of some foreign policy debates and the subsequent challenges for scholars attempting to dissect them, but Farideh Farhi and Saideh Lotfian had perhaps the most daunting challenge in attempting this analysis in Iran. The authors lack the robust publishing output of IR specialists in China or the media access to government offices in India. Instead, they relied on public speeches, sermons, and a far more limited academic literature in their attempt. These sources helped add nuance to the traditional conception of the Iranian domestic debate as a dichotomy between those emphasizing pragmatic geopolitical interest, and ideology. Farhi and Loftian identify Islamic Idealists, Regional Power Balancers, and Global Power Balancers as core worldviews, and break these groups down further based on their respective policy goals and the means through which they hope to achieve them. The authors highlight the role of a revolutionary Islamic and Iranian nationalism in shaping worldviews at every point along the spectrum, with the debate over how best to achieve security and status as a rising power remaining. The result is a conflicted identity in which advocates at either extreme cannot be completely successful.

In many respects, Japan is the odd man out in this study, with its relative economic prominence and its long-standing alliance with the United States. The internal debate then is less focused on how to balance or confront American actions and more on how to adjust policy strategies to an increasingly multipolar world. Basing their analysis on the work of “scholars, commentators, politicians and bureaucrats,” authors Narushige Michishita and Richard J. Samuels identify four worldviews based on their approach to two issues: the U.S. alliance (a foreign policy goal) and the use of force (a means to achieve it) (p. 151). The resulting perspectives identify broad approaches to Japan’s interaction with the world, which are then subdivided by other factors. They then attempt to remodel the debate, replacing the question of the use of force with Japan’s relationship with China, thereby exploring how Japan’s two most influential bilateral relationships affect its thinking about its foreign policy. The resulting four schools of thought, which range from deep integration to deep isolation, are not equally distributed among the foreign policy elite. The chapter argues that these ideas matter, but it also suggests that Japan’s interactions with other states and changing world events seem to have a greater impact on the Japanese calculus, suggesting the primacy of realist approaches based on hard power.

The final country chapter, which is about Russia, acknowledges the unique history of a once-and-future power enduring the pains of collapse and a changing world. Andrew C. Kuchins and Igor Zevelev look at political parties, experts, and other prominent voices in Russian debates to identify three dominant worldviews: pro-Western liberals, great power balancers, and nationalists (p. 184). Echoing a theme that recurs throughout the volume, namely the way in which national identity and self-perception shape debates, the authors suggest that the Russian sense of itself is greatly influenced by its relationship with the United States, as “old habits of measuring success or failure through a United States-centered prism have endured” (p. 199). The authors cite a smaller range of perspectives than previous chapters, in part because only those who are committed to an expanding role for Russia in the world and who embrace nationalism can be influential in the debate in Moscow.

Across all five chapters, a few general ideas emerge that are worthy of further investigation. The first is that realist worldviews are dominating or rising in each case, suggesting that rhetoric aside, pragmatic approaches are widely favored in translating ideas into actions. A second is that nationalism is vitally important in understanding how these aspiring powers view themselves and their place in the world, though what the term “nationalism” means and how it translates to foreign policy varies widely across both time and borders. A related theme is the extent to which the national mythology, or the self-perception of what the country’s place in the world is or should be, significantly influences foreign policy worldviews in each country: for China, it is the idea of being still a developing country; in India, the legacy of nonalignment and nonviolence learned from Nehru and Gandhi; in Iran, the fear of the “hidden hand” of foreign involvement in its political affairs; in Japan, the importance of the U.S. alliance; and in Russia, the legacy of superpower status and the inevitable comparison of  all progress against that of the United States. All five chapters ground their discussion in recent history to varying degrees, but historians might be interested in adopting this approach to explore earlier debates in order to analyze a longer trajectory of change.

Worldviews of Aspiring Powers concludes that the use of a standard model originating in Western international relations theory applied to five non-Western countries reveals enough similarities in the spectrum of foreign policy thinking for these comparisons to prove useful. The volume is a provocative step in this direction, though the fact that each chapter necessarily uses a different range of sources to uncover the influential worldviews for that country raises questions about the extent to which they can really be comparable. The “Greater Asia” construct loosely ties these five cases together, but the question remains whether analyzing additional countries at comparable stages of development or that hold similar “aspiring power” status could help to establish whether the similarities revealed so far are superficial or more profound.

Another important question is the extent to which these debates really shape changing policies. Throughout the book, the editors and the chapter authors acknowledge the difficulty of linking specific worldviews to concrete policy outcomes, so although the idea that policies are shaped by these domestic debates is compelling, the direct cause-and-effect relationship is not yet visible. There are steps in this direction in some chapters, but more discussion of the process through which these worldviews reach and influence those actually speaking for each country would be necessary to make the full weight of these debates clearer. Far from undermining the volume, however, this fact suggests that further inquiry into this framework is needed to advance the project, something the editors themselves acknowledge.

The opportunities for additional study are nearly endless, but Worldviews is a valuable addition to a growing literature on the connections between domestic politics and foreign policy. This volume should prove useful to scholars from both international relations and history, in no small part because of the accessible way in which it is written; though use of international relations theories and acronyms abounds, none are likely to be unfamiliar to anyone acquainted with foreign policy debates. Moreover, it could open a path toward further crossover studies, in which historians employ the framework offered here to explore domestic debates at critical historical junctures, and political scientists attempt to apply their analysis to past events.

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