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Are battles over rights essential in the struggle over might?

Submitted by on 01 Feb 2019 – 12:47

Goddard07Britain understood early on that the United States was going to be a rising power, even as early as the nineteenth century. The United States recognised Japan was a rising power. The international community recognises China as a rising — if not an already risen —power. While they understand that, there is always an incredible amount of uncertainly of what rising powers are going to do with their new found power.

We often end up seeing leaders attempting to figure out, from a series of actions, what is it that a rising power is going to do. Those actions — in and around themselves — can be indeterminate. They can be read in a number of different ways, Goddard says.

A lot of international relations theorists think about the amount of uncertainties that there is in international politics. They try to find out how leaders of a state try to manage that uncertainty. There is a great amount of literature trying to get inside the intentions of a state, with most scholarship thinking about power, legitimacy and narrative. Theorists and political analysts constantly look at what leaders are saying and how that actually constructs and gives meaning. That’s what got Goddard thinking about how great powers divine the intentions of rising powers.
To make judgments about a challenger’s intentions, “great powers look not only to what the rising power does; they listen to what a rising power says—how it justifies its foreign policy,” said Stacie E. Goddard, author of the new book When Right Makes Might – Rising Powers and World Orders.

When new powers rise, their leaders recognise that they operate in an atmosphere of uncertainty in which their adversaries are unsure of aims and interests, because of which she says legitimation theories become crucial in justifying actions of a rising power.

Goddard departs from traditional realists and argues that great powers come to understand a contender’s intentions not only through objective capabilities or costly signals but by observing how a rising power justifies its behaviour to its audience.

In an exclusive interview with Government Gazette, Goddard talks about her latest book, power politics, what inspired her most and her theory of legitimation which explains how leaders of great powers divine the intentions of rising powers.

Goddard thinks legitimation strategies are at the heart of deciphering intentions of a rising power.

For political scientists, a big question in recent years has arisen when they have tried to interpret China based on its actions in the South China Sea. What is China doing here? Is this minimal incursion into a territory which it ultimately sees as a space of its own? Is it a stepping stone for some power projection beyond the South China Sea?

There is a question of whether China will remain a firm partner in the “liberal international order” or become a “revisionist power,” one that will overturn existing institutions in pursuit of its global agenda.

She agrees it is difficult to explain China’s actions.

Whatever agreement exists over China’s growing power, there is considerable debate over how China intends to use it. Some are increasingly concerned that China’s ambitions are “growing in step with its power.” In this scenario, China’s move toward a revolutionary strategy, one that upends the status quo in the Asia-Pacific, is inevitable.

As China’s power has grown, its aims have remained relatively consistent; though it has become somewhat more assertive about its aims in the South China Seas, the substance of these claims has not changed, nor has it sought broader territorial or economic revision. For those who believe China has limited aims, a continued strategy of engagement is a wise choice, indeed the only way to avoid unnecessary conflict.
Goddard notes that: “leaders spend a lot of time listening to the explanation given by states about their behaviour — and it is here where legitimation becomes really important.”

The type of rhetoric a state uses, in some way or the other, she says justifies its action.

Here’s when powers try to appeal to international rules and norms. They either try to show that they comply with these norms or show themselves as revolutionary. And, here’s where my theory comes to play.

Finally, Goddard says the legitimation theory will have impact for both policymakers and academics — beyond rising power politics.

What kind of power does China want to be?

The U.S. and China are playing a dangerous game. China’s military has been transformed since it last fought a war, against Vietnam in 1979.
It has rearmed and either copied, developed or bought many of the missile and stealth technologies required of a 21st century superpower. By now it spends more than three times as much on defense as Russia, and it is closing a still enormous gap with the United States.
On the other hand, great power competition, not terrorism is now the primary focus of the United States foreign policy. Ask why. In presenting a new strategy, which will set priorities for the Pentagon for years to come, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called China and Russia “revisionist powers” that “seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models.”

This is perhaps the latest sign of shifting priorities after more than a decade and a half of focusing on the fight against Islamist militants. The big question is whether this the United States is striving to prove their leadership through such confrontational strategies, or is it a recognition of the intentions of its adversaries?

Is China’s ‘costly signals’ indicative of its true intentions?

As Goddard’s legitimation theory challenges conventional understandings of costs, uncertainty, and identity in international politics, perhaps China’s accumulation of military reserves may not be indicative of its super power ambitions.

Managing uncertainty in the international system involves, not merely providing information about an objective world, but also constructing and fixing the meaning of events.

Rising powers often try to convince the great powers that, even as they increase their might and make revisionist demands, they will do so within the boundaries of what is right: that their growing strength will reinforce, not undercut, the rules and norms of the international system.

If a rising power can portray its ambitions as legitimate, it can make the case that—far from being a revolutionary power—its advances will preserve, and perhaps even protect, the prevailing status quo.

In contrast, if a rising power’s claims are illegitimate—if they are inconsistent with prevailing rules and norms— then great powers will see its actions as threatening, making containment and confrontation likely.

The confrontation strategy of the United States is clearly a case in point. As US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis points out in his strategy, China and Russia seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models — being inconsistent with prevailing norms.

Their departure from international norms has caused a great power such as the United States to alter the prevailing status quo and turn to a strategy of confrontation.