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Book Review: How a rising power’s right makes might

Submitted by on 01 Feb 2019 – 12:52

If you thought a state’s ambitious military spend will plainly indicate if it will decide to go to war, or counter a competitor, Stacie E. Goddard offers a bracing slap in the face.

Power transitions can be tremendously dangerous, she says. When new powers rise, they inherently threaten the existing great powers. A clash of catastrophic proportions is likely, if not inevitable. However, deciphering intentions of an adversary can be exceptionally challenging.

In her latest book, When Right Makes Might, she lays out her theory of how great powers divine the intentions of their adversaries. The consequence of a future change in the balance of power, she says is to be found not only in the realm of military and economic power, but also in the battle over the rules and norms of the international system.

She argues that capabilities of a rising power will only reveal limited information about a state’s intentions: it is not what a rising power has in terms of resources, but how it intends to use these resources that matters.

According to conventional wisdom, a great power response rests on how it perceives its challenger’s intentions. Rising powers with limited aims, might preserve international norms, demand more economic resources, but not threaten existing great powers.

Under such circumstances, great powers often turn to accommodation as the best way to manage a new power’s rise. However, a rising power with revolutionary aims, in contrast, poses a significant threat and must be contained or confronted, even if doing so risks war between the great power and its emerging adversary.

To understand the dynamics of rising powers, she says “we must take the role of legitimacy in international relations seriously.”

This is the basic hypothesis of Goddard’s latest book, When Right Makes Might. According to the book, the decision to accommodate, contain, or confront a rising power is based how great powers gauge the ambition of a challenger’s aims. Goddard departs from conventional theories of international relations by arguing 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 Goddard’s universe, everything boils down to a relentless drive for norms.

Unlike rationalists and realists — for whom uncertainty is “epistemological” and who suggest rhetoric is a mere window-dressing for power — Goddard argues that “rhetoric fundamentally shapes the contours of grand strategy.” She argues that legitimacy — one of the three currencies of power — is not marginal to international relations; it is essential to the practice of power politics, and rhetoric is central to that practice.
In fact, the existence of legitimate rules signals the presence of authority.

The concept of legitimacy has long held a central place in political thought, but only in recent years have scholars started to look closely at questions of legitimacy in international affairs. In today’s world of democracies, international legitimacy is both more important and more difficult to achieve than ever.

There’s no doubt that a great power will worry about an emerging peer’s newfound strength, but their ‘costly signals’ — including accumulation of military strength — are actually vague indicators of their true intentions.

As Goddard points out, how a state intends to use its resources matters more than mere accumulation of resources. Even what we commonly think of as costly behavior—invasion, conquest, aggression—often fails to reveal clear aims.

Rising powers use legitimation strategies to shape the meaning of events.

Goddard’s “legitimation theory” explains that rising powers have the ability to shape the meaning of their behaviour through their legitimation strategies. Rising challengers will try to persuade the great powers that, even if they increase their might, their ambitions will remain within the boundaries of what is right.

She argues that legitimation strategies are significant, simply for the reason that they are “a critical factor of collective mobilisation, both at home and abroad.” It is for this reason that they shape perceptions of a rising power’s intentions through three mechanisms.

First, legitimation strategies can signal restraint and constraint, a willingness to abide by international norms and secure the status quo. Second, legitimation strategies set rhetorical traps: when rising powers frame expansion as legitimate, they deprive opposing audiences of grounds on which to mobilize against them. And finally, legitimation strategies are likely to be successful when they appeal to a state’s identity: a rising power can mobilize support for its demands by evoking principles and norms fundamental to a threatened state.

The cases in this book provide extensive evidence that much of rising power politics involves the search for certainty, with great powers seeking enough information about the rising power’s ambitions to form a coherent and reasonable response to its rise.

The bulk of this book is devoted to four qualitative studies of rising powers, their legitimation strategies, and great power strategy: Britain’s decision to accommodate the rise of the United States in early nineteenth century; the decision of the European powers to allow for growing Prussian power in the 1860s; Britain’s appeasement of Hitler’s rise in the 1930s, and its turn toward confrontation after the Munich crisis in 1938; and U.S. decisions to contain and confront the rise of Japan in the twentieth century. Towards her conclusion, she doesn’t fail to discuss the U.S.-China relations.

This book is certainly not the first to call for a rhetorical turn in international politics.

Earlier realists such as Morgenthau, Carr, and Aron understood this connection between rhetoric, legitimacy, and power, and for that reason treated these factors as significant in their own studies of international politics.

Goddard’s classic examination of how great powers divine the intentions of emerging adversaries is an enduring contribution to modern political analysis.