Yan Xuetong on Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers

XuetongWhile work in international relations has closely examined the decline of great powers, not much attention has been paid to the question of their rise. The upward trajectory of China is a particularly puzzling case. How has it grown increasingly important in the world arena while lagging behind the United States and its allies across certain sectors? Borrowing ideas of political determinism from ancient Chinese philosophers, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers explains China’s expanding influence by presenting a moral-realist theory that attributes the rise and fall of nations to political leadership. Yan Xuetong shows that the stronger a rising state’s political leadership, the more likely it is to displace a prevailing state in the international system. Using the lens of classical Chinese political theory, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers offers a provocative, alternative perspective on the changing dominance of nations on the global stage.

How did you come to make the connection between political leadership and the rise of great powers?

Reading Chinese political writings pre-Qin, I found that all ancient Chinese political thinkers attributed the prosperity or decline of a hegemon to its rulers. Since all of the ancient Chinese hegemons experienced the process of rise, boom, decline, and perish with no substantial change in the institution of those states, the only variable ancient Chinese thinkers could identify was the change in leadership quality. As such, it raised, for me, two questions: how does an effectively similar political institution bring about different results and why does the rise and fall of hegemons correspond to different leaderships when the institution remains unchanged?

What is your book bringing to the conversation on the rise of great powers that hasn’t been addressed before?

Most of the IR literature on the rise of great powers focuses on a specific strategy for obtaining international leadership and then dissects why that strategy works. Meanwhile, IR writings often explain the rise and fall of great powers with different factors. For instance, imperial over-expansion is often applied as one of the main factors to a hegemon’s decline while technology invention to its rise. In contrast, this book takes a leadership-focused approach and brings to attention the human element in political decision making and demonstrates how the mentality of the leadership contributes to the effective rise and fall of hegemons. The leadership focused approach integrates three levels of analysis: individual, state and system. This approach not only offers an explanation for the rise and fall of great powers, but it can also explain the changes in international configurations, norms, orders, and systems.

Can you say a bit about the connection between ancient Chinese philosophy and modern political theory?

Ancient Chinese philosophical writings offer many analyses about the relations between ancient Chinese states that are applicable to modern international relations. This is because pre-Qin China was composed of many independent states that were vying for power in a manner that resembles current international jockeying. For the ancient Chinese philosophers, China constituted the entirety of the known world, whereas for modern scholars, the geographical range for the known world has expanded to encompass the entire planet. However, although the geographical size has expanded, there remains a structural parallel between current international entities and those of the interstate relations of the pre-Qin era. As such, generalized observations by ancient philosophers about the patterns of interaction amongst sovereign entities of power remain relevant in the modern era. This is much like how Art of War by Sunzi has been scaled down to derive insight towards modern military affairs. For instance, ancient Chinese philosophers described the differences between wangdao (humane authority) and badao (hegemony) in establishing and maintaining interstate order. This distinction is also applicable to how international norms work in current global system.

What do the ancients have to tell us on a topic that is generally thought to be firmly grounded in the present?

Ancient Chinese philosophers tell us that the order of a social system, no matter domestic or interstate, is based on a hierarchical relationship among its actors. Absolutely equal relations results in chaos. Any form of organization requires the existence of leaders and subordinates. Absolute equality leads to mob justice, as seen in the social bullying that occurs on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms where there are no accepted community leaders. Therefore, political leadership is the prerequisite of all types of structured relations and social orders. It follows that different types of leadership produce different social orders. The uncertainty of the present international politics since 2017 is mainly the result of a lackadaisical and confrontational international leadership. People may have different explanations for the lack of a reputable international leadership, but they generally agree that its absence is the major reason for the current disorder.

What accounts for China lagging behind other developed nations, even as it becomes increasingly important on the world stage?

China’s material capability is second only to that of the US. Nevertheless, China is not viewed as an international leader by the developed countries mainly because its political system is based on a cult of personality rather than the rule of law. A cult of personality is more efficient for governance than the rule of law, but it is far more susceptible to catastrophic disasters because of its restriction on freedom of expression. For the sake of preventing disasters and compelling state leaders to correct their wrong decisions, it is worthwhile for major powers to consider establishing a remonstrant system, which was a popular institution of central government in ancient China.

Do nations always rise at the expense of other nations?

Yes. There is a zero-sum structural conflict between rising powers and the status hegemon. “The rise of great powers” is defined as a process of a rising power reducing the capability gap with the status hegemon until it surpasses the latter. Since all hegemons regard maintaining international domination as their strategic interest, being surpassed by a rising power represents a huge loss. Meanwhile, due to the zero-sum nature of power distribution, the rise of a new great power must bring about a relative decline of other major powers’ international status, even as their absolute capabilities continue to grow.

What are some examples of the political leaders who have contributed to China’s rise, and how exactly did they have this positive impact?

The Chinese government headed by Deng Xiaoping represents a proactive political leadership contributing to China’s rise. The core of Deng’s political principles were opening-up and reform. “Opening-up” guarantees the right direction of reform and “reform” replaces the outdated methods with current advancements. That is why all the three leaderships after Deng flag that principle as their political guideline. Although the reforms after Deng have not been as dramatic, Chinese leaders have implemented more reforms than their concurrent counterparts in other major powers. While it is true that since 1978 Chinese leaders have all adopted some regressive policies that undermined the growth of national capability, these harmful policies were less detrimental to national growth than the policies of their counterparts in other major powers.

Within the framework of your argument, what accounts for the diminishing international stature of the United States?

The relative decline of the US is the result of having less positive political reform than China since the end of the Clinton administration. The Bush administration adopted an aggressive leadership, which prioritized military expansion abroad over political reform at home. Obama’s administration was unsuccessful at implementing political reform despite its best intentions to do so. Trump’s administration is an economically aggressive leadership, adopting regressive policies rather than reform. Trump’s policy of abandoning international leadership provides a strategic opportunity for China to improve its international influence. However, Trump’s leadership is not unique to his time. At present, the leaderships of many major powers are similar to Trump’s authoritarian rule. The result of current strategic competition between major powers is likely to be determined by leadership which undermines national growth rather than implementing reforms.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

First, I hope this book helps policy makers realize that the growth of national capability is determined by the reforms implemented by the nation’s leadership and that capability of a leader can be determined by how much reform they can implement. Second, I hope IR scholars will pay attention to the role of political leadership, especially international leadership, in their analysis of international changes after reading this book. Third, I hope readers are inspired to vote for their national leaders based on the reforms their candidates have accomplished in their political careers rather than their rhetoric.

Yan Xuetong is professor of political science and dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His many books include Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power.