China, the United States and Global Order

China, the United States and Global Order

Author(s): Rosemary Foot and Andrew Walter

ISBN:          9780521725194

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Year:          2011

Price:        £21.99

A Book Review by Avinash Godbole, IDSA

As two of the largest economies in the world and consequently as competitors in contemporary international relations, United States of America (US) and people’s Republic of China (PRC) interact with each other at various levels. This creates a certain degree of complexity around their bilateral relationship. At the international level, this complexity increases further as other elements like other actors, structure, norms and institutions come into play.

In their book, China, United States and Global Order, Professor Rosemary Foot of St. Anthony’s College and Dr. Andrew Walter of the London School of Economics and Political Science undertake the extremely difficult task of “…unpacking global order into a series of separate norms in specific issue areas…(in order to) explore more efficiently the extent to which United States and China challenge or support the evolving global order” (P. 6). This book is written around three core questions; what determines norm compliance in general? What explains US and Chinese response to global/multilateral norms? How does their bilateral relationship impact their response? This is the general framework that is used to address five areas of global norms including, the use of force, macroeconomic policy surveillance, the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, climate change and financial regulations. Thus, within these parameters, the book seeks to find out as to how much the global order affects this all important bilateral relationship and how much this relationship affect global order in turn. the five chapters dedicated to each issue area start by describing how the specific norm was developed, goes on to argue how US and China have behaved with reference to that norm and then argues what explains their approach to it and concludes by discussing how their bilateral relationship might be influencing the mutual approach to these norms.

This book’s general conclusion is that behavioural consistency is more dependent on the extent to which actors perceive global norms, rules and procedures as legitimate (p 296). Therefore, the authors conclude that norm characteristics in themselves have smaller role to play in ensuring compliance. On the other hand, that highest level of inconsistency is found when there is a combination of high domestic societal costs, relative strategic loss, and low levels of international distributive fairness and here the authors cite the example of the US and Chinese approach to the global discourse on climate change and macroeconomic surveillance. Thus norms are followed when there is a perception of procedural legitimacy, and of fairness in the distribution of costs and benefits (p.298). This would perhaps explain why the global climate change discourse is still in discursive state as far as a globally acceptable agreement is concerned.

What is the most important outcome of this book is the fact that the top two countries in the world today, in terms of aggregate power, view global norms from completely contrasting points of view. US generally prefers ambivalence/non-compliance to norms on the basis of exceptionalist perception on the place of the US as the paramount leader in the international order. On the other hand, China’s increasing compliance with these norms is because it wants to be perceived to be a responsible stakeholder. Sometimes these contrasting approaches lead to strikingly similar policy outcomes.

One of the important strengths of this book is its detailing in explaining each norm right from its developmental state. Therefore, this is a very good reader in itself as far as these norms are concerned. Its contemporary importance further increases when the power dynamics between the US and China comes into picture. Another of its strengths has to be its fair treatment of China, especially when there is enough, and scholarly too, literature on China’s role in international relations as a country that is aiming to destabilise the order. Therefore, it neatly avoids romanticising as well as brick bating China.

In its analysis of norm compliance of these two states, this book is an important departure from the realist perspective of international relations and argues for the importance of looking at national interest in a broader sense, in this case, the role of domestic actors, domestic norms, fairness amongst others. It says, “Global norms remain an inescapable and important part of the decision-making environment” and further disagrees with importance of power in the context of norms.

However, it may also be said that at times, national power understood in terms of domestic economic capability can and does create a hindrance to the way a state like US reacts to a norm, climate change for example, with its focus on status quo. In a similar vein, China does not want more restrictions than it decides to take because it wants to achieve power in the same currency, tragic as it may be in the longer run. Nevertheless, this is not to criticise the authors since their work has been of highest standards. This may only be the case that realists take a pessimistic view of glass half full while from an institutionalist perspective glass looks half full. Also, at the same time, China seems to be falling in line in other areas of global norms for their instrumental value in pushing its case as a responsible stakeholder. Therefore, in many ways the central arguments of the book are well justified. Overall, this is a good book that breaks down how the future power struggle is likely to take place in a contested global order and why powerful states would behave in ways they do especially as they try to retain or gain their stakes within that contested order.

Suggested citation:

Avinash Godbole, Review of “China, the United States and Global Order” by Rosemary Foot and Andrew Walter, East Asia Integration Studies,