Worldviews of Aspiring Powers: Domestic Foreign Policy Debates in China, India, Iran, Japan, and Russia

Worldviews of Aspiring Powers

Editors:      Henry R. Nau, Deepa M. Ollapally

ISBN:           978-0-19-993749-3

Publisher:  Routledge

Year:           2012

Price:          £16.99


Reviewed by Sarang Shidore, Consultant & Researcher, Visiting Scholar at the University of Texas at Austin

In analyzing the behavior of states, realist scholars have traditionally ignored the domestic dynamics within a state, focusing instead on the structure of the international system and the imperative of power and survival in an anarchic world. Since the 1980s however, a rich body of literature has delved inside the box, so to speak, to uncover a range of motivations and factors that drive state behavior. This “domestic factors” literature initially originated within the liberal and constructivist camps, with liberals focusing more on interest groups, nature of domestic politics, and institutional dynamics, whereas constructivists concentrating on ideas, identity, and socialization processes.

More recently, the sharp lines dividing these theoretical camps has blurred. One example is the advent of neoclassical realism, which incorporates a range of domestic variables into its structure-based framework. Another limitation of traditional international relations literature, namely the privileging of western actors as objects of analysis, is also being rapidly remedied with a range of literature that questions whether current international relations theories, developed mainly in the west, are applicable to non-western states.

The analysis of domestic debates within a key set of states outside the western core forms the focus of the recent volume of essays edited by Henry R. Nau and Deepa M. Ollapally. The editors term these states, namely China, India, Japan, Russia, and Iran, as “aspiring powers” and take the view that tracking domestic debates within them is key to understanding shifts in their orientation in the international system. Without getting too deeply into their drivers, Nau and Ollapally nevertheless see shifts in these debates as proxies for underlying shifts in foreign policy. Such shifts, they argue, are critical to measuring the distance between US preferences and the policy orientation of an aspiring power, thus serving as guides to approaches Washington could adopt to achieve its goals with respect to that power.

The volume begins with the editors defining three categories for classifying schools of thought in foreign policy, these being scope, means and goals. Scope refers to the spatial radius of policy preferences; whether national, regional, or global. Means refers to the type of tools (say military power or soft power) that are preferred, whereas the goals category indicates the nature of objectives (say, achieving balance of power in the region or spreading a particular ideology) for the particular school of thought. The subsequent five country-specific essays are largely organized according to this framework.

The essay on China by David Shambaugh and Ren Xiao notes that Chinese thinking has undergone a major evolution since the country’s rapid development since the beginning of the reform process in 1979. They identify seven schools of thought in current Chinese discourse – Nativists, Realists, Major Powers School, Asia Firsters, Global South School, Selective Multilateralists, and Globalists. These are roughly organized in ascending order of affinity to US interests and priorities. Thus the Nativist school is the most isolationist and hostile to global engagement, while the Globalist school seeks deep integration with the current international system. The authors locate the fulcrum of current Chinese foreign policy within the Realist school, asserting that “a narrowly self-interested realism” is currently dominant (p. 65). Realists in China are described as focusing almost exclusively in strengthening Chinese power, achieved chiefly through internal balancing and rapid modernization of the economy and the military. Chinese realists are suspicious of international institutions and seek to avoid foreign entanglements unless a critical national interest is involved.

Deepa Ollapally and Rajesh Rajagopalan argue for a nuanced understanding of Indian schools of thought, identifying seven distinct ideational schools, these being Hyper-nationalists, Standard Nationalists, Neo-nationalists, Leftists, Great Power Realists, and Liberal Globalists. Leftists and Hyper-nationalists are currently the least influential. Great Power Realists, with their focus on achieving India’s rise through a strategic partnership with the United States, and Liberal Globalists who prioritize integration into global regimes of trade and capital are ascendant. However, it is the Standard Nationalist school, with its Nehruvian roots and mostly associated with the Congress party, which continues to occupy the pre-eminent space in major decisions in Indian foreign policy. Standard Nationalism in contemporary India is a primarily pragmatic school characterized by a focus on achieving a developed country status and greater integration into the global economy while maintaining strategic autonomy and sovereignty. Standard Nationalists see nuclear weapons as primarily political tools and wish to indigenize military technology to achieve self-reliance in defense. However, the authors point to tensions within the Standard Nationalist school particularly over globalization and domestic economic policies.

The essay on Iran challenges the conventional bipolar classification of Iranian foreign policy thinking into moderates more open to a deal with the US and religious hardliners implacably opposed to the west. While conceding that there is some truth to this narrative, authors Farideh Fardi and Saideh Lotfian also point out to the cross-cutting nature of ideas in Iran with some key goals being shared by all schools of thought. These include wanting Iran’s rise as an autonomous, powerful global player, a shared allegiance to the principles of the 1979 Islamic revolution, a certain level of acceptance of Iran’s strategic loneliness, and opposition to eliminating Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. The authors argue that three main schools of thought can be defined in Iran, these being Islamic Idealists, Regional Power Balancers, and Global Power Balancers. While Islamic Idealists are the most committed to pan-Islamism and Muslim unity, the other two schools are more of a realist bent with differing scopes of action. Islamic Idealists are in tension with conservative Shia clerics that have a sectarian orientation. The main difference between Regional Power Balancers and Global Power Balancers is that the latter (divided into Rejectionists and Accommodationists) are focused on the United States, whereas the former (further categorized into Offensive and Defensive realists) prioritize strategies of regional security. Offensive Realists are prominent in the Ahmadinejad-led government and hold the greatest sway on foreign policy (note that this essay was written before the election of Hassan Rouhani to the presidency).

Russia and Japan form a distinct group among the “aspiring” powers. Russia for one has a recent and long history of being a superpower itself, while Japan is in every sense a advanced and powerful state though with a foundational US-imposed limitation on its military power and its geographic scope of action. Narushige Michishita and Richard J. Samuels argue that Japan has exhibited a well-developed set of debates around its grand strategy, which has led to the prominence of four schools in the post-Cold War era. These consist of bandwagoners, Balancers, Self-Hedgers, and Dual-Hedgers. Bandwagoners give priority to relations with China over others, Balancers would rather limit Chinese influence by deepening the partnership with the United States, Self-Hedgers stress strategic autonomy and approximate equidistance from China and the US, and finally Dual-Hedgers seek equal integration with both great powers. The authors assert that the structure of the international system is more consequential driver in which school of thought attains prominence at any given time.

Unlike Japan however, those advocating a close partnership with the United States are distinctly a minority voice in Russia since the mid-1990s, according to Andrew C. Kuchins and Igor Zevelev. Classifying Russian foreign policy thinking into Liberals, Great Power Balancers, and Nationalists, the authors find that the center of gravity of the ideational space within Russia lies firmly in the Great Power Balancer camp, with Nationalists also having a significant influence. Great Power Balancers do not reject the west, but nor do they see Russia as its integral part. Their goal is emerge as an independent pole in the international system while simultaneously seeking technology and investment from Europe and the United States. Russian Nationalists on the other hand, prominently influenced by the ideas of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, are primarily focused on the unity of Russian-speakers and the greatness of Russian civilization. They are typically hostile to the west, though some of them simply wish to be left alone and do not seek active confrontation with any external power. The Russian communist party displays a variant of nationalism of the neo-imperialist variety, seeking to unite all territories of the former Soviet Union under Russian leadership.

In the concluding essay of the volume Nikola Mirilovic and Deepa Ollapally, after concluding that international relations theories developed in the west are indeed applicable to other parts of the world, seek to draw out common threads from the five previous case studies. They find that foreign policy schools in the five aspiring powers can be broadly classified into four groups – Nationalists, Realists, Globalists, and Idealists. Nationalists and Realists share affinities, while Globalists and Idealists also exhibit a degree of convergence. The Realist-Nationalist meta-group is generally more prominent across the five powers surveyed. The authors also indicate the importance of three other aspiring powers – Brazil, Turkey, and South Africa, and identify these as areas for future research.

The essays in the volume are a valuable contribution to what is a welcome trend of focusing on non-core regions in mainstream international relations literature. Nau and Ollapally’s stress on the ideational and the domestic adds yet another perspective to what is still a structure-material dominated discipline. The key distinguishing feature of the work is its comparative aspect, which is most clearly evident in the concluding chapter by Mirilovic and Ollapally. The volume could have added more value if it had delved deeper into whether the schools of thought surveyed are primary drivers, or merely symptoms of material-driven shifts, or some combination of both. The authors (except for the Japan chapter) generally seem to tilt towards the former, but their preferences are not always clear.

There are other inconsistencies. The nomenclature for foreign policy schools adopted by the different country-specific authors sometimes confuses more than enlightens. This is inevitable to some extent, given the uniqueness of each case, yet more effort could have been made towards standardization across the case studies. Some of these nomenclatures are also misleading – for example the so-called Standard Nationalists in India are in fact difficult to characterize as nationalists, given the international scope of Nehru’s ideas and actions that still find an echo among his successors in the Congress party. Though the volume overall takes only a mildly normative view of the subject matter, the introductory chapter by Nau veers into an overt and unnecessary defense of US leadership in the global order that detracts from the editors’ attempt to strike an objective tone.

A number of recent developments in India, Iran, and Russia have the potential to enrich our understanding  of the trends identified in this work. It would be useful for future researchers to adopt and enhance the methodology utilized in this volume and identify any new shifts that might be underway in the foreign policies of these powers. It would also be useful to expand the “aspiring powers” list beyond that indicated by the editors to include Indonesia and Mexico, and possibly Saudi Arabia and South Korea.

Suggested citation:

Sarang Shidore (2014). Review of “Worldviews of Aspiring Powers: Domestic Foreign Policy Debates in China, India, Iran, Japan, and Russia”, by Henry R. Nau and Deepa M. Ollapally, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 7, no.33.