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Opposite but Compatible Nationalisms: A Neoclassical Realist Approach to the Future of US-China Relations

Author: Randall Schweller

Affiliation: Ohio State University 

Organization/Publisher: The Chinese Journal of International Politics

Date/Place: February 08, 2018, U.K.

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 26


Keywords: Neoclassical Realism, Inward-Looking Nationalism, Outward-Looking Nationalism, Emerging Powers, Declining Powers, China and the U.S.


In this research, Professor Randall Schweller provides a theoretical analysis of the future of US-China relations, using the Neoclassical Realist approach (to which he belongs); in explaining the nature of this relationship and predicting its possible paths, he focuses primarily on the growing nationalism factor within the two powers. The author argues that Kenneth Waltz’s structural realism does not make accurate and specific predictions about how both emerging China or the US (as a declining dominant) will behave in their foreign policy. Structural realism is a theory that originally came to explain international politics and never pretends to explain or predict the foreign policies of states; it focuses more on the Anarchy factor of the international system as a basic driver of state behaviors, reducing the importance of domestic factors in determining such behaviors. States, according to Waltz, on the one hand act in one way in their quest for survival and security, despite the difference in their status in the international system; while on the other hand, political, ideological and cultural differences distinguish them. Therefore, Schweller argues that the neoclassical realist approach gives us more insights regarding the way that major powers (such as the US and China) act, because of its ability to combine Waltz’s structuralism and the international level of analysis on the one hand, with the domestic factors and the state (unit) level of analysis on the other, without prejudice to the central assumptions of this school. Perhaps “the domestic-level counterpart to structural realism, especially in an age of social media and mass politics, is nationalism,” as Robert Strausz-Hupé concludes: “For the determinants of a state’s behavior in international politics, realists place greater weight than do idealists on non-material factors, such as patriotism and nationalism.” So, “National power is partly a matter of territorial size, population, and natural resources. Nation-states that are rich in these endowments, however, are not always powerful. A state is only as strong as its ability to extract resources from its society… Nationalism, whether as a movement or an ideology, functions to bind together people in a particular territory in an endeavor to gain and use state power.” After detailing many theoretical differences between Structural realism and the Neoclassical theory, Schweller begins to explain the role that the factor of nationalism plays in shaping the US-Chinese relations and the future of the international system. He argues that both the rising powers (China) and the declining powers (the US) are witnessing an upward trend of nationalism within them, but the nationalism in China is expected to be outward-looking in order to expand its global influence, while nationalism in the US tends to be inward-looking, focusing on domestic change and reconstruction, in an attempt to restrain the country from further deep engagement in the world or expanding its influence. Here, Schweller sees that there is perfect compatibility between the two nationalist tendencies despite their opposite trends, in that they do not constitute a conflict of interest so long as China wants more global influence while the US wants greater restraint. Consequently, there is good reason to expect a smooth transfer of power and a movement of the world from a unipolarity to a bipolarity structure. However, the most important question is how the US will respond to China’s rise? Undoubtedly, the more China continues to grow economically and militarily, and begins to approach the US power on the global stage, the more assertive it becomes in pressing its status claims and grievances. “This cannot help but foment domestic nationalism, as the public becomes frustrated that the established powers are treating the country with disrespect by denying it the global influence it deserves.” Likewise, the Chinese leaders, like other emerging-power leaders, usually resort to stimulating local nationalism to support their expansionist policies or to divert the public’s dissatisfaction with the pace of internal reforms and economic progress. On the other hand, nationalism can support the policy of reducing the hegemonic endeavors concerning the declining dominant power (the US today), which comes in the form of asking the allies to pay more and bear their security costs and defenses, passing the “balancing” buck to regional powers in their neighborhood, reducing the number of forces deployed in certain areas of world, etc. Finally, Schweller proposes the “offshore Balancing” approach promoted by contemporary neoclassical realists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, as the most appropriate way for the American response to China’s rise. He further calls on Washington to focus on three vital regions of the world that deserve Americans’ “blood and treasure,” including the East Asia region where Washington should maintain the deployment of its military forces while passing responsibility back to regional powers to check China. If Beijing tries to establish regional hegemony there, the US should wait and see if its regional allies can contain it, but if containment fails then Washington will have time to come back over the horizon and deploy enough firepower in the region to restore a stable balance.

By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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