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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchRevisionist States are the Cause of Great-Power Competition

Revisionist States are the Cause of Great-Power Competition

Author: Emma Ashford 

Affiliation: Georgetown University (adjunct professor), the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security (resident senior fellow), the Modern War Institute at West Point (nonresident fellow), and Council on Foreign Relations (term member), the Reimagining US Grand Strategy Program at Stimson Center (senior fellow)

Organization/Publisher: the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council

Date/Place: February 4, 2021/ USA

Type of Literature: Study (Assumptions Testing Series)

Number of Pages: 12


Keywords: The Revisionist States, Testing the Assumptions, US Foreign Policy, Great-Power Competition 


The study is the first paper in a research series organized by the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center, which seeks to examine some of the foundational beliefs, and rethink the assumptions that drive US foreign policy. The series aims to open a window of thinking about existing policies and generating a vital, fruitful and more effective strategic dialogue, capable of producing sustainable, nonpartisan strategy for US global engagement.

The paper’s author, Professor Emma Ashford, identifies the assumption from which most of the current strategic thinking about US foreign policy is based. This assumption claims that “the stable multipolarity is impossible because of the existence of revisionist and aggressive states, which seek to reshape international institutions, seize territory and challenge the status quo.” Ashford argues that such an assumption has limited evidence to support it, despite what these countries may impose on a dangerous new era of great-power competition. Moreover, the weakness of this main assumption opens the way for questioning many of the assumptions emanating from it. Continuing to rely on them will eventually confuse US foreign policy, push it to more escalating policies, and sow the seeds of global instability. Here, the author diagnoses the primary assumption and the sub-assumptions emanating from it, rethinks it again, and then concludes with recommendations that would help policymakers in Washington to develop concrete responses that reduce the risks expected in a world where great power competition increases.

In the beginning, Ashford provides a general description of the local and external challenges that the Biden administration is facing, which she believes are challenges that require new patterns of thinking and new approaches to deal with, in addition to the fact that American foreign policy has not been fundamentally reassessed since the post-Cold War era. The many changes that have occurred over the past thirty years while US policy has been held in place therefore requires policymakers to slow down and re-examine the assumptions that stand behind US foreign policy, and then determine what works and what does not. The author identifies two major lines of discussion regarding US foreign policy today. The first line is the  “neo-primacy”, which sees that great powers such as China and Russia pose a threat to the United States, that Washington should therefore adopt a more assertive and confrontational approach to these powers. The second is the restraint approach or realism. It argues that “the United States has overextended itself in the post-Cold War world, and should draw back from its wars in the Middle East, seek to cooperate with other states and avoid excessively militarizing its relationship with China.” According to Ashford, both lines rest on primary assumptions about how states relate to each other and their intentions, and many of these assumptions usually go unexamined. Therefore, the purpose of this paper series is to re-examine these assumptions, then build a new approach to US foreign policy on more certain and solid foundations.

The paper is divided into four parts. The first part discusses the “sources of instability” in the international system, which the prevailing strategic thinking in Washington attributes to the rise of revisionist powers – led by China and Russia – that seek to challenge the status quo and reshape institutions, norms, and even territorial borders, especially with the relative decline of the US and the erosion of unipolarity. This new situation, according to mainstream strategic thinking in Washington, will lead to an unstable multipolarity, increasing turmoil and violence in the international order. These assumptions are behind the call for a new and more assertive US grand strategy. This tendency has grown since the Obama administration when the phrase “revise the key aspects of the international order” was used to describe China’s behavior at the time, and the US portraying the latter as threatening “our national security.” Then, the shift was accelerated during the Trump era. The author here refers to some prominent defender officials and scholars, including General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, Tom Wright, Michael Mazarr, and Hal Brands, stressing that their echo has become heard in the current US administration.

In addition, Ashford points to some “Neorealist” scholars, most notably Kenneth Waltz, who have argued that the larger number of major countries may increase instability; while some scholars reveal the danger accompanied by the rise of new major powers and the fear that instills in the dominant ruling powers, or what is known as the “Thucydides trap” by Graham Allison. Robert Jervis (prominent face of defensive realism) also shed light on the possibility of states heading towards conflict without having the intention of entering into what he called the “security dilemma.” The keenness of states to protect themselves may develop a sense of threat in other states. Here, Ashford notices that many policy writers today do not focus on the role of “misperception and miscommunication” (traditional arguments of defensive realism), but rather shelter behind the assumptions of offensive realism, which attributes unstable multipolarity to the desire of revisionist states to change the existing order.

The second part discusses the sub-assumption derived from the main assumption claiming that “the revisionist intentions of the emerging states are the source of instability.” The author identifies the various prevailing views on “the revisionist extent of these states.” The scholars and officials who build their perspectives on the mentioned assumptions (classical realists, for example) presuppose that all rising powers are – usually – revisionist powers, do not usually seek security, but rather to gain more power, motivated by a particular ideology or a quest for greatness (as Hal Brands claims). Thus, most of their writings consider China and Russia as revisionist states. Some writers see that the extent of China’s revisionism, for example, is limited to modifying international institutions and gaining prestige, as China has no ambitions in the territories of others in its region, while others (such as Mira Rapp-Hooper and Rebecca Lissner) link China and Russia revisionism in the international order to the ambitions and appetites of their internal regimes. Others argue that China seeks to replace the United States as a regional or global hegemon, destroying rather than modifying the existing international order, and expanding its territorial reach.

According to Ashford, these perspectives result from the combination of four basic assumptions:

  1. Revisionist states make multipolarity more unstable and conflict more likely, and thus make the United States more constrained and its influence diluted.
  2. It is not possible to accommodate the rising powers – for the most part – within the existing international order.
  3. Giving rising powers their own spheres of influence is a bad idea for US national security. It is ideologically driven and immoral (as they claim) because it ignores the will of smaller states that may not want to align with the dominant power in their region. This idea is a form of appeasement, according to others (Hal Brands), assuming that revisionist states would not be satisfied with such concessions and would demand more when they feel that the existing order is fragile and can be further tested. Thereby, the spheres of influence will give them a better position on the basis of which they can embody their ambitions.
  4. The last sub-assumption claims that the biggest risk of conflict in the international system arises from deterrence failure, rather than misperception. When the United States fails to deter revisionist states, it will push them to achieve more gains, making conflict more likely.

Adopting these assumptions as a starting point of the US foreign policy thought stream has had a decisive impact on the course of American foreign policy and will continue to determine its future. 

In the third part, therefore, Ashford rethinks those assumptions. She considers that some assumptions are partially or wholly true, yet she submits them to a close examination, as Ashford considers that:

  1. “The United States is in relative decline compared to China and other powers.” In economic terms, China has actually surpassed the United States if the GDP is the measure between the two countries, but if the measure is “the GDP per capita” (which is the most accurate according to experts), the United States is still superior. Nevertheless, the author believes that the rapid economic growth rate of China compared to the United States will make it the largest global economic power in the coming years if the situation continues as it is. On the military level, the United States is still on the global top and will continue to be so in the long run. However, the United States no longer enjoys -militarily and economically- the vast global hegemony as it was at the end of the Cold War.
  2. Not all rising states are revisionist, therefore these states do not necessarily cause global disorder, and the shifts in the global balance of power accompanying the rise of new major powers are not the only factor in stimulating the states’ revisionism. There are many motivating factors and pressures for revisionism, such as internal, psychological, and ideological factors. The revisionism may be linked to the reactions of the state towards its regional and international environment, not self-revolutionary motives. In addition, the rising powers whose military power and wealth are increasing in an international order, or expect this to happen within it, will have more incentives to integrate into its institutions rather than revolt against it.
  3. It is hard to determine the final intentions of the rising powers, whether they are revisionist intentions or not, and it is not sufficient to rely on their external behavior to determine them. Here, the author quotes some arguments of the most rigorous scholars toward China and Russia. For instance, Michael Mazarr and Hal Brands assert that the final answers regarding “the scope of Russian and Chinese ambitions, and the steps they are willing to take to achieve them—remain unknowable… There is also accumulated evidence that these two states view a stable international order as important to their interests.” In the same regard, a portion of scholars sees Russia’s aggressive behavior in its “near abroad” as clear evidence of its vengeful intentions, while others (such as Mearsheimer) argue that Russia’s behavior is mainly due to the West’s move toward its backyard and threat to its core strategic interests. So, Russia’s aggressive behavior is more of a natural reaction than vengeful revisionism. Moreover, even if we assume that China and Russia are revisionist states, the extent of revisionism is not known. For example, China’s attempt to enhance its own security in the South China Sea does not necessarily mean that it seeks to dominate the entire Pacific.
  4. Finally, the author criticizes the assumption claiming that “ceding spheres of influence to rising powers is detrimental to American national security”, and considers that the United States itself has tacitly recognized the existence of such spheres, as it did not respond decisively to the Russian military invasion of Georgia in 2008 or in the Crimea in 2014. This implies that there are regions where the interests of other great powers may exceed those of Washington, where the price of resisting regional aggression is very high.  Accordingly, US military opposition to other major powers having their own spheres of influence would put Washington in a very bad position, such that accepting spheres of influence might be the best way to deal with a rising China or a declining Russia.

In the final part, Ashford stresses that checking the extent of China or Russia’s intentions (or other “revisionist powers”), is crucial to building a coherent and operable American grand strategy. Assuming the existence of unbridled revisionism in these states would close the door to developing reasonable responses and policies, leaving room only for escalating options. Therefore, the paper recommends four types of response and practical policies that would help mitigate the risks of committing mistakes regarding the extent of the opponents’ revisionism, detailing the mechanisms for embodying responses, namely:

  1. Intensify efforts to understand the scope of ambition of other states (particularly China and Russia).
  2. Focus strategy and force posture less on forwarding regional presence—which is likely to provoke a reaction of other major powers—and more on defensive contingencies for the United States and key allies.
  3. Engage in reassurance measures toward China, and seek to develop joint confidence-building measures (CBMs).
  4. Initiate a process within the National Security Council and the interagency aimed at more clearly defining key US priorities and red lines, determining which interests are not negotiable, and which areas can build approaches of cooperation and accommodation with opponents.

Careful examination of the assumptions on which US foreign policy is built, and then the pursuit of practical policies, will enable building a more robust and articulate US foreign policy, reduce global tensions, and defuse future conflicts between great powers.

By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA  Senior Research Associate



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