Traditional IR Theories and the US’s Bethrothal With China


By: Gerald F. Witherspoon, Sr.        

     Personal relationships sometimes shed light on the activities that occur on the international stage. An example of this would be a husband who denies his wife the opportunity to work and claims his motivation for doing so is to prove his love for her by remaining her sole provider and protector. Obviously, the husband would seek his interest above that of his wife’s and dishonor her by ignoring her desire to work. This would be a violation of her individual rights. Whether a public consensus would agree on the woman’s right to work or not is a question of the values and ideas shared by the community in which she lives at that time. Additionally, different communities would reflect different views. A common realization in the studies of international relations is that individuals and states change values and ideas over time. In a similar vein, when a nation claims to have world peace in mind but imperialistically attempts to hold a monopoly on the peace process, a violation of sovereign rights occur. States, like the wife in the above scenario, may conclude that others in the international community do not have their best interest in mind and are simply self-seeking. Nations have rushed into war by refusing to commit to international norms, yet others have provoked wars by refusing the same. Still others have intimidated neighbors with no intentions of doing so. “The worst human catastrophes are precipitated by willful and powerful leaders, people who frequently are driven by their megalomania and are prepared to trample on the legitimate affairs and concerns of others in their unrestrained striving for domination” (Jackson 2005, 8-9). Oft-times, striving is viewed as striving for domination and has been viewed through different theoretical lenses known as realism, liberalism, and constructivism. These three lenses occasionally offer clear implications and contrarily prove that traditional theories are sometimes insufficient at depicting the entire picture. The rise of China is one such example explored in this essay.


A Rising China

     China is indeed on the rise, and according to realists, the rise in itself is reason for concern. “The notion of a ‘rising’ or ‘emerging’ China is embodied firmly within the realist school of thought” (Turner 2009, 113). Resultantly, China is viewed as making gains that inevitably threaten the loss of others at the state level which lead to justifications for war as a means of self-defense. Furthermore, the United States is viewed as a hegemonic power and assumes the intention to ensure its survival. Hegemony, when shared among more than one state leads to an ideological incompetency when deducing who has the right to consider who a threat. China arguably achieved pre-modern hegemonic power that has been ignored or overlooked with the realist lenses throughout recent history (Turner 2009). Nevertheless, regardless of how accurately or inaccurately the United States has historicized the stature of China, realists consider the current economic, military, and political power of China a threat. This realist threat perception can easily become what Alexander Wendt calls a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ (Friedberg 2005). Believing that China’s rise will lead inevitably to more aggressive attempts to replace the United States as a hegemon confidingly places the United States in a position of competition instead of cooperation.

A Sovereign but Cooperative Rise

     Proponents of liberalism subscribe to a democratic peace theory based on economic interdependence as a prospect for averting conflict. Unlike realism, which claims there is no room for cooperation, liberalism postulates that the international community has within in it opportunities for cooperation or conflict and participants in the international community decide how and if they choose to cooperate. That is not to say that liberalism totally discounts war as a solution to conflict, but it focuses on the pathways and potentials for peace in hopes of aborting the process of war.  Liberalists believe the international system is now designed in such a way as to allow China to rise peacefully or without posing a threat. In accord, others in the international community will support China’s sovereign right to endear itself to the privileges enjoyed by the United States. Similar to the analogy of the husband and wife mentioned above, the wife could exercise her right to work or make economic gains without any intention to subjugate her husband under her authority. In fact, the husband’s refusal to allow her to work could steer both toward conflict. Likewise, China’s increased participation in the international economy diverts it from acting discordant. Nevertheless, a sense of being kept in the house too long undermines democratic peace and could sustain tensions.

Striving Constructively

      “Constructivists believe that international relationships (like all political relations) are “socially constructed” (Friedberg 2005, 34). Constructivists would postulate the ideas and identities of China and examine whether they were consistent with not soliciting conflict and benefiting from the non-existence of conflict, and if so, conclude that a desire for conflict would be unwarranted in the future. Constructivists do not rule out (as realists do) the possibility of cooperative intentions regardless of historical competiveness.  Constructivists believe repeated interaction can change a nations-state’s perception and therefore response to international affairs. In essence, China’s participation in international institutions can cause conformity to international norms that cultivates peace and discourages conflict. Obviously opinions of one another can shift pessimistically or optimistically with the positive or negative reinforcement of interactions. However, the essential argument remains grounded in the notion that a nation’s striving for power does not have to be acclimated to a desire to overtake or overturn another. In Strategies for Survival, John Mearsheimer discusses the benefit argument of war by stating, “military victory does not pay because conquerors cannot exploit modern industrial economies for gain, especially those built around information technologies” (Mearsheimer 2006, 73). This may or may not be the mindset of China, but definitely mirrors the logic behind constructivism. Furthermore, institutions and processes are shifted by the expansion of the modern global civil society (Scholte 2006). Evidence of this constructivist theory is when “China abandoned Marxism-Leninism as governing ideology” (Walt 2011, 8). These shifts pose numerous challenges to the irrefutability of realism.


      China arguably inherited a misconstrued identity by means of realist constructs that do not produce a legitimate picture of the threat it poses. To an extent, the pessimistic predictions of realism seem unwarranted and reek of paranoia. In contrast, optimistic projections of liberalism seem to leave room for miscalculated insecurities paving the way for realism to be exacted as a more reliable theory. Still yet constructivism offers the credible consideration of a modernized landscape where ideas are challenging the realist’s notion of an inevitability of war to secure survival. Divorce is not an option until the world ends, but how the United States views China’s desire to be equal may very well determine when the world ends. Imperialistically, the lens of realism offers the United States a way to manage its survival without abandoning its self-perception as the head of the house. Nevertheless, Stephen Walt (Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University) offers this reminder, “When a state stands alone at the pinnacle of power, however, there is nowhere to go but down (Walt 2011, 6).

 Reference List

Friedberg, Aaron L. 2005. “The Future of U.S.-China Relations: Is Conflict Inevitable?.” International Security 30, no. 2: 7-45. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 25, 2013).

Jackson, Robert. 2005 “Classical and Modern Thought on international Relations: From Anarchy to Cosmopolis” Ebrary (accessed via American Public University System September 25, 2013).

Mearsheim, John J. 2006. “Strategies for Survival.” EBSCOhost (accessed via American Public University System September 25, 2013).

Scholte, Jan A. 2006. “Global Civil Society.” EBSCOhost (accessed via American Public University System September 25, 2013).

Turner, Oliver. 2009. “China’s Recovery: Why the Writing Was Always on the Wall.” Political Quarterly 80, no. 1: 111-118. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 25, 2013).

Walt, Stephen M. 2011. “The End of the American Era.” National Interest no. 116: 6-16. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 25, 2013).


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