Rising titans, falling giants

It’s been a quiet year for guest lectures in the Slavic Department. However, the party’s jumpin’ at my frenemy, the school of public policy. I talked myself into going to a lecture, during which Joshua Shifrinson discussed his recent book, Rising Titans, Falling Giants: How Great Powers Exploit Power Shifts. What follows is a summary of the lecture’s main takeaways (possibly a pseudo-plug for the book).

Shifrinson’s overarching theory in Rising Titans is based upon a realist interpretation of international relations – putting power and security before soft power or human rights concerns. Which, he admits, is good at explaining conflict and not so good at explaining cooperation.

Fear of alleged American decline is often grounded in the idea that rising powers such as China won’t hesitate to do “nefarious things” to a weakened U.S., so Shifrinson set out to uncover why and when rising states do such “nefarious things.”

He finds that rising state behavior is sometimes cooperative, sometimes predatory. When a rising state “thinks” it can use a declining state to keep other threats (in Shifrinson’s assessment, other rising powers) at bay, it is rational to keep the declining state around as a partner. If a declining state is the only thing between a rising state and predominance, predatory behavior is rational.

Several factors go into the mix: geography, spheres of influence, whether a declining state (or rising state for that matter) is willing to entertain the idea of cooperation. If there’s reasonable chance the declining state might pose a threat to the rising state in the future, the rising state may hold back from partnership.

Rising Titans focuses on two case studies of great powers that fell out of the ranks in modern world (1945 – present): Great Britain and the Soviet Union. My notes get muddled here, so I’ll skip this section; you need only know that decline went relatively okay for Britain and not so much for the USSR.

Shifrinson also reviews the end of the Cold War, challenging the notion that it was a “benign victory” for all. In his eyes, the U.S. did indeed win the Cold War (here we part ways), but also preyed upon the Soviet Union. Internal policy documents and memos show an America actively trying to take advantage of the Soviet Union’s weaknesses in the ’80s – coercing the USSR into adopting a Western stance on human rights and relinquishing its arms while preserving U.S. capabilities. (Shifrinson points out that America emerged from the INF treaty with clear nuclear superiority in Europe.) While the Reagan years were devoted to “stabilizing on our terms, preserving our strengths,” the Bush years were spent trying to walk the USSR out of Eastern Europe, staking control of important parts of the former Soviet empire, and negotiating a peaceful end to the USSR. But an end nonetheless.

“But what about ‘Reagan and Gorby?'” you ask.

According to Shifrinson, the U.S. did not publicly declare its goals, but behind the scenes, there was no change or break in the predatory behavior between Reagan 1 and Reagan 2. Gorbachev played along because he was a visionary with limited options: he needed to buffet his domestic reputation with international successes and sought economic integration. But saving him was never truly in the cards.

Reagan comes off as being less exploitative of the USSR than Bush. He pushed human rights and negotiated some strategic arms treaties but did not fundamentally alter the core of U.S.-Soviet relations. In turn, Bush – when the USSR retreated from Eastern Europe – broke up the Warsaw pact, took East Germany, reunified it with West Germany, and placed it all in America’s sphere of influence.

The lecture ended with four major takeaway points from the book.

Great powers aren’t inherently adversaries.

Competition doesn’t mean cooperation is entirely impossible, or that powers won’t find logical reasons for striking a deal.

Great powers are often awfully scared.

The Brits were afraid of what came next after World War II. The Soviets were afraid of a U.S. attack. The U.S. was afraid of a Soviet takeover. Before ascribing a state’s behavior to malevolent tendencies or a “badness in the blood” (opening yourself up to the potential for policy mistakes), try to construct it in a different rationale. Might the state be acting defensively or trying to mitigate threats elsewhere?

Rise and decline ultimately occur because of differential growth rates [economic, population…].

To slow decline or make a comeback, countries can attempt to boost their own growth rates or bank on the idea that others’ growth rates will eventually level off.

Decline is often a long-run process.

It took Austria-Hungary 200 years to fall. It took the Ottomans 400. Some solace for those wary of American decline?

If you’re interested by what you read in this post, you might consider taking a look at Shifrinson’s full book, available from Cornell University Press. I’m behind as always, so maybe you could report back to me with any tidbits you find?

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