A University Grants Commission Approved Journal
(under UGC-CARE, Arts & Humanities Citation Index)
ISSN 2582-2241


Yan Xuetong. Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers.
(Princeton University Press, 2019), Pages 280, US$ 26.


THE AUTHOR, YAN XUETONG (阎学通), IS A DISTINGUISHED PROFESSOR OF International Relations at Tsinghua University (清华大学) in China. In 2008, he was named as one of the top 100 public intellectuals by Foreign Policy. The book reviewed here makes the case that strong political leadership is the key to the emergence of a new powerful state in the world system. The central thesis is that the stronger a rising state’s political leadership, the more likely it is to displace a prevailing dominant state in the international system. This clearly gestures towards the likely displacement of an inward-looking United States by an outbound China. The author predicts that there is no likelihood of a direct war between China and United States over the next twenty years. He even dismisses the possibility of a proxy war during the next decade.

Yan (阎) identifies morality as a critical factor in determining the “credibility” of political leadership both in fulfilling its domestic duties and in raising its international profile. Employing the “levels of analysis” method, the author studies leadership at the personal, national, and international levels, demonstrating the ways in which a rising power like China, on the one hand, has transformed the international order by reshaping power distribution and norms. On the other hand, the author weighs the reasons for the diminishing international stature of the United States even though the U.S. economy, education system, military, political institutions, and technology are maintaining their stature. Following this, the author offers a hypothesis, or a mechanism, by which a rising state can replace a dominant state and assume the role of a new world leader. The Yan mechanism operates on the use of political power supported by a “morally informed leadership.” He hypothesises that the rulers of states who act in accordance with moral norms have tended to win the race over the long term.

A moralist-realist theory is suggested which emphasises morality as the basis for foreign policy, in the first chapter of this book. Thus “the side that wins the most international support will win the competition,” underscoring that victory depends on moral leadership. Correspondingly, Yan believes that the former Soviet Union lost the Cold War because it lacked credibility and moral leadership. China, he argues, acts differently in its competition with the United States because of its value-based leadership, and that China will be better accepted by the international community than the present-day United States.

Yan Xuetong is conversant with the topic of ancient Chinese thought. It is worth mentioning his publication, Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power (with Professor Daniel A. Bell, and Sun Zhe (孙哲), revised edition 2013, also by Princeton China Series), borrows ideas of political determinism from ancient Chinese philosophers in order to explain China’s expanding influence by presenting a “moral-realist theory” that attributes the rise and fall of nations to political leadership. The U.S.-China rivalry hinges not just on a show of hard power but also on the ability of each power to claim a higher moral ground.

The author differs with many analysts on the issue whether the world is currently undergoing a new Cold War. He argues that intense U.S.-China competition will not result in another Cold War scenario, but he boldly forecasts that their spiralling mutual distrust will eventually shift the world centre from Europe to East Asia. He predicts in the next ten years, the United States and China would be the only two superpowers, and smaller/less powerful states would be placed in the unenviable position of choosing between the United States and China based on specific global issues. As a result, the world order will face great stress because there will be less agreement, for instance, on climate change, counterterrorism, illegal immigration, and human trafficking. 

Further on morality, Yan explains that “strategic credibility” is a moral code on the same level as not lying; hence a country lacking it cannot gain the trust of other states. In traditional Chinese culture, yishen zuoze (以身作则), or leading by example rather than giving orders is a facet of the leadership doctrine that relates to Confucius.

Divided into nine chapters and a concluding chapter, the book covers important themes of morality, power and authority; leadership and strategic preferences; corollaries of international change; power distribution and the world centre; leadership and international norms; international mainstream values; transformation of the international system; and historical cases of system transformation. 

In chapter two, the author categorises international leadership into four types: humane authority, hegemony, anemocracy, and tyranny. Humane authority adopts foreign policies in accordance with international norms and is strategically trustworthy. Hegemonic leadership is trustworthy but follows a double standard of helping allies but acting ruthlessly towards rivals. Anemocratic leadership is irresponsible and adopts foreign policies simply because they are in accord with those chosen by other states, implying that it will bully states weaker than itself and bow to those that are stronger. Tyrannical leadership is untrustworthy but consistent, always adopting policies adhering to the principle of realpolitik, so that neither ally nor rival is willing to trust it.

Both humane authority and hegemony have an ability to maintain a relatively stable world order. But wangdao (王道), the principle of humane authority, and badao (霸道), the principle of hegemony, are quite different in their ways of providing international leadership: the former encourages states to adopt a benevolent foreign policy towards weaker neighbours, and the latter counsels states to adopt a deterrent strategy towards them. At the present time, humane authority has only a slight change of becoming a doctrine of a new international leadership.

As liberalism declines, China is attempting to increase its soft power, but the concept of ideologies in China is rather complicated as there are four ideologies competing to influence the nation’s foreign policymaking: Marxism, economic pragmatism, liberalism and traditionalism. Scholars generally agree that among all of them, traditionalism has been the guiding ideology of foreign policymaking.

The present global decline of liberalism, together with domestic ideological competition within China, may lead to a scenario where no ideology would dominate at the global level, the author posits. At the same time the major ideologies, including liberalism, are competing for regional domination or influence in countries. Neither the United States nor China is able to offer a globally dominant ideology in the coming decade. While President Donald Trump’s anti-establishmentarianism has little chance of becoming a dominant ideology in the West, in China the ideological competition disenables China from proposing a globally dominant ideology over the next decade. It is impossible for the two countries to make joint efforts to establish a new global ideology.

The present bi-polar world order with the United States and China at the two extremes implies that an ideology more advanced than liberalism can be established by combining the fine traditions of the two countries’ political thoughts. There is a possibility of combining the three values of liberalism—equality, democracy and freedom—with the three Chinese traditional values of benevolence, righteousness, and li (, rites). Their merger would result in the following formulations: Benevolence’s embrace of Equality, Righteousness’ embrace of Democracy, and Rites’ embrace of Freedom.

This book has appeared at a timely moment when there is a need for further answers about current global affairs, and therefore it is essential reading for scholars and practitioners of foreign policy. The book clearly demonstrates that China’s values-driven leadership is perhaps superior to the present-day leadership of the West.

 Hao Junyi (郝俊逸) is a Masters’ degree student of Law at the Department of International Politics, School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University (山东大学), China. Her current research focuses on the role of non-governmental organisations in global governance. This book review represents an effort by Hao Junyi to specialise in broader research and critique of scholarly work on International Relations and China. Her forthcoming research article is on the location of the concept of leadership in Chinese academic discourse.