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Book Review: Why Nations Rise. Narratives and the Path to Great Power

08 Dec 2022
Reviewed by Rahul Jaybhay

What explains the diversity in policy responses, actions, and narratives of great powers? In this timely analysis, the author examines the role of ideas, behavioural patterns, and material capabilities.

What Miller does differently in this excellent theoretical work is weave together the key presumptions of the material world with the “ideas” and narratives of constructivist theorists to explain rising powers and their great diversity. The disposition of a rising power is assumed to be revisionist, unruly, “disruptive,” and troublesome for the international order. Miller challenges this assumption by meshing ideas and beliefs with material powers to tease out distinct behavioural patterns. These are then boxed into a spectrum of behavioural tendencies ranging from “activist” to “reticent.” On this basis, a rising power, having economic and material capabilities to become great, is seen as an activist power when it “globalises” its authority to secure expanding regional and international interests, while also shaping other’s recognition of itself as a great power. Reticent powers, by contrast, do not show these two behaviours, but have the capacity to do so. In between lie active powers who may turn “activist” but prefer following extant norms, implying an accommodating character.

Ideas and beliefs enable the state’s elites to lay out a grand “narrative” to guide state behaviour, which can be either supportive, critical, or ambiguous in relation to the prevailing order. The narrative drives the rising state to envisage a superior image of itself, emboldening it to take “proactive” steps to realise broader objectives. Such steps alter the role of the rising state commensurate to its inflating status, which propels it to either “globalise” its authority or exploit newer opportunities. Thus, if a rising power wants to become a great power, it must take on new responsibilities and advocate for grand narratives that allow it to join the great power ranks.

Miller challenges the structural determinism of power transition theory which asserts that power parity and revisionist intentions (which most assume rising powers possess) will result in war. Such assumptions, if logically extended, always presume that a rising power will defy the international order and invalidate the possibility of a rising power being pleasant and kind. Further, a larger body of theoretical work, expanding particularly on structural realism, challenges the core assumptions of power transition theory by arguing that power parity has a stabilising, not destructive, impact on the international system. The flaw – whether power parity produces war or peace – ignores the diversity in a rising power’s conduct by putting significant weight on power variables to determine the outcome. As a rising power is assumed to be critical and dissatisfied with the prevailing order, it has to be cautious not just about how other great powers see it but also to manage their perceptions so that they don’t always assume its own rise will be destabilising. Miller’s scholarship challenges the conclusions led by structural realists to showcase that rising powers rarely challenge the extant rules initially, rather they play by norms put in place by the great powers.

Before challenging the system, a rising power has to adopt the “norms” articulated by existing powers to accelerate its prospects of joining great power ranks rather than seeking critical adjustments in the order from its initial rise. By doing so, a rising power becomes great not by challenging the existing system but by accepting it. Accommodating prevailing architecture shows benign conduct, shaping the perceptions of great powers, and also signals its intent to get acknowledged and recognised by them. The examples of Meiji era Japan, 19th Century United States, and contemporary China illustrate that all initially clung to standards of great power behaviour by either colonising territories or more recently by joining multilateral initiatives.  Over time, these powers amended or revised existing norms, thus rewriting the standard behaviours of great powers. For instance, while Washington sought to adopt colonising principals in its occupation of the Philippines, it soon after passed “the Philippine Autonomy Act in 1916, followed by the Philippines Independence Act in 1934,” effectively writing colonialism out of its great power behavioural constitution.

Following existing norms elicits recognition from the international community, redefining the rising power’s identity and changing how others perceive it. Moreover, the internal self-conception of the rising power also undergoes a shift. If the internal and external recognition is not in sync with each other, there shall be disappointment in the international system. Externally, other states may believe the rising state is a potential asset, willing to take on responsible roles like balancing against other powers, however, internally the state may not consider these as immediate concerns and instead focus on prioritising economic growth and societal well-being. Such incompatibility leads to divergences in the international community’s expectations about how a rising power behaves in the international system, resulting in ambiguity concerning shared interests and common articulation for the international order.

For instance, Miller argues that China’s rise early on unsettled the West, causing it to employ India as “counter-balance” in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It assumed India would adopt the role of a great power and actively begin to thwart China. But as Miller argues, India’s self-conception was embedded  institutionally in ideas that proliferated after independence and that caused it to hesitate and in some ways reject alliances, especially ones that serve the interests of other great powers.  Challenging Chinese power has not been its immediate concern, much to the disappointment of the West. However, this raises another essential question: Why is India “reticent” in its behaviour?

Miller argues that India lacks “idea advocacy” to become great. Rising powers hold certain beliefs or ideas about their foreign policy capabilities, including their participation in norms and ideas about attaining great power status, and, finally, international participation. Such beliefs are assembled in disparate ways by elites to construct narratives that constitute “mental maps” to become a great power. According to this framework, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, India lacked the common imagination to become great. It held to strong principles of non-alignment while at the same time highlighting its “Indo-centric” and civilisational greatness. Subsequently, India failed to globalise its authority, preferring bilateral relations rather than embracing multilateralism, even when Southeast Asian countries and the US showed a willingness to cooperate. It also lacked a narrative that projected its image as a great power because India prioritised domestic development and focused on putting more weight on its economic growth rather than playing any external roles.

Miller delivers a convincing framework for differentiating rising power’s behaviours while also addressing their aspirations to become great. Rising powers will become great powers if they have these three elements: military capability, economic capability, and idea advocacy. This conceptual clarity on the dispositions and behaviours of rising powers fills theoretical gaps that most structural theories take for granted. It also suggests an eclectic approach, employing rival theoretical frameworks to draw nuance and innovation to refine and address the puzzles that exist in power transition more clearly. In this, the book is an essential read for those interested in understanding differentiation within rising powers and who may be dissatisfied by the simplistic assumptions that have characterised single theoretical frameworks on this topic hitherto.

This is a review of: Manjari Chatterjee Miller, Why Nations Rise: Narratives and the Path to Great Power (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2021).

Rahul Jaybhay is a PhD Student in Politics and International Studies at CIPOD, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He also holds master’s degree from the same school and is a content curator at JNU IR Society.

This review is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution