Morality as an instrument of power to gain alliances and become the world’s hegemon? That’s the key argument made by Chinese foreign policy expert Yan Xuetong in his new book “Leadership and the rise of Great Powers”. This review applies this concept in today’s grand struggle for hegemony between the United States and China and asks whether indeed it might not be Europe that could benefit most as a moral superpower.
“May you live in interesting times.” This supposedly Chinese wish isn’t particularly well-meaning. Interesting times are troubled, even dangerous times. But whether we like it or not, we are living in interesting times. The end of history, which the American political theorist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed at the end of the Cold War, is long over. Geopolitics has returned with a vengeance. The United States and China are locked in a struggle for hegemony that will define the 21st century as much as the Cold War defined the preceding one. For the moment, this struggle is primarily played out in the economic and technological sphere. But a spill-over into other domains is not unthinkable.
For many, the United States and China are locked in the “Thucydides’s Trap”. According to this concept, coined by Harvard professor Graham T. Allison and based on the writings of the ancient Greek strategist Thucydides, a rising power and an established dominant power will inevitably break into conflict. “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta”, writes Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War. Substitute China for Athens and the United States for Sparta, and you may find yourself in today’s world. China isn’t a Trump obsession. It may just be the only bipartisan issue that unites Democrats and Republicans in Washington these days.
Empires have risen and fallen throughout the ages. But what reasons lie behind the displacement of a hegemon by a challenger? Why do leading powers emerge and decline? Countless academics have looked at the great power transitions in history, giving different explanations.
To Paul Kennedy, a British historian at Yale, it all boils down to imperial overstretch. In his magisterial book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1988), he describes how empires extent…