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Quest for Status: Chinese and Russian Foreign Policy

Quest for Status: Chinese and Russian Foreign Policy by Deborah Welch Larson and Alexei Shevchenko. Yale University Press, 2019.

In the academic study of international relations, there are ever-evolving theories that political scientists create to explain the actions of various international entities. While there are the classic standbys such as realism (where states are the main actors in international relations and act according to their own interests), there are some newer ones on the horizon looking to add to the discourse. Such is the case with Quest for Status: Chinese and Russian Foreign Policy by Deborah Welch Larson and Alexei Shevchenko, two California-based political science professors. In this work, the authors present a new way to explain the foreign policy actions of China and Russia, emphasizing the actions of each country over the past 200 years.

The theory that Larson and Shevchenko propose, Social Identity Theory (SIT), looks at the actions of both China and Russia through the prism of how each country views its self-identity vis-à-vis other countries. For the authors, SIT translates to social groups “striving to achieve a positively distinctive identity” (p. 2). To do this, social groups, which include countries/nation-states, can engage in three types of actions: social mobility (emulating the actions of higher-status groups with the goal of acceptance); social competition (looking to challenge established, higher-status groups with the goal of equaling or bettering them); and social creativity (using a potential negative characteristic and spinning it into a positive). The bulk of the analysis describes how Russia and China used all three of these actions to advance various political and economic goals in the international realm.

Throughout the book, Larson and Shevchenko reference SIT as well as compare it with other accepted international relations theories, primarily neorealism (power is the most important factor in international relations) and constructivism (actions in international relations are socially constructed). Given that SIT is their combined theory, it is no surprise that they hold SIT as the best example to explain the actions of these two nations. Most of the analysis is chronologically based, starting from the days of Kievan Rus and the Mongol invasions for Russia (early second millennium AD) and from the Qing Dynasty for China (mid-1600s). From there, the work looks at both countries as they go through the rest of the second millennium AD, with the biggest emphasis on how Russia and China interact with Western Europe and the United States from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. The authors describe the various interactions between the two nations but emphasize Russia and China’s relations with the Western powers.

When it comes to international relations, there are always openings for new theories and ways to interpret the actions of a given entity. Given the evidence and analysis presented by Larson and Shevchenko, SIT is a workable theory that can explain a great deal of why Russia and China acted and still act the way they do. Another way to describe SIT is image and pride. Both Russia and China have always valued outside opinions. Both want to be powerful players on the world stage but are mindful of their historic shortcomings. For Russia, it is the long-standing desire to project a strength respected by its European neighbors. For China, it is a quest to reclaim a rightful place of prominence in the world and to forever bury the dark times from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, their “century of humiliation.”

Will everyone agree with SIT in international relations? Probably not. SIT is a relatively new concept. It is primarily a psychological theory that started to emerge in the late 1970s. The theory notes how people define their self-identity—be it standings with other peers or how they determine their identity via affiliations, such as fandom with sports teams and political party affiliations. There is something to be said for how nations and people within nations see their identity tied with groups and how those nations view their identity in relation to other nations.

Still, nation-states such as Russia and China are made up of people, and SIT involves people. Personal motivations can come from individual leaders, be it the tsars of Russia and the emperors of China or the autocratic rulers that drive the nations today (Putin for Russia and Xi for China). On the other hand, motivations can emerge from the collective will of ruling organizations (the Communist Party in Soviet Russia and the current Chinese Communist Party). Regardless of individuals or groups of individuals, there is a quest for asserting personal/national identity, and both nations do this continuously on the international stage.

While not explicitly stated, the authors chose the two biggest nation-state adversaries to the United States. With America seen as the dominant international power, Russia and China will view their status and situation in comparison to their standing with the US. This reference point described the actions of Russia and China in the post–World War II environment. Whether Russia or China cooperated or competed with the US was based on what each nation wanted to do from a SIT perspective. That will still hold true in the future.

Overall, this work is primarily geared toward the international relations student/scholar. The discussions about SIT vis-à-vis the international relations theory will probably be of little significance to outside readers. There is not much groundbreaking historical revelation in this work, but the authors effectively use history to advocate their theory about the role of SIT in Russia and China’s international relations. While academic in nature, the writing is relatively engaging, not so dry that it would turn off a non-IR scholar/student. This work may be of some use to the analyst looking for a framework by which to define the two countries.

Lt Col Scott C. Martin, USAF

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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