Wellesley Professors Explore Rise and Decline of Global Powers

January 16, 2019
Two books appear on a map of the world. They read: When right makes might and twilight of the titans.

“Why do great powers accommodate, even facilitate, the rise of some challengers, while others are contained or confronted, even at the risk of war? What explains a great power’s strategic response to rising power in the international system?”

These questions open When Right Makes Might: Rising Powers and World Order, a new book by Stacie Goddard, Professor of Political Science at Wellesley.

“How do great powers respond to relative decline?” fellow Wellesley political science associate professor Paul MacDonald asks in his recent book, co-authored with University of Notre Dame professor Joseph Parent, Twilight of the Titans: Great Power Decline and Retrenchment. “What options do great powers have to slow or reverse their descent?”

The professors, whose books were both published by Cornell University Press, brought their research and expertise to audiences in Washington on January 15, where they spoke on a panel at the Cato Institute. (Check out the livestream for the Cato Institute’s event, “The Return of Great Power Competition.”) They will also be appearing together at the Wilson Center and the Brookings Institution.


The Daily Shot: Why were you drawn to investigate global power politics?

Stacie Goddard: I was particularly interested in the question of why it is great powers decide to accommodate some rising powers, and instead decide to confront others, even at the cost of war. For example, Britain decided to accommodate the rise of the United States. The United States, in contrast, pretty fiercely contested Japan’s expansion in the 1930s. Explaining the variation across cases is important.

Major power war is not a common event—indeed, it’s quite rare—but it is a catastrophic one. Asking under what conditions great powers today might get involved in a war is critical for scholars of international politics. And the rise of China, Russian expansion in Ukraine, as well as the United States’ own turn towards more explicit power competition, have pushed scholars to need to revisit the dynamics of global power politics.

Paul MacDonald: Geopolitical competition among powerful states has been a persistent feature of international politics, one which I have always found fascinating. But one does not have to strain to see evidence of power politics today, whether it is the United States’ long-running intervention in Afghanistan, China’s pursuit of territorial claims in the South China Sea, or Russia’s interference in democratic elections in Europe and North America.


What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

Goddard: I think there are two takeaways. The first is that how great powers respond to rising powers depends on whether they see a rising power as behaving legitimately.

For example, if a rising power (the U.S. expanding into Spanish territory in the South and West in the early 19th century, or China today into the South China Sea) can portray its ambitions as legitimate, it can make the case that—far from being a revolutionary power—its advances will preserve, and perhaps even protect, the prevailing status quo. In contrast, if a rising power’s claims are illegitimate—if they are inconsistent with prevailing rules and norms—then great powers will see its actions as threatening, making containment and confrontation likely.

And second, my book suggests that talk really matters in international politics. This goes a bit against the conventional wisdom, which suggests that rhetoric matters very little and that it’s “harder” power, like a rising power’s military or its economic wealth, that matters. I try to show that how a rising state talks about its ambitions is another form of international power politics.


MacDonald: When my co-author and I began this research in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which raised all sorts of questions about the future of American power, we found that political scientists had thought a great deal about how states that were gaining in economic strength might behave in international politics, but not as much about how declining states might behave.

Our main takeaway is that periods of relative economic decline creates serious national security challenges for great powers, but that these states tend to respond through policies of retrenchment and reform, rather than foreign aggression or domestic gridlock.


One of the main topics at the Cato Institute event was understanding the context and complexities of current U.S.-China relations. Can you briefly summarize your argument(s) and findings as they relate to that?

Goddard: What China says about its ambitions is as important as what it does. For example, when I teach my students, I ask them to comment on what China’s expansion in the South China Seas means about its ultimate intentions. And there is never a consensus in the classroom—some argue that China is engaging in a limited expansion, others argue that this is a first bid to establish wide-ranging control of the Asia-Pacific. What my students say reflects the general debate among policymakers today.

My book suggests that China has done an excellent job using rhetoric to create ambiguity around its intentions. At times, China’s leaders appeal to the rules and norms of existing institutions to explain their expansion. So they argue that their “One Belt, One Road” program is designed to invest in states so they can better participate in free trade. At other times, China’s leaders sound much more nationalistic in their claims. So this creates a lot of uncertainty for those trying to understand what China plans to do with its increasing power.

The concern is that, if China’s rhetoric turns more nationalistic, what will the United States’ response be? One thing I argue in the book is that, at times, great powers overreact to what rising powers say—they become more fearful of aggression than need be—and this can lead to unnecessary conflict.

MacDonald: There is a growing consensus in Washington that the United States should be alarmed by China’s rise and engage in strategic competition with it, and our findings suggest some implications for how the U.S. can manage the rise of China.

While examining the relative decline through the lens of history in our book, we came to find that the best way to slow or reverse one’s own decline is not to lash out or compete, but to emphasize domestic and international reforms. These could include reducing defense burdens, investing in domestic innovation, relying more on allies, and seeking to defuse potential foreign policy flashpoints, for example.