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Explanations of individual’s political affiliations which do not take non-material into account are fatally flawed. We simply cannot explain or predict people’s political behaviour without thinking about how support for individuals/parties are affected by, and shape people’s identities, felt exclusion/inclusion, legitimacy, and recognition.
However, when it comes to trying to explain how states will behave in the international system, our theories mostly ignore these factors. Traditionally, scholars have focused on how particular actions are driven by states’ perceptions of their own material interests (or at least their elites). In that context, if/when a state will undermine, challenge, ignore or support the current international order is simply a matter of exploring the costs/benefits it perceives will flow from a specific action.
Using this framework, many scholars and commentators now believe that conflict between the ‘West’ and China is inevitable. China, or any ascending power, will increasingly see it in their material interest to exert their increasing power to challenge an international political order – an order which it did not have a hand in creating and that it sees as being purposely designed to entrench the powers of and enrich the founders of the order. The powerful states which benefit from the existing order, will struggle to accommodate the new power into the old structure, leading to an increasing chance of conflict.
My guest for this episode is Dr Rohan Mukherjee. Rohan thinks that this type of analysis misses a key factor in determining state behaviour – perceived recognition, increases and decreases in a state’s status. Like in domestic politics, explanations which ignore these elements will fail in its predictions. In his excellent new book, Ascending Order: Rising Powers and the Politics of Status in International Institutions, he argues that whether rising powers cooperate with, challenge, or try to reform, an international order depends on the extent to which its core institutions facilitate symbolic equality with the great-power club.
Rohan is in the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics. Prior to joining the LSE, he was an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. He received his PhD from Princeton and holds a Masters in Public Administration from its School of Public and International Affairs. He is also a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at MIT’s Security Studies Program, and a non-resident Visiting Fellow at the UN’s University of Tokyo.
Rohan is a thoughtful and creative scholar, and it was a great pleasure to explore how his approach can be applied to understand that the behaviour of China, India, the international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where we should expect cooperation, reform or conflict in the international political order, and many other elements in our world today. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did!