Book Review: Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers by Yan Xuetong

David B. Kanin is an Adjunct Lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Review of: Yan Xuetong, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2019, pp. 262).

What follows is a reconsideration of Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers by Yan Xuetong, published in 2019. At that time, many treated it as a work of political science. Some focused on its critique of Western liberal institutionalism. Reviewers also discussed the book’s approach to morality. In my view, much of this commentary missed its thoughtful—and more than a little threatening—blueprint for how a rising China understands the Western-dominated international order and how it aims to overawe and surpass it.

Yan Xuetong, a professor of political science and dean at the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, has written an allegorical narrative of Chinese leadership framed by an analysis of Western theories and practices of power. He places himself inside the realist school of thought regarding the international security order and assesses how a rising China will adjust its norms and practices.

Readers may be tempted to focus on his eyebrow-raising assertions and idiosyncratic interpretations of Western political theory—especially the schools of thought Yan lumps under the term “realism.” They might spend time grappling with his views on early modern icons or the works of contemporary political scientists. What readers might more usefully do is take seriously his view of the practice of international relations, which has more in common with classical political philosophy (both Western and Chinese) than with any contemporary academic system. Yan could have stripped away everything in the book concerning realism and replaced it with a deeper assessment of his primary focus—the relationship between moral categories and the behavior of political leaders.

At its core, Professor Yan’s argument (even with its Chinese characteristics) comes straight from Plato and Aristotle. His notions of national or universal morality—which are central to his worldview—are presented as Platonic forms. He does not define his terms so much as assert them as Aristotelian first principles and use them to build declarative logic trains. For instance:

“Universal morality (such as patriotism, obligation, or justice) is accepted by all members, even adversaries, of a given international system. Therefore, we will use universal codes to judge the morality of a state’s leadership. Governmental morality thus refers to those universal moral codes.”

Full stop. Yan says a state’s morality is not structured by any arbitrary set of standards, but rather on the actions that the state undertakes “irrespective of the individual policymaker’s motivations or personal beliefs.” This is the basis of the “moral realism” he champions as his own view of how international relations work. The bulk of the book discusses Yan’s take on the meaning of power, authority, global systems, global system change, norms, and the relationships among these concepts. It does not grapple with ambiguities, nuance, or tensions that might provide cautionary considerations or otherwise complicate his laser-focused argument that the capabilities, policies, and behavior of leaders largely determine the rise and decline of great powers. Yan states categorically that “when a rising state’s political leadership surpasses that of the dominant state, the power disparity between the two states reverses, rendering the rising state the new dominant state.”

Yan is careful not to offer a simple argument that China is overtaking the United States. His analysis is more concerned with how Chinese and US decisionmakers will approach their bilateral rivalry. He presents a fairly standard realist view of what he calls corollaries of international change. Chapter four, “Power Redistribution and World Center,” contains useful insights on recent and current leaders in Beijing and Washington. Yan’s discussion of leadership types, power dynamics, and system change includes many citations of classical Chinese political theory, especially from Xunzi (Xun Kuang), the Warring States-era Confucian philosopher. Yan often juxtaposes Xunzi’s thoughts with those of modern and contemporary Western political science; comparisons and contrasts with pre-nineteenth century Western political philosophy would have been more congruent.

Interestingly, Yan defines the Western terms and concepts he uses, but not their Chinese counterparts. He parses Joseph S. Nye, Jr.’s concept of soft power but when employing Xunzi to highlight the importance of a leading state’s credibility, all he offers the reader is “accordingly, one who uses the state to establish justice will be a sage king; he who establishes trust will be a hegemon; and one who establishes a record of expediency and opportunism will perish.” The book never makes clear what it is to be “sage.” Is it enough to follow the “universal morality” of a given system?

Professor Yan’s organization of world history is a bit disjointed. A chart on page 159 lists the components of interstate systems “academically defined.” He breaks the world down into the Huaxia universe, Europe, and a Muslim region before presenting a post-World War I global taxonomy divided into a Versailles-Washington system (1919-1939) and Yalta system (1945 – the present). The Huaxia system consists of states now within the single state of China, a unity Europe never achieved. Yan ignores this important distinction. Although he mentions in passing an historical East Asia of which China is part, he never discusses a regional system and has little to say about China’s neighbors other than Japan.

Yan’s version of the European Westphalian system only lasts until 1791. He considers the years of “anti-France coalitions” (1792-1815) to make up an era rather than an interlude interrupting the evolutionary adjustments from Westphalia, through Utrecht, Vienna, and Versailles, to San Francisco and afterward.

Yan does not appear to share the standard view that 1914 marked an international system-changing event. In his view, “although World War I had a dramatic impact on international relations in the early twentieth century, it failed to bring about a transformation of the international system, because there were no changes in the type of either configuration or norms.” The disappearance of centuries-old dynastic empires and the establishment of Soviet power in Russia apparently does not meet Yan’s criteria for a change to the international system’s configuration.

Then, after World War II, Europe was able to retain its “status as the central arena of international politics” because it was the focus of the “fierce” competition between the United States and the USSR. For Yan, Europe’s “central” role marked its diminution from powerhouse of the planet to merely the main theater of rivalry between the now-dominant giants on its flanks. The subsequent European project continues to be a reaction to the old continent’s geopolitical smallness, no matter the lingering rhetoric regarding the enduring centrality of the European powers. Yan later gives a nod to this condition when he notes that none of the European countries possess the potential to become a superpower. He also says the engine driving the shift in the “global geopolitical center” is the combination of China’s rise and Europe’s decline, rather than the United States’ relative decline.

Gradually, Yan gets to his assessment of the emerging US-China rivalry. He believes the next decades will amount to “bipolarization without global leadership” because neither the United States nor China can provide such leadership. In his view, there exists only a minimal danger of a war between these states, but the world in which they compete will be marked by an unstable order. Yan believes there could be “kaleidoscopic competition” between various ideologies for regional dominance or influence in “certain types of states.”

At least that is what the realist in Yan says. The classical political philosopher says something else. The central piece of his analysis is Chapter 6, “International Mainstream Values.” In it, Yan prescribes a values-based way forward for our era’s great powers based on a set of dyadic combinations between specific Chinese and Western principles. He places these combinations under an umbrella distinction between “justice” and “fairness,” disagreeing with John Rawls’s encapsulation of “justice as fairness.” Yan says justice must accord with righteousness of result. Again, he provides no further information on what that latter phrase means or how a citizen or participant in a transaction identifies righteousness of result.

Each dyad of values involves a Chinese concept embracing (or rather, smothering) what Yan presents as a Western counterpart. First, benevolence embraces equality. For Yan, the “Christian tradition” of equality is problematic because it is “enjoined by the natural law of life.” People are anything but equal, his argument goes, in physical and mental abilities, social conditions, and so much else. Therefore, benevolence, which Yan identifies as a core idea and social norm of Confucianism, can popularize the value of fairness on a global level. Unfortunately, it is not clear who decides what is benevolent. Yan uses the existence of weight classes in Olympic boxing as an example of benevolence ensuring equality. He might have considered a different analogy, that of the demonstrated prevalence of corruption in so much of international sport, as a cautionary tale that underscores the lack of equality, benevolence, fairness, or justice in many international and transnational organizations.

Yan’s second dyad sees righteousness embracing democracy. He notes that representative democracy does not always produce “just” decisions, citing the United States’ decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as an example. Righteousness, which Yan says is an ancient Chinese moral code “shared among a number of philosophical schools” is the proper corrective to this flaw. He acknowledges that the concept has broad connotations, but says its core is “upright, reasonable, and proper behavior.” All of these terms are, again, undefined. The value of righteousness can help constrain the unjust legitimacy of leading states’ conduct by requiring justice in both form and result. Presumably, the sage leaders Yan postulates as the key element in proper state behavior will know how to get this done. Whether these individuals will be constrained or even monitored by any checks on their powers or balances to their legal authorities is left unsaid. Professor Yan’s lack of comment on such matters leaves these concepts functioning on their own, as idealized states of mind left to the interpretation of—someone.

Yan’s proposal that the traditional Chinese value of rites should embrace freedom is the most incongruous of his proposed conceptual partnerships. Freedom, to him, is an “instinct common to all animals,” and a “primal need.” However, to build a social order it is necessary to sacrifice some degree of freedom to “the norms that regulate an individual’s behavior.” Proper rites (social norms or customs formed according to a given ethics) are the “foundation of civility and advance the social significance of human life beyond the principle of freedom.” Rites help to “guide” humans toward civilized behavior. You get the idea. In this scheme, someone gets to define what is civilized and what is not, enforces the civility of approved rites and individual behavior on society, and calls this freedom.

Yan’s discussion of this dyad could provide an instructive gloss on future bilateral interactions between China and the United States as these powers grapple with how to establish and maintain a constructive context for negotiation and conflict resolution. When he argues that rites will be crucial to establishing the basis for global security, Yan echoes aspects of US-Soviet relations during the Cold War. He says the United States and China should establish norms of civility to regulate their competition for global domination in a peaceful manner. It would be helpful to know if he believes the arms control regime established during the détente that followed the Cuban missile crisis was an example of how to do this. US and Soviet experts forged not only specific treaties and inspection regimes, but also the choreography—the rites—of inspection procedures and dispute resolution mechanisms. Some of those experts got to know each other so well that they felt more comfortable exchanging views on the arcane details of their mutual field of interest with each other than they did dealing with the politicians and administrators in their own respective countries. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, some of these people maintained their relationships at Pugwash meetings and other venues, and so preserved the rites that had guided decades of negotiations. So far, nothing like that professional civility and mutual respect appears to exist in US-Chinese relations.

This book provides Western readers an opportunity to adjust their frames of reference regarding the subject-object relationship in the post-Western world. Western politicians, diplomats, and academics are going to have to learn how to focus on the context and framing of arguments like those of Yan Xuetong. Chinese leaders and thinkers are not going to be satisfied with being relegated to the role of responsible actors working within the confines of residual Western institutions, norms, and ideational systems. This will be the case no matter who runs the United States and the various pieces of Europe in the years to come. Yan Xuetong’s conceptualizations and insights provide blueprints for both the velvet glove and the enclosed fist that the People’s Republic of China will wield as its global power increases.

Works Cited

Shivshankar Menon, “Book Review: Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers by Yan Xuetong,” China Report, 56(1), 139-141, February 3, 2020,

Susan Babbitt, “Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers (The Princeton-China Series),” New York Journal of Books, April 9, 2019,

David B. Kanin
David B. Kanin

David B. Kanin is an Adjunct Lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).