November 21, 2019

Many scholars and policymakers in the United States accept the narrative that China is a revisionist state challenging the U.S.-dominated international liberal order. The narrative assumes that there is a singular liberal order and that it is obvious what constitutes a challenge to it. The concepts of order and challenge are, however, poorly operationalized. There are at least four plausible operationalizations of order, three of which are explicitly or implicitly embodied in the dominant narrative. These tend to assume, ahistorically, that U.S. interests and the content of the liberal order are almost identical. The fourth operationalization views order as an emergent property of the interaction of multiple state, substate, nonstate, and international actors. As a result, there are at least eight “issue-specific orders” (e.g., military, trade, information, and political development). Some of these China accepts; some it rejects; and some it is willing to live with. Given these multiple orders and varying levels of challenge, the narrative of a U.S.-dominated liberal international order being challenged by a revisionist China makes little conceptual or empirical sense. The findings point to the need to develop more generalizable ways of observing orders and compliance.

Quarterly (winter, spring, summer, fall)208pp. per issue6 3/4 x 10Founded: 19762018 Impact Factor: 4.5002018 Google Scholar h5-index: 33ISSN: 0162-2889E-ISSN: 1531-4804

International Security

Volume 44 | Issue 2 | Fall 2019


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Alastair Iain Johnston (PhD University of Michigan, 1993) is the Gov. James Albert Noe and Linda Noe Laine Professor of China in World Affairs in the Government Department at Harvard University. He has written on socialization theory, identity and political behavior, and strategic culture, mostly with application to the study of East Asian international relations and Chinese foreign policy. Johnston is the author of Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton 1995) and Social States: China in International Institutions, 1980-2000 (Princeton University Press, 2008), and is co-editor of Engaging China: The Management of an Emerging Power (Routledge 1999), New Directions in the Study of China’s Foreign Policy (Stanford 2006), Crafting Cooperation: Regional Institutions in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge 2007), Measuring Identity: A Guide for Social Scientists (Cambridge 2009), and Perception and Misperception in American and Chinese Views of the Other (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2015).