Different types of revisionism in international relations

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We often hear about China as a revisionist in popular media. But, what exactly is revisionism in international relations? Recent years, scholars tend to identify different types of revisionism. Here, I introduce three articles, mapping out the concept of revisionism insightfully.

(Article) State Revisionism and Ontological (In)security in International Politics: The Complicated Case of Iran and Its Nuclear Behavior

Maysam Behravesh’s paper examines state revisionism and its ties with ontological security, using Iran as a case study. They observe that ‘state revisionism’ has been theoretically and empirically understudied. The classic definition of “dissatisfaction activated towards changing the existing pattern of structures and distribution of resources, material or ideational, in ways that involve conflict/war or are prone to cause it” is too rigorous. The definition assumes all states are willing to take the cost to overthrow the existing order.

Instead, Behravesh suggests states have different responses to their dissatisfaction of the international order. They describe ‘thick revisionism’ as redistribution by offence, sometimes involves territorial changes. ‘Thin revisionism’, in contrast, is redistribution by defence. It is marked by actions that unsettle established structures without territorial conquest. It often refers to proxy use, or power-maximising actions within a state’s boundaries.

Behravesh uses the Iran’s nuclear program to illustrate their point. In the Iranian context, the formation of a ‘resistance identity’ after the 1979 revolution, driven by dissatisfaction and injustice, is explored. Tensions arise from the Shiite identity’s clash with the liberal international order, especially led by the United States. The paper investigates how Iran’s Islamic discourse, demonising the non-Islamic West and romanticizing the past, contributes to shaping this resistance identity.

I enjoy reading this article. It provides a comprehensive conceptual framework for understanding state revisionism and its connection with ontological security.

(Book) Status and the challenge of rising powers

This book by Steven Ward explores the concept of revisionism and status ambitions in the actions of rising powers. He argues intention and attitude matters.

Different from Behravesh, he distinguishes revisionist states by their level dissatisfaction and ability to affect the world order. He describes distributive dissatisfaction as a desire to acquire more of something. For example, more influence, more territory, more wealth, and more status. On the other hand, normative dissatisfaction refers to a desire to protest, delegitimate, or overthrow the rules, norms, and institutions of the status quo order.

The book then delves into domestic politics within rising powers, revealing how internal dynamics influence the shift toward rejectionist policies. Ward emphasises the international impact of domestic politics on global governance and examines pathways to policy change. The analysis of case studies is rich. Ward, involving Wilhelmine Germany, Imperial Japan, interwar-Germany, and the United States.

The chapter on the rise of China has a strong implication of today’s world order. Highlighting the tension between a rising power’s desire for higher status and incentives to maintain the status quo, Ward argues that concerns about status immobility, coupled with perceived unjust treatment, can lead to aggressive policy shifts.

Overall, the book offers fresh perspectives on status concerns in interstate conflicts, providing insights into the logic of restraint and risks rising powers may take. It contributes to understanding the shift and challenges of the international order.

(Article) Embedded Revisionism: Networks, Institutions, and Challenges to World Order

How do institutions shape revisionist behaviour in world politics? Stacie Goddard perhaps is the best article to answer this. She argues that a state’s position within international institutions influences its strategy and approach towards revisionist behaviours.

By definition, all states are dissatisfied with their status in the order. Either they are unhappy with certain rules or norms, or the complete structure. Goddard suggests four types of revisionists, based on their strategies and status.

Integrated revisionists have high access to institutional networks. However, they have limited connections outside of existing networks. They are likely to engage in institutional engagement, seeking to bring about change from within the existing order. Bridging revisionists have high access to institutional networks and high brokerage. They seek rule-based revolution, using existing institutional pathways to achieve their revolutionary aims.

The other two types can be described as thick revisionism. Isolated revisionists, which have low access to institutional networks but high connections outside. Therefore, they would prefer to exit the institutional system. They would also establish an exclusive sphere of influence.

Finally, rogue revisionists refer to states that have low access to institutional networks and poor relationships with other states. They have few resources at hand. As a result, they would resort to hegemonic violence to upend the international order.

Putting in today’s context, Goddard suggests that China is an emerging bridging revisionist. While China has forged new economic and political ties through institutions, these ties were largely formed in response to specific demands, not as a means to challenge the liberal order. However, she also argues that over time, these ties will shape the costs and benefits of revisionism for China. There are opportunities for change, and shift of identity.

Overall, this is a fundamental reading for understanding of branches of revisionism. I strongly recommend this to my students.

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