Moral realism is one of the most distinctive and influential Chinese theories of international relations (IR) to have emerged in recent years. This chapter explores the conception of morality in moral realism by situating it within broad intellectual approaches to morality. It offers a critique by pointing out its narrowness and instrumentality. The conception is explicitly instrumental in accordance with realist commitments. It is narrow in that it is restricted to governmental morality judged by the extent to which policies serve national interests and capabilities. Subjects of genuine moral significance, such as justice and care, are left out of the picture. The chapter suggests the value of a broader conception of morality and pinpoints avenues for the further development of the theory.
Bringing together eminent International Relations (IR) scholars from China and the West, this book examines moral realism from a range of different perspectives. Through its analyses, it verifies the robustness of moral realism in IR theory.
The first section of the book is written by Chinese scholars and dedicated to debates about how moral realism relates to traditional schools of IR theory. The latter portion, provided by Western contributors, critically investigates both the universal and practical values of moral realism. Finally, Yan Xuetong concludes by responding constructively to all criticisms and further exploring the nature and characteristics of interstate leadership in moral realism.
This chapter suggests that Yan’s ‘moral realism’ is a path-breaking realist theory, which integrates ancient Chinese philosophy, historical and contemporary cases, and modern international relations (IR) theory. It explains the rise of great powers and the transformation of the international order. It highlights the key role of political leadership in explaining why only a few rising powers can succeed while others cannot. Political leadership can also account for the changing international power configurations, norms, orders, and systems. There are three issues that Yan’s moral realism might need to clarify further: the conceptualizations of morality and political leadership, the interactions and mechanisms between state leadership and international leadership, and the holistic view of norms and leadership. These three issue areas can be seen as an opportunity for other scholars to further explore in order to advance moral realism as a new IR theory in the future.
This chapter provides a critique of the conceptualization of some crucial concepts in moral realism, such as bipolarity, liberalism, complex interdependence, and hegemony. The author contests that Yan’s prediction of the Sino–US bipolar structure is problematic and suggests that Yan underestimates the capability of the EU, India, Japan, Brazil, and also of Russia, as well as the role of complex interdependence and institutional resilience. From a Western perspective, he criticizes Yan for not realizing the deep political and cultural divisions within the West, which he considers to be evidence of crisis of old liberalism. In addition, he also criticizes Yan’s definition of liberalism as a narrow conceptualization of political theory. It is believed that Yan’s attachment of negative connotation to the concept of hegemony is contrary to its meaning in Western political science by referring not only to new institutionalism, and new realism, but also to the best Italian Marxism. Based on that, the author also questions with great respect Yan’s conceptualization and categorization of hegemonic leadership.
The study of international leadership gained momentum when Donald Trump became the president of the United States in 2017. Consequently, international relations (IR) moral realism benefited greatly from those studies. There is a growing consensus that interstate leadership plays a central role in preserving international stability and prosperity even though scholars define leadership through different aspects, such as power, social contracts, and influence. The nine contributors to this book differ in how they define morality and on the methodology of analysing the effects of morality in relation to environmental constraints; nonetheless, they all believe it is important to incorporate the study of morality into IR analysis. I argue for an instrumental definition of leadership morality inspired by the traditional Chinese belief of dedao duozhu, shidao guazhu (a just cause enjoys abundant support while an unjust cause finds meagre support). The other eight authors contribute liberalist, neoliberalist, constructivist, Confucianist, neoclassical realist, institutionalist, and political psychology critiques.
International relations (IR) moral realism has been mistakenly affiliated with the ‘Chinese School’ and accused of sharing the same defects of that school. Theorists of IR moral realism oppose the idea of constructing an IR theory with a national or cultural identity because they believe IR theories should have universal applicability. The motivation of constructing moral realism is to enrich modern IR theory academically rather than to legitimize Chinese foreign policy politically. IR moral realism is not a theory of Chinese exceptionalism because it explains the strategic preferences of leaders of major powers, both Chinese and foreign; meanwhile, it never asserts that China will provide a global leadership more moral than those of other major powers. The theory is constructed by hybridizing Chinese traditional thought with modern IR theories and it is not affected by Sino-centrism. It is tested by the current changes in international order like all other IR theories.
Yan Xuetong’s agent-centric theory of hegemonic transition has brought leadership back into the strategic equation. In this chapter we first utilize Yan’s theory to evaluate perspectives about hegemonic transition between China and the US. Second, we further elaborate on how a theory of hegemonic transition built on political leadership could be possibly refined within a neoclassical realist framework where the system conditions and delimits strategic action. Third, we approach Yan’s theory from a classical realist perspective: we draw from the Hellenic classical tradition to highlight parallel concepts to Yan’s core ideas on strategic credibility and moral realism that can help us sketch teachable character traits in support of reformist political leadership. Developed independently into two heterogenous interstate systems (the Sinic and the Hellenic), these leadership personality attributes have an air of universality capable of both educating and inspiring strategic elites in pursuit of political reform. We conclude by extrapolating the theory of moral realism on the future of Sino–US strategic competition and China’s potential to lead globally.
As China increases its power and influence on the world stage, many wonder how its rise will affect the US-dominated world order. Moral realism suggests that much will depend on the quality of the leadership on both sides. China is pursuing an economic strategy of influencing business transactions and is trying to achieve dominance in advanced technologies. While Sino–American competition over market share and technology is peaceful, an inadvertent conflict might break out in the maritime realm due to unclear red lines and security dilemma dynamics. Consistent with moral realism, China is trying to promote new non-liberal norms through the Belt and Road Initiative while the Biden administration is emphasizing values in its foreign policy and the ‘power of example’ as well as leadership in forging a NATO partnership opposed to the Russian war in Ukraine.
In this chapter, Yan Xuetong’s moral realism is critically approached in the context of the agent–structure debate in international relations to decipher the ontological and epistemological background and reconnoitre hidden logic of this theory. As noted in this chapter, moral realism provides an alternative approach to the agent–structure problem in international relations as a dualist theory exploring the mutual interaction of agent and structure. The author notes the convergence between Yan’s and Joseph Nye’s researches on moral leadership, but emphasizes their divergences on level of analysis and conceptualization of morality. The chapter further elucidates the significant ontological and epistemological differences between moral realists and constructivists in their analysis of agent and structure. A few challenges are noted as laying ahead of the further development of moral realism in the last section.
Leadership is the relationship between leaders and followers. Interstate and domestic leadership differ in nature because the former is established in an anarchic system while the latter is in a hierarchical one. To answer the question of whether IR moral realism is supposed to address leadership analysis at the individual, state, or system level, I clarify that the theory is an analysis across all three levels by treating leadership of major powers as the independent variable. This chapter explains why the morality of interstate leadership is partial, comparative, and relative and is judged according to historical context. In addition, the popularity and quality of an interstate leadership is quantifiable by the number of followers and their capability respectively. Contrary to institutionalist claims, I also stress that no political institutions, including international ones, can function without the operation of a leadership. Interstate leadership could be studied as either an independent or a dependent variable.