Empire is so hot right now

Your humble blogger is busy enjoying the fruits of last year's Twitter Fight Club run  with day-job activities this Tuesday, so only a quick blog post. A belated congratulations to Chrystia Freeland's Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else for winning the 2013 Lionel Gelber Prize for the best book in internatonal relations last year. As the head of the Gelber jury noted, "Plutocrats took the prize for its immediacy and authority about the future -- the world that we must comprehend and hope to manage in radically new circumstances."

Having been on the Gelber Prize jury this year, I think there was a strong consensus among the panel that Freeland managed two tricky feats in Plutocrats. She wrote a book that was interesting to experts but very accessible to the layman, and she managed to describe the global one percent in a way that did not overly symapthize but still demonstrated some reportorial empathy. That's no easy feat, and well done! 

It's a particularly noteworthy accomplishment when one looks at the shortlist of the top five books. Freeland bucked the trend last year, which was that a lot of the best IR books seemed to be about empire. Anne Applebaum's extraordinary Iron Curtain, Kwasi Kwarteng's excellent Ghosts of Empire, and Pankaj Mishra's revelatory From the Ruins of Empire all looked at how great powers tried to create imperial domains in their own image, with devastating consequences to both the imperialists and the subjugated nations. Indeed, the next time someone says that maybe Niall Ferguson had half a point about the virtues of the British empire, tell that person to read Applebaum, Kwarteng, and Mishra (as well as Mishra's devastating takedown of Ferguson in the London Review of Books). 

Perhaps most important, each of these authors, using their own styles, nevertheless wrote exceptionally clear and engaging books. I'd encourage all aspiring intellectuals to read Mishra's book as a template, but I doubt most could copy it. I would, however, definitely encourage all Ph.D. students struggling with their dissertations to read Applebaum's book -- it's an exemplar for clear exposition. 

Congratulations to Chrystia, and I encourage all readers to peruse all of these excellent books at their earliest convenience.

Daniel W. Drezner

Worst. Revisionists. Ever.

To follow up on my Cyprus post from yesterday, the deal between Brussels and Nicosia looks like a geopolitical reversal of fortune for the Russian Federation.  As Max Fisher noted

Maybe Moscow thought this would tilt its client state toward the pro-Russia choice in that binary, but it appears to have be having the opposite effect....

Russia is not in the process of losing a client-state, exactly — the political and cultural ties are likely still too deep for something that drastic to happen that quickly — but Moscow certainly isn’t doing itself any favors. As [Felix] Salmon wrote today, “If this is how the game ends, it’s an unambiguous loss for Russia, and a win for the E.U.”

Moscow’s aggressive, all-or-nothing approach appears to have only pushed Cyprus further toward Europe. 

Now, far be it for me to question Russia's motiva--- oh, screw it, I'm totally going to question Russia's motivations here.  Because what happened in Cyprus is emblematic of an interesting trend since 2008 -- the great powers that analysts have lazily defined as "revisionist" don't seem all that interested in collecting allies. 

This is not the first time a weak Western ally has sought out either China or Russia as a way of avoiding onerous financial strictures.  Iceland begged Russia for financial assistance during the depths of the 2008 financial crisis.  At one point, the Icelandic President allegedly offered Russia the use of Keflavík Air Base.  This possibility caused some mild consternation in Foggy Bottom.  In the end, the Russians said they didn't need the base and proffered only a fraction of what Iceland wanted, leaving Reykjavik little choice but to cut a deal with the IMF. 

One can tell a similar story with Pakistan and China.  During the fall of 2008 Islamabad was facing a balance of payments crisis and sought out China as a benefactor.   In the end, China was unwilling to offer Pakistan enough money to substitute for IMF support, forcing the Pakistani government to take out an IMF loan. 

Both the Iceland and Pakistan outcomes were surprising enough in 2008 that I bothered to blog about them back then.  The interesting thing is that nothing much has changed.  Sure, through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, China has enhanced its role outside its region, but even FOCAC is more about commercial interests than geopolitical interests.  At the same time, China became estranged from one of its most loyal allies when Myanmar started embracing the United States.  It also alienated a lot of neighbors that might otherwise have been more willing to defer to Beijing.  And as I blogged earlier this year, China continues to be standoffish towards Pakistan despite the latter country's eagerness to ally itself with Beijing.  Ironically, the only countries that Russia and China have really stuck their neck out for in recent years have been the allies that have given them the most agita -- Syria for Moscow, and North Korea for Beijing.  [Gee, it's almost as if this phenomenon of small allies that are strategic deadweights is not unique to the United States or something!!--ed.  This is a blog post, so stop your subtweeting.]

To be sure, China and Russia have , on occasion, engaged in some revisionist efforts to change the status quo.  See: Russia's 2008 war with Georgia; China's border disputes with the rest of the Pacific Rim.  What's striking, however, is that neither Moscow nor Beijing seems terribly interested in collecting client states.  Hell, for all the rhetoric involving closer Sino-Russian cooperation, it seems as though the actual bilateral relationship amounts to little more than empty rhetoric and cooperation at the U.N. Security Council. 

Why is this?  I'm honestly not sure.  Back in 2008, I spitballed the following

For all their aspirations to great power status, both countries lack the policy expertise necessary to take on greater leadership roles.  This leads to profound risk aversion, which leads to inaction.  On the flip side, the U.S. is accustomed to talking to the countries in crisis, which both provides it with more information and allows Washington to act more quickly.

Four and a half years later, I don't think that's a sufficient explanation.  Spitballing now, I think there are three possible explanations. 

1)  Pure buckpassing.  Why should Moscow or Beijing spend their hard-earned cash on marginally useful client states?  Let the West exhaust itself with these aid packages. 

2)  Internal balancing.  Realists like to think that external balancing (forming alliances) and internal balancing (augmenting national capabilities) are substitutable strategies.  Maybe China and Russia prefer to focus on national capabilities rather than coalition-building.

3)  Outside their own neighborhood, neither Russia nor China is really revisionist.  As great powers, Moscow and Beijing will do what they gotta do in their near abroads.  Globally, however, they have neither the ambition nor the interest in altering the current system of "good enough" global governance.  After all, the current rules of the global game have benefited both of them pretty well over the past decade or so. 

You can guess which of these explanations I gravitate towards, but I'm hardly convinced. 

What do you think?