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Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers

How leadership determines the fate of nations

By Yan Xuetong
13-minute read
Audio available
Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers by Yan Xuetong

Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers (2019) considers the way that leadership determines the fate of nations. Yan Xuetong reflects on the rise of China and the USA’s diminishing stature while speculating on how the international order might look like in a few decades.

  • Anyone interested in Sino-American relations
  • Geopolitics buffs
  • Those working in international relations

Yan Xuetong is one of the world’s foremost experts on China’s foreign policy, national security, and US-China relations. He is dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University, Beijing.

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Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers

How leadership determines the fate of nations

By Yan Xuetong
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers by Yan Xuetong
Synopsis

Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers (2019) considers the way that leadership determines the fate of nations. Yan Xuetong reflects on the rise of China and the USA’s diminishing stature while speculating on how the international order might look like in a few decades.

Key idea 1 of 8

A state’s leadership is the most significant factor in its rise and fall.

What makes a state powerful on the international stage? Is it an effective military and strong economy? Or is it soft power, like a country’s popular culture or its diplomatic strength? Well, the truth is that it’s not any one of these alone – it’s the way they’re all wielded by the leadership of the state.

The key message here is: A state’s leadership is the most significant factor in its rise and fall.

When we’re considering what makes a nation powerful, we have to focus on four separate factors. These are its political leadership, its military, its economy, and its cultural influence. Obviously, a powerful military allows for a nation to act defensively – or offensively – in the most devastating way. A strong economy means that a state will be able to invest in its own interests. And a vibrant and attractive culture means that a country will wield soft power all over the world.

But it’s how these different factors are managed that matters most. And this comes from political capability, or the leadership, of a nation. With an effective political leadership, the other three factors increase in strength. Conversely, if the leadership is ineffective, they will decline, and the nation will lose influence and prestige on the world stage.

As powers rise and fall, there’s one quality that makes a state’s leadership effective or not. This is its capacity for reform. But what kind of reform exactly? Well, simply put, “progressive” reform that gives the state an advantage over its international rivals, rather than “retrogressive” reform. For instance, an example of progressive reform might be signing free trade agreements with other nations that help goods and services flow frictionlessly. An example of retrogressive reform, on the other hand, might be slashing funds to vital infrastructure projects. 

Powerful, dominant states are usually less inclined to carry out progressive reforms. This is because established powers tend to be proud of their existing political and social institutions, and see no reason for change. A rising power, on the other hand, is more incentivized to make these reforms, as it has more to gain. Whether it’s able to make them is another matter, however, and depends on the effectiveness of its leadership. 

In our modern global system, the United States is the dominant state, while China is the fastest rising state. Whether this remains so depends on the leaderships of both countries, but especially on the leadership of the US. This is because it’s easier for a state to lose its dominant status than it is to gain it.

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