Book review: Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers




Price: $22.95/£18.99
Published (US):Dec 22, 2020
Published (UK):Jan 12, 2021
Size:6.13 x 9.25 in.Princeton University Press

Book review by Ankit Kumar   30 November 2023

About the Author

Yan Xuetong is a Chinese political scientist and international relations scholar, who belongs to the realist school of thought. Yan is one of the major Chinese scholars in the field of international relations (IR). He is the founder of “moral realism”, a variant of neoclassical realist theory. The political determinism is the fundamental variable to explain the moral realist theory. Currently, he serves as a distinguished professor and dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University. He’s only political scientist listed as most cited Chinese Researchers during 2014-2017.

His first book “Analysis of China’s National Interests” was written in 1996.orginally, it was published in Chinese language then subsequently translated into many languages. In the book, he argued that China should prioritize its own national interests in foreign policy, instead of focusing on ideological category like class interests or proletarian internationalism in their foreign policy.

Yan received his bachelor’s degree (1982) from the Heilongjiang University, a master’s degree from Institute of International Relations (1986) in International Politics and then a PhD (1993) from the University of California in 1992.

Professor has He authored several notable works, including “Practical Methods of International Studies –Second Edition (2007),” “International Politics and China (2005),” “American Hegemony and China’s Security (2000),” and “Analysis of China’s National Interests (1996).” Additionally, he coauthored “China’s Foreign Relations with Major Powers 1950-2005 (2010)” and “Strategic Thinking about China’s Rise (2010),” among others. He has also translated “Contending Theories of International Relations Fifth Edition (2003)” and edited works such as “Classic Readings in International Security (2009)” and “Pre-Qin Chinese Thoughts on Foreign Relations (2008).” His contributions to the field include more than a hundred papers and articles on international relations, with “Analysis of China’s National Interests” receiving the 1998 China Book Prize and “Practical Methods of International Studies” being authorized as a textbook by the Chinese Education Ministry in 2006.


Yan Xuetong, a professor at Tsinghua University, is at the forefront of the debate among Chinese international relations scholars about creating their unique theory distinct from Western perspectives. He initiated a research project in 2005, delving into ancient Chinese texts to enrich modern international relations analysis. In 2014, he introduced the theory of moral realism, merging traditional realist concepts with ideas from ancient Chinese philosophy. This theory emphasizes the significance of morality in shaping a nation’s strength and global influence. Yan’s work aims to offer an alternative explanation for China’s rise and the future global order. While criticized for lack of clarity and biases, his theory reflects the views of influential Chinese intellectuals.

So, we can put him in a theoretical paradigm of “Realism” albeit with Chinese characteristics. Moral realism accredits political leadership as the fundamental factor in explaining the rise or decline of great powers and it categorizes political leadership into four types as, inactive, conservative, proactive, or aggressive types at national level and at the international level, it categorizes political leadership into four types, as humane leadership, hegemony, anemocracy, and tyranny.

He argues that when the political leadership of the rising state is more capable and efficient than that of the dominant state and then international influence is redistributed in a way that allows the rising state to eclipse the dominant state.

Assessment of the author

No doubt, Yan Xuetong is one of the China’s foremost political scientists and international relations scholars. He considered himself as a realist, albeit with Chinese characters. He is known for his scientific approach to studying international relations in China. Many consider him conservative and patriotic, especially in his views on Sino–US relations and Taiwan. Some people compare him to American neo-conservative William Kristol, calling him a ‘neo-con’ or ‘neo-comm’. Despite his preference for the label ‘realist’, he is seen as a strong advocate for China in his writings.

Apart from his focus on security issues, Yan has also explored the relevance of ancient Chinese philosophy in today’s global politics, drawing attention from the international relations community. His interest in culture should be seen as a continuation of his long-standing research goal rather than a new direction. He believes that understanding culture can help China become a more influential global power.

Yan’s work is important in the context of wider academic discussions in China, involving debates on Western influence, the potential emergence of a distinct ‘Chinese School’ of international relations theory, and conversations about Chinese exceptionalism. His contributions raise important questions about the future of intellectual discussions, both within China and globally.

Yan’s Theory (Assessment of the Book)

The central theme of the book “Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers, is that the political leadership is the most important factor that attributes the rise of rising power and decline of dominant power. He borrowed the ideas of political determinism from the ancient Chinese philosophers. In the book, he explains that why a rising state is able to displace a dominating power even though, the rising state lacks economic base, technical invention, as compared to the dominant hegemon. It is the “political leadership” according to the yan, which matters. His moral realism theory attributes political leadership, the most important variable which led to the rise or decline of great powers.

In the book, he argued that, even though China lacks material capability equal to the US, even though China can surpass the US in the international system in terms of international leadership. He said, “when the rising state’s leadership is more capable and efficient than that of the dominant state and that of other contemporary major states, international influence is redistributed in a way that allows the rising state to eclipse the dominant state” (page 02)

The capability of leadership is based on the capacity to seek and do reform. In his words, “The capability of a state whose national leadership has continuously carried out prompt reforms will improve more rapidly than that of a state that has implemented few or no reforms”

So, for Yan, political leadership is the most important variable in international politics. He characterises leadership. Yan Xuetong categorizes leadership into four types based on their approach to the international status quo and how they handle policy mistakes: inactive, conservative, proactive, and aggressive. He believes that effective leaders are those who admit and rectify mistakes and implement reforms to strengthen their country, a concept he calls “humane authority.” However, he acknowledges that the trend toward one-person decision-making in powerful countries reduces their strategic credibility and creates uncertainty in international politics.

Yan, following realist principles, argues that powerful nations aim to maintain their dominance, rising nations seek global influence, regional powers focus on regional control, and weak states prioritize survival. In his perspective, the US is the global dominant power, China is rising, and countries like India and Japan are regional powers at best.

Yan’s theory of moral realism, as he terms it, offers a clearer and more effective explanation than vague ideas like strategic culture. He views moral norms as driven by self-interest rather than altruism, using this theory to interpret international events.

Yan outlines four models of international leadership: humane, hegemonic, anemocratic, and tyrannical. Humane leaders maintain moral standards consistently. Hegemonic leaders apply double standards, supporting allies while being ruthless towards enemies. Anemocratic states bully weaker nations but submit to stronger ones, making them untrustworthy. Tyrannical leadership, rooted in Realist principles, is consistent but unreliable, relying on fear rather than trust.

What he advocates is the “humane authority” applies for Chinese leadership, which is rooted in the moral realism of his theory. Yan Xuetong looks at political leadership by considering how moral values affect a government’s ability to handle its duties at home and maintain trust internationally. Yan also explores why the United States is losing global influence despite its strong economy, education, military, and technology.

He believes the tension between China and the United States won’t lead to a Cold War, but it will shift the world’s focus from Europe to East Asia due to their lack of trust in each other. In his book, “Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers,” Yan uses ancient Chinese ideas to offer a unique perspective on how nations become powerful on the world stage.

His prediction for the Next 10 years

In the next 10 years (2019–2028), according to Yan Xuetong’s predictions based on his theory:

  1. Bipolar System: China’s rise will lead to a bipolar international system. China, under Xi’s leadership, is believed to have a stronger capacity for reform than America.
  2. Shift in Global Center: The center of the world’s focus will move from Europe to East Asia due to China’s increasing influence.
  3. Geopolitical Competition: China and the US will compete for dominance in East Asia. Other smaller states will have to choose between aligning with China or the US on specific issues, rather than supporting one superpower on all matters.
  4. No Global Leadership: Neither China nor the US will be able to provide global leadership. A “G-2” partnership between them won’t be possible. The global order will be unstable, but there won’t be a Cold War or a hot war between China and the US.
  5. Reasons for Stability: The stability between China and the US will be maintained due to nuclear deterrence, lack of ideological conflict, and their economic interdependence, especially in the bilateral context.

Yan Xuetong stands by these predictions, demonstrating his confidence in his theory. While these forecasts are precise, some doubts may arise. The idea that national leadership is the pivotal factor might appeal to leaders, but it might not resonate as strongly with scholars or the general public, especially in countries with different political structures like the US. Additionally, the assumption that the capacity for reform determines a leadership’s future success might not hold true for all countries, especially considering the lack of major reforms in some nations over the past few years. Only time will tell how accurate these predictions turn out to be.