Destradi on Thies and Nieman, 'Rising Powers and Foreign Policy Revisionism: Understanding BRICS Identity and Behavior through Time'

Cameron G. Thies, Mark David Nieman
Sandra Destradi

Cameron G. Thies, Mark David Nieman. Rising Powers and Foreign Policy Revisionism: Understanding BRICS Identity and Behavior through Time. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017. 216 pp. $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-472-13056-6.

Reviewed by Sandra Destradi (Helmut Schmidt University and GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies) Published on H-Diplo (June, 2018) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version:

Rising powers have been the object of much interest and academic debate in recent years. Particularly, the rise of China, but also the emergence of countries like India, Brazil, and South Africa, has led to scholarly discussions about the implications of these countries’ rise. Among the most hotly debated questions relate to the issue of the consequences of their emergence. Will rising powers challenge the existing liberal order or will they conform to the predominant rules and norms of a system that has contributed to their success? Will they be willing to contribute to global governance and to share the burdens of global public goods provision or should we expect them to undermine existing global institutions or perhaps to develop alternative visions of order? And, most notably, can we expect rising powers to challenge the status quo and to pursue aggressive policies as they get more powerful in terms of military power capabilities, but also in economic terms? The monograph Rising Powers and Foreign Policy Revisionism by Cameron G. Thies and Mark David Nieman makes an important new contribution to such debates with a particular focus on the question of rising powers’ assumed revisionism in international politics.

The authors build on the debate on the impact of rising powers in world politics and ask if the shifts in power that are associated with the very process of rising should be expected to automatically lead to conflict, and to what extent there might be other factors that constrain rising powers’ behavior. By taking this approach, Thies and Nieman challenge conventional materialist approaches associated with the realist school in the field of International Relations, which argues that with growing power capabilities comes conflict behavior. In their analysis, they test two competing hypotheses. The first is based on realist assumptions and suggests that “identities and behavior change purely as a function of growth in material capabilities, and we consequently expect sharp breaks in them during rising periods.” The second hypothesis is more nuanced: it rejects a purely structuralist and mechanistic understanding of the relationship between power capabilities and revisionism and includes perspectives from the field of foreign policy analysis, which place more emphasis on agency. The second hypothesis therefore expects that “identities and behavior [will] change more gradually, in response to a variety of domestic and international factors, but not solely in response to power shifts” (p. 15).

Among the innovative aspects of the book is that it takes a role-theoretic approach to explain the behavior of rising powers and, by extension, one important element of change in the international system. Role theory allows the authors to build bridges between the established focus on either structure or agency by considering structures and agents as mutually co-constitutive. The analysis of national role conceptions allows to capture some of the domestic constraints faced by rising powers as well as the international socialization pressures these countries are subjected to. In fact, established powers expect rising powers to perform certain roles that are deemed necessary to achieve great power status, and such expectations are likely to mitigate the impact of changes in material power capabilities. This more nuanced framework allows the authors to disentangle some of the dynamics related to the process of “rise” and to show a plausible alternative to prevailing realist interpretations of rising powers’ behavior.

The second main innovative aspect of the book is its rigorous and novel methodological approach. The authors propose a mixed methods design to examine their cases, but, importantly, they conduct the qualitative and the quantitative analyses in parallel, looking for different kinds of evidence while testing the same hypotheses—and thereby allowing each method to work in its own right. The qualitative analysis focuses on the observation of shifts in rising powers’ national role conceptions over time to find out whether they have changed dramatically or more gradually. The quantitative analysis aims at identifying structural breaks in militarized and economic conflict behaviors and employs change-point models to identify structural breaks in the effect of a set of covariates. This juxtaposition of different methodological tools is innovative in the field of research on rising powers, which has so far seen a dichotomy in terms of methodological approaches. The older literature in the tradition of the power transition theory relied heavily on quantitative analyses of power shifts. By contrast, the largest part of the more recent literature on rising powers has pursued a qualitative approach, focusing mostly on single case studies or small-N comparisons.

The third main contribution made by the book is the systematic analysis and comparison of five rising powers, the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). While the authors rightly acknowledge that the BRICS might not be entirely representative of the category of rising powers broadly understood, they make a good case for resorting to the BRICS to test their hypotheses. These five countries have very different histories and have displayed different trajectories of rise—and at least two of them, Brazil and South Africa, have recently suffered serious domestic crises that might call into question their very classification as “rising” powers. And obviously China in many respects plays in an entirely different league, thereby making a comparison to much smaller and weaker countries like South Africa problematic. Nevertheless, in the contemporary discourse, the BRICS are often equated with rising powers, and Thies and Nieman’s analysis actually takes into account each of these countries’ dynamics of rise in its own right, thereby making this a reasonable and useful choice. One of the elements of innovation of the monograph actually consists of the systematic analysis of all BRICS countries. Most studies on the BRICS either analyze the group as a whole or call into question their comparability and the usefulness of studying them together. Thies and Nieman find a very good way to do so, keeping a balance between comparison and generalization, on the one hand, and the acknowledgment of idiosyncratic elements, on the other. Given space constraints and the ambitious task of analyzing the foreign policy trajectory of five countries over seven decades, the authors obviously face some trade-offs in the qualitative analysis. In fact, the assessment of shifting national role conceptions, which constitutes the core of the qualitative part of the analysis, is exclusively based on secondary sources. While the authors manage to provide good overviews of each of the BRICS’ foreign policies over time, they need to stick to the terminology of national role conceptions, and thereby tend to assume some knowledge of the cases on the part of the reader.

Overall, however, the result of the analysis and the combination with the quantitative assessment lead to very interesting findings. The main conclusion of the book is that—as opposed to what realists assume—increases in a country’s military capabilities do not automatically lead to more assertive foreign policies. An explanation rooted in foreign policy analysis and focused on domestic transformations and international socialization pressures is much more useful to show the relatively high degree of continuity and stability of contemporary rising powers’ behavior. In policy terms, these findings suggest that all the “threat”-debates about the rise of China and the other BRICS might be out of place. Contemporary rising powers are pursuing more nuanced and less immediately conflictive trajectories of rise. By engaging them and integrating them further into the global economy, established powers can increase the chances of cooperation.

Citation: Sandra Destradi. Review of Thies, Cameron G.; Nieman, Mark David, Rising Powers and Foreign Policy Revisionism: Understanding BRICS Identity and Behavior through Time. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. June, 2018. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.