Morality as an instrument of power to gain alliances and become the world’s hegemon. That’s the key argument made by Chinese foreign policy expert Yan Xuetong in his new book, Leadership and the rise of Great Powers.[1] This review applies this concept in today’s grand struggle for hegemony between the United States and China, and asks whether indeed it might not be Europe that could benefit most as a moral superpower.

 “May you live in interesting times.” This supposedly Chinese expression isn’t exactly well meaning. Interesting times are troubled, even dangerous times. But whether we like it or not, we are living in interesting times. The end of history, which the American political theorist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed at the end of the Cold War, is long over. Geopolitics has returned with a vengeance. The United States and China are locked in a struggle for hegemony that will define the 21st century as much as the Cold War defined the previous one. For the moment, this struggle is primarily played out in the economic and technological sphere. But a spill-over into other domains is not unthinkable.

For many, the United States and China are locked in the “Thucydides’s Trap”. According to this concept, coined by Harvard professor Graham T. Allison and based on the writings of the ancient Greek strategist Thucydides, a rising power and an established dominant power will inevitably break into conflict. “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta”, writes Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War. Substitute China for Athens and the United States for Sparta, and you may find yourself in today’s world. China isn’t a Trump obsession. It may just be the only bipartisan issue that unites Democrats and Republicans in Washington these days.

Empires have risen and fallen throughout the ages. But what reasons lie behind the displacement of a hegemon by a challenger? Why do leading powers emerge and decline? Countless academics have looked at the great power transitions in history, giving different explanations.

To Paul Kennedy, a British historian at Yale, it all boils down to imperial overstretch. In his magisterial book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1988), he described how empires extend themselves beyond their ability to maintain or expand their military and economic commitments. Rome grew to such an extent that in the 4th and 5th centuries it could no longer keep the different tribes at bay, while Napoleonic France over-extended itself when it tried conquering Russia in 1812. The American international relations scholar Robert Gilpin, on the other hand, argued that hegemonic decline is down to economic affluence and falling economic dynamism. In War and Change in World Politics, he warned about the “corrupting influence of affluence” on the hegemon which also leads to lagging innovation, productivity and investment.

Empires have risen and fallen throughout the ages. But what reasons lie behind the displacement of a hegemon by a challenger? Why do leading powers emerge and decline?

All these theories have something in common: they focus on why great powers decline. But what about the flipside of this question – why do great powers rise? How does a challenger actually displace the hegemon? Or, to put it more bluntly, how could China beat the United States? This is the focal point of Yan Xuetong’s new book, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers.

Tsinghua University professor Yan Xuetong, a foreign policy hawk widely respected by the communist leadership, is one of China’s most influential analysts on international relations. In 2011 he called for a fundamental break with tao guang yang hui (韬光养晦), the long-standing passive and restraint-oriented foreign policy tradition of former leader Deng Xiaoping generally translated as “keep a low profile”. The same year, he published a provocative op-ed in the New York Times entitled “How China can defeat America”. Since then, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China has indeed embarked on a new, more assertive foreign policy course.

In his new book, Yan Xuetong has high ambitions. He aims to formulate a systematic theory, based on Chinese classical political thought, explaining the mechanism by which a rising state can replace a dominant state and thereby become the new world leader. This makes Leadership and the rise of Great Powers an interesting and innovative but likewise highly demanding read, as Prof. Yan, employs a wide range of definitions, international relations theories and classical Chinese philosophy.

He borrows ideas from Chinese strategists such as Confucius, Lao Tzu and Sun Tzu, and uses historical case studies from ancient Chinese empire transitions ranging from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1066-770 BCE) to the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BCE), which saw the rise of hegemonic rivalry, ultimately leading to the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE). This era – more than 2000 years ago – was characterised by a disunited China, in which small states competed ruthlessly for territorial gains.

Yan Xuetong’s insight from these ancient Chinese cases is that “the key to international influence was political power, and the central attribute of political power was morally informed leadership. Rulers who acted in accordance with moral norms, whenever possible tended to win the race for leadership over the long-term.”[2] Yan Xuetong has developed a moralist-realist theory that attributes the rise and fall of nations to the moral leadership that they provide, domestically and internationally as well as the capability of the political leadership to undertake efficient reforms.

He divides states into four types: tyranny, anemocracy (one displaying untrustworthy behaviour), hegemony (trustworthy but exercising double standards), and humane authority, which he considers the ideal state of political leadership. For Yan Xuetong, hegemony comes down to effective leadership and moral behaviour, which is “a precondition for a leading state to establish international authority. A strong power without basic strategic credit cannot hope to establish its authority in an international community.”[3]

It is a battle for the world’s hearts and minds between the United States and China.

Yan Xuetong’s theory is about moral leadership and the desire of nation-states to follow such a leadership internationally. In a nutshell, it’s about winning friends internationally through good behaviour. Sun Tzu says, “A state, being a small thing, can be obtained by villains through dishonest ways and held by them for a while. The all under heaven is a great entity, so it is impossible for villains to obtain it through dishonest ways.” Likewise, “a sage king, tries to win men; a hegemon to acquire allies; a tyrant to capture land.” For Prof. Yan, these maxims show that “the result of the strategic competition between a rising state and a dominant state is mainly decided by the disparity between them of the leadership capability necessary to win international support. In other words, the side that wins the most international support will win the competition”, and the best way to win support is through moral leadership.[4]

That is one of the reasons why the Soviet Union, according to Yan Xuetong’s theory, lost the Cold War. First, the Soviet Union did not provide the moral leadership on the international stage to make countries gravitate towards it. The Warsaw Pact binding Central and Eastern European countries to the USSR wasn’t a voluntary one, but a coercive alliance meant to keep these countries in the Soviet sphere of influence. “The cases of the Warsaw Pact and NATO demonstrate how the international leadership of superpowers can have different effects. Leading states with high strategic credit are able to establish and expand unbreakable alliances, while the opposite is true for states without high credibility.”[5]

That’s where China should make its move against the United States: by being more attractive internationally due to a values-based leadership and gaining more allies, suggests Yan Xuetong.

At first glance, this might seem like a long shot. America, after all, has more than 50 formal military allies and countless regional institutional structures, while China only really has North Korea and Pakistan.

On the other hand, China has been catching up. With its economic penetration in the world economy and its belt and road initiative, China has become for many countries the economic world centre. That translates into political leverage. China has been able to “buy friends”, so to speak, a policy that Yan Xuetong advocated in 2015:

“China’s traditional policy was to deal with economically stronger countries. But now there is only one country that is bigger economically than China — the U.S. The remaining 200 countries have smaller economies. The policy now is to allow these smaller countries to benefit economically from their relationships with China. For China, we need good relationships more urgently than we need economic development. We let them benefit economically, and in return we get good political relationships. We should purchase the relationships.”[6]

In addition, the United States has provided China with a unique strategic window to win more friends in the world. Under Donald Trump, international trust in the United States has plummeted. Compared with Barack Obama’s presidency, the Pew Research Center notes that opinions of the United States have significantly declined among close European allies such as Germany, France and the UK. President Trump has questioned the value of traditional alliances, such as NATO, treats the transatlantic alliance with disdain and is actively undermining the international liberal order.

As such, it is no wonder that there is a decline in support for American leadership. In his book, Prof. Yan highlights that America is increasingly “unable to mobilize either domestic or international support for its policies. The decline of its leading capability thus undermines the effect of America’s comprehensive capability, including its international influence.”[7] Steven Metz, a Professor from the US Army War College, concurs: “It is difficult to defeat the US; but it is possible to thwart it by seizing the ethical high ground…Perhaps the biggest lesson of all, though, is that moral ambiguity hinders, even paralyzes the United States.”[8]

Morality in this context is little more than a cynical ploy to win power. It is a tool to achieve an end, not an end in itself.

That’s China’s chance. It needs an “effective moral strategy through which [it] may win international support and also establish [its] authority…Through making an alliance, a rising state can improve its strategic credibility and international influence, so facilitating changes in the international power distribution, and thus gaining the chance to establish its leadership over the whole international system.”[9] It is a battle for the world’s hearts and minds between the United States and China.

But Yan Xuetong is enough of a realist to admit that China is at a disadvantage in this competition and is unlikely to displace the United States in the short term when it comes to alliance-building, due to China’s pursuit of different values at home and abroad. “Humane authority begins by creating a desirable model at home that inspires people abroad.”[10] He doesn’t go into detail here, but the facts speak for themselves: China’s mass incarceration of the Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang, it’s internal repression and digital surveillance state, its aggression towards Taiwan and threats to countries that don’t bow to Chinese interests – that’s not a country pursuing a path of “humane authority” and certainly not a leadership that other states might wish to follow.

Nevertheless, Yan Xuetong is hopeful that upcoming Chinese generations will bring changes at home, as they might better understand “the logic whereby a leading state has a greater chance of maintaining a long-term dominant status through adoption of the principle of humane authority,” because “Chinese millennials are politically open and individualistic….unlike their parents, who during childhood were subjected to mistaken concepts about the rest of the world, this younger generation studied foreign languages as children and also learned about different cultures.”[11]

What Europe might be lacking to turn its moral clout into increasing international leverage and alliances is a hard-nosed, multi-pronged network strategy.

This veiled critique alone, demonstrates how difficult it is for academics to speak their mind openly in China today. And this is the only slight criticism articulated sotto voce towards the Chinese leadership that Yan Xuetong makes. While Donald Trump is mentioned countless times in his book, Xi Jinping is hardly mentioned. The fact that a Chinese academic is writing a book on leadership and is unable to mention the Chinese leader speaks volumes.

In addition, Yan Xuetong isn’t actually criticising the appalling state of China’s domestic morality in itself, he is criticising it because it prevents China from being a moral player on the international level, allowing it to become the world’s new hegemon. Morality in this context is little more than a cynical ploy to win power. It is a tool to achieve an end, not an end in itself. His concept of “humane authority” also has an authoritarian ring to it similar to Plato’s enlightened despotism. Liberal democracy, as a possible moral conclusion that gives people certain inalienable rights, does not find any attention in Prof. Yan’s book.

Last but not least, Europe is an underrepresented player in Leadership and the rise of Great Powers. Yan Xuetong notes that the world centre will move away from Europe towards East Asia, as this is where the US-Chinese conflict will play out. But he doesn’t mention that Europe might possibly have the requisite standing in the world, to become a moral superpower. Of course, Europe has its own moral shortcomings, be it with regards to the rule of law in Poland, press freedom in Hungary, or the treatment of refugees. Nevertheless, today Europe is one of the last bastions trying to uphold the liberal world order. And that can win you allies. France and Germany have together established the “Alliance for Multilateralism” early this year, the launch of which was attended by a wide array of states such as Canada, India, Japan, Mexico and Australia.

What Europe might be lacking to turn its moral clout into increasing international leverage and alliances is a hard-nosed, multi-pronged network strategy. Such a network strategy would create stronger links and ties between Europe and third states, for example in Africa and Southeast Asia. It would consist of intensified cultural diplomacy including student exchanges, a stronger economic and digital infrastructure drive that would bring countries into Europe’s economic framework – not because Europe forces it on them, but because of Europe’s economic and moral attraction. That’s what Europe’s Connectivity Strategy – as an answer to China’s Belt and Road Strategy – could be. Europe, it seems, has the moral and material capability to become a third pole in the world competition between the US and China, if it manages to pull itself together, pool its resources and not let the populist temptation get the better of it.


[1] Yan Xuetong. Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers. Princeton University Press, 2019.

[2] Yan Xuetong. “How China can defeat America”. New York Times. 20 November 2011. Available at <>.
[3] Yan Xuetong. Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers. 2019.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Yan Xuetong. “China needs to purchase friendships”. Nikkei Asian Review. 2 March 2015. Available at <>.
[7] Yan Xuetong. Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers.
[8] Metz, Steven. “How America’s Enemies Might Assess U.S. Weaknesses – and Act on Them”. World Politics Review. 29 September 2017.
[9]  Ibid.
[10] Yan Xuetong. “How China can defeat America”.
[11] Yan Xuetong. Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers.

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