My current research is driven by three related themes: (1) authoritarian persistence; (2) East Europe-China relations; and (3) emerging powers. Each theme is briefly discussed below.
(1) Authoritarian Persistence
“In politics… the first thing is to continue to exist.”
— Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1940
“As when an octopus dragged from its den,
has many pebbles sticking to its suckers,
so his strong hands were skinned against the rocks.”
— Homer’s Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson, 2018, Book 5, lines 432 to 434
Authoritarian persistence refers to the strategies autocratic regimes use to prolong survival and remain in power. In particular, I am working to better understand the international dimensions of authoritarian persistence. This field of study investigates how autocratic regimes use their position within the international system to promote internal stability and non-democratic domestic rule. Put another way, this research examines how autocratic regimes use their external interactions with other states to prolong their survival at home.
This research is important. Despite its seemingly narrow focus, study in this field is linked to a fundamental question, “What kind of society do we want to live in?” Changes in international politics, especially the weakening of the liberal order—the open, rule-based system of relations dominated by the US—have brought this question to the forefront more than any time since the Cold War. Democracies and non-democracies alike are uncertain what these changing circumstances will bring. Will these new conditions promote more democratic societies, the type that Karl Popper (1945; 1988) famously argued for in The Open Society and Its Enemies? Or will changing circumstances encourage regimes that champion order and prosperity in place of a freer society? My work contributes to answering these questions. By understanding the behaviour of nondemocratic regimes in this dynamic international environment, the path ahead may be clearer.
My research begins from a logical-positivist epistemology. That is, there are concrete facts about the world independent of our interpretation of them. This epistemology dictates that knowledge about the world can only be formed on the basis of measurable evidence. The aim of the researcher, then, is to present these evidence-based facts in as objective, non-biased a way as possible—despite this being essentially impossible in the social sciences.1An apology for this contradiction argues that “science . . . and interpretation are not fundamentally different endeavors aimed at divergent goals. Both rely on preparing careful descriptions, gain deep understanding of the world, asking good questions, formulating falsifiable hypothesis on the basis of more general theories, and collecting the evidence needed to evaluated those hypotheses” (King, Keohane and Verba 1994, 37).
From this starting point, I use a deductive approach (that is, theory which informs a hypothesis, which then must be tested by evidence) combined with Rational Choice theory and International Relations theory to form the core argument of my research. The first part of this core argument is authoritarian regimes aim to survive—that is, to stay in power—at all costs. The essence of politics is conceptualized as power maximalisation. This is based on the Rational Choice assumption that authoritarian regimes can be understood as rational and self-interested actors. The second part argues, to improve their chances of survival, regimes align with foreign powers in the international sphere to counter domestic threats (to “balance” threats in International Relations speak).
The two parts of this argument imply an internal/external nexus in the actions of autocratic regimes. Autocratic regimes seek to take advantage of international circumstances to prolong survival at home.2Democratic regimes also try to stay in power for as long as possible—a two term president tends to be more desirable for a political party than a one term president. However, the survival tactics and exploits of nondemocratic regimes differ greatly from democratic ones. For an excellent article that discusses and lists these tactics, see Gerschewski (2013). The goal for autocracies is sustained rule, rather than the maximalisation of term limits set by a democratic constitution. To explain this internal nexus, I use an amalgam of selectorate theory (Bueno de Mesquita and Smith 2012) and omnibalancing theory (David 1991). Selectorate theory provides the motivations and for leaders and their regimes at the domestic level. Working within the institutional norms (both formal and informal) for leadership selection, leaders attempt to stay in power for as long as possible and to acquire as much power as possible. To maintain power, leaders and their regimes build support coalitions that are essential to survival. The theory of omnibalancing argues that regimes align (or omnialign) with foreign regimes to counter threats to stability within all three domestic, regional, and international spheres—hence the “omni-” attachment to “balancing.” Omnibalancing thus links concerns of domestic regime survival to external relations. My research views the development of certain bilateral ties in autocratic regimes through the prism of these two theories.
It is important to note that omnibalancing theory dates from the Cold War. An additional side to my research is redefining this theory for the study of authoritarian regimes.
The case studies for my research focus on Belarus, Ukraine and Russia’s development of ties with China. Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, which have arguably nondemocratic or backsliding regimes, might be using relations with China to maintain their internal support coalitions.
(2) East Europe-China Relations
This leads into my second research theme of East Europe-China relations. I take a modern realist (combining aspects of Rational Choice Theory and Constructivism)3See Furlong and Marsh (2010, 205) or “Critical Realism” in Bryman (2012, 29) for a disambiguation of this political science methodological approach. approach to understand the relations between East European, Post-Soviet states and China.
Understandably, a special area of interest is Chinese bilateral relations with Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. There is a great deal of literature on China’s bilateral relations with Russia, but there is scant academic research on China’s foreign relations with Belarus and Ukraine. In providing a more unified and up-to-date narrative of relations among these states, scholars and analysts will better appreciate changes taking place both regionally and globally.
A central focus of this research is how post-Soviet states are attempting to take advantage of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as China’s new Silk Road. The BRI is an ambitious project to expand a series of rail links from China to Europe and coordinate them with international seaports and maritime trade (reminiscent of the ancient Silk Road). The oddly named “Road” component consists of ports and shipping facilities with East Asia as the central trading hub. The vast trade from this maritime road is supposed to integrate with the railways of the “Belt” component, which will move goods overland rather than crossing oceans to reach Europe. “It will extend from the Pacific to the heart of Europe, stimulate some [USD] $4 trillion in investment over the next three decades, and draw in countries that account for 70 percent of the world’s energy reserves” (Luft 2016, 67).
Research into the BRI is important. The BRI exemplifies China’s gaining ability to set the global agenda. Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed a new Silk Road (initially daubed the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB)) in September 2013. Despite having no clear aim other than “to forge closer economic ties, deepen cooperation and expand development space in the Eurasian region” (Witte 2013), China became Eurasia’s4Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan most attractive foreign development and investment partner (Olcott 2013; Szczudlik-Tatar 2013, 4; Gabuev 2017). By May 2017, 58 state representatives (including 29 heads-of-state) attended the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, which laid out President Xi’s USD$900 billion vision to build a modern-day version of the ancient Silk Road (Phillips 2017; The Diplomat 2017).
As part of my current research, I am writing a book on the “Eurasian” elements of the BRI. The book project is a country-by-country overview of Eurasia’s local responses to the BRI from 2013–2018. Our investigation of local responses involves the sourcing of local news, domestic polling, and economic data to gauge societal responses and concerns to the BRI.
(3) Emerging Powers
Inevitably, my research also deals with how to best understand China as an emerging power. There is no consensus among academics on what an emerging or rising power is, exactly. In general, it refers to the “increasing degree of might of a country in politics and international economy” (Fonesca et al. 2016, 51). The question I am interested in is what kind of impact a rising China will have upon international politics and economics.
Bryman, A. (2012). Social Research Methods (4th ed). Oxford University Press.
Bueno de Mesquita, B. and Smith, A. (2012). The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics. New York: PublicAffairs.
David, S. R. (1991). Explaining Third World Alignment. World Politics, 43: 2, 233–256. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/2010472.
Fonseca, P. C. D., Paes, L. D. E., and Cunha, A. M. (2016). The concept of emerging power in international politics and economy. Revista de Economia Política, 36:1. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0101-31572016v36n01a04.
Furlong, P. and Marsh, D. (2010). Ontology and Epistemology in Political Science. In David Marsh and Gerry Stoker (eds), Theory and Methods in Political Science (3rd ed) (249–266). Palgrave MacMillan.
Gabuev, A. (2017, December 08). Belt and Road to Where? Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Retreived from: http://carnegie.ru/2017/12/08/belt-and-road-to-where-pub-74957.
Gerschewski, J. (2013). The Three Pillars of Stability: Legitimation, Repression, and Co-optation in Autocratic Regimes. Democratization, 20: 1, 13-38. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2013.738860.
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Luft, G. (2016). China’s Infrastructure Play: Why Washington Should Accept the New Silk Road. Foreign Affairs, 95: 5, 68–75. Retrieved from: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/china-s-infrastructure-play.
Marsh, D. and Stoker, G. (eds). (2010). Theory and Methods in Political Science (3rd ed). Palgrave MacMillan.
Olcott, M. B. (2013, September 18). China’s Unmatched Influence in Central Asia. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Retrieved from: https://carnegieendowment.org/2013/09/18/china-s-unmatched-influence-in-central-asia-pub-53035.
Phillips, T. (2017, May 14). China’s Xi lays out $900bn Silk Road vision amid claims of empire-building. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/14/china-xi-silk-road-vision-belt-and-road-claims-empire-building.
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Szczudlik-Tatar, J. (2013). China’s New Silk Road Diplomacy (No. 34 , December 2013). The Polish Institute of International Affairs. Retrieved from: https://www.pism.pl/files/?id_plik=15818.
The Diplomat. (2017, May 12). Belt and Road Attendees List. The Diplomat. Retrieved from: https://thediplomat.com/2017/05/belt-and-road-attendees-list/.
Wilson, E. (2018). The Odyssey: translated by Emily Wilson. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. This outstanding book can be purchased via: https://www.emilyrcwilson.com/the-odyssey.
Witte, M. (2013, September 11). Xi Jinping Calls For Regional Cooperation Via New Silk Road. The Astana Times. Retireved from: https://astanatimes.com/2013/09/xi-jinping-calls-for-regional-cooperation-via-new-silk-road/.