Not Necessarily Done When You’ve Won: On Kicking a Great Power When It’s Down


Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson, Rising Titans, Falling Giants: How Great Powers Exploit Power Shifts (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018)

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Book Review Roundtable: Rising Titans, Falling Giants from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.


Backed up by exhaustive research in primary and secondary sources, Rising Titans, Falling Giants undermines large areas of conventional wisdom in security studies. In this scholarly tour de force, Joshua Shifrinson argues that the optimal strategy for a rising great power vis-à-vis a declining peer is to crush it, or at least weaken it, if it can do so without risking its own security and if the target is not needed for dealing with challenges from other great powers. Friendlier strategies are called for only when those conditions are not met. According to Shifrinson, leaders of a rising great power would be foolish to weaken a declining peer if it could help contain, divert, or otherwise weaken a more pressing great-power challenge. Hence, the United States and the Soviet Union each attempted to bolster the faltering British Empire in the immediate wake of World War II, in hopes that it could prove helpful against the other. Only when London opted clearly for the U.S. camp did Moscow’s dominant strategy shift to weakening Britain.

But, Shifrinson warns, it would be equally foolish for a great power — perhaps out of a surfeit of caution or in an effort to come to some great-power concert arrangement — to pass up the chance to cut down a declining peer if the circumstances were ripe. This is a strong claim that runs against much of international relations scholarship. Shifrinson is saying that even though the peer’s decline is increasing the rising great power’s security, and even if the decliner is cooperative, that is no reason not to grab even more relative power so long as the decliner cannot help against other great powers and lacks the ability to resist. When the Soviet Union declined in the 1980s, it could be of no use to the United States in battling other great powers because there weren’t any. According to Shifrinson’s “predation theory,” Washington’s optimal response to this strategic setting was to weaken the Soviet Union as much as it could in view of Moscow’s inability to fight back. When the Soviet Union’s capability to credibly use force in Central Europe waned in 1989–90, U.S. leaders were therefore right to ramp up from the mainly covert and generally ineffectual weakening strategies they had deployed for most of the Cold War, for want of more potent alternatives, to measures truly meant to push Russian power back east of the Elbe. But when the Soviet Union itself began to come apart, Washington sagely restrained itself from intense weakening strategies due to the credibility of Russian power so close to home.

Shifrinson’s book forces scholars to think about rise-and-decline dynamics in a new way, one not fixated on power transitions. It shows how great powers’ strategies can vary from predatory to cooperative with a novel power-centric explanation that appears to outperform competing explanations in key cases. Shifrinson’s admirably rigorous research sheds new light on lesser known aspects of the Cold War, especially the Soviet Union’s relatively supportive policies toward the British Empire in the early post-World War II period and America’s predatory policies toward the Soviet Union in 1989–91.

The Realist Logic Behind NATO Expansion

But the biggest piece of conventional wisdom that Shifrinson undermines is one that he does not talk about: the popular notion among realist security studies scholars that America ought to have abandoned its leadership role — or “primacy” — in post-Cold War Europe. I hardly need to remind readers of this publication of the hugely influential arguments presented by the likes of Eugene Gholz, Daryl Press, Harvey Sapolsky, Barry Posen, Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, Chris Layne and many other luminaries in the field of security studies that once the Soviet Union declined the United States no longer had a national interest in preserving its primary role in European security via NATO. With a theory that is “born of familiar realist roots,” Shifrinson reaches the opposite conclusion.

The key practical divergence between predation theory and the theories deployed by advocates of NATO abandonment is the threshold for a U.S. onshore presence in Europe. The conventional wisdom among “Come Home, America” scholars is that the United States needs to be in Europe only if there is a credible threat of military hegemony in the region. The very stimulus that such theories argue should trigger the United States to pull back — Soviet decline and the corresponding evaporation of the threat of hegemony — is what predation theory sees as a reason for expanding U.S. commitments. If you want to weaken Moscow’s power, as predation theory says you should, you don’t pull back; you don’t even stand on the defense by merely preserving NATO as a hedge. No, you lean forward and expand NATO to sweep up former Soviet allies in Central Europe.

It is important to stress that even though Rising Titans, Falling Giants is about the end of the Cold War and thus concerns actions that predate the big debate about whether to come home or to expand NATO, Shifrinson shows that the die was already cast during this period:

[B]y March 1990, U.S. strategists began exploring ways of expanding NATO further in Eastern Europe and gaining influence over members of the rapidly dissolving Warsaw Pact; within months policymakers were debating whether and when to signal that Eastern European states could join the alliance. Dominance was the name of the game.

And that meant no coming home, no “restraint,” no offshore balancing, no concert of powers with Moscow as an equal player, and no new security architecture in Europe to replace NATO.

Given the centrality of NATO and Europe to U.S. grand strategy, predation theory is a novel entry into this longstanding debate. Typically, the “Come Home, America” position is contrasted with an array of arguments that, for lack of a better word, seem more defensive than the theory Shifrinson develops in Rising Titans, Falling Giants. They portray continued U.S. primacy in Europe as necessary for preventing the reemergence of security competition among European states, for warding off Yugoslavia-style wars of nationalism and irredentism, for hedging against a possible Russian resurgence, and for helping elicit European cooperation on a range of non-security matters such as economic policy. They generally have a broader conception of U.S. security requirements that go beyond great-power politics and greater sensitivity to non-security interests. Predation theory, by contrast, occupies the same turf as the “Come Home, America” arguments, but is focused like a laser beam on classical security interests and the great-power chessboard.

Predation theory strikes me as more akin to a carefully developed, contingent version of offensive realism, arguing that it makes sense for great powers to pursue security aggressively but not wantonly, choosing their peer victims carefully. Shifrinson notes this affinity with offensive realism but stresses the ways in which his approach can explain cooperative great-power strategies where offensive realism cannot. Needless to say, in naming it “predation theory,” Shifrinson also wants the more offensive implications of his argument to register. And they should register in this debate — a debate from which offensive realist power-grabbing arguments have been largely absent.

Indeed, realist arguments in favor of abandoning U.S. primacy in Europe are so prominent that many people conflate realism with grand strategic restraint, forgetting that from the same basic school of thought one can derive arguments for the strategic sagacity of kicking great powers while they are down. And Shifrinson’s extensive research documents decision-makers expressing precisely this kind of logic within the corridors of power, whatever reassuring liberal rhetoric they may have adopted for public consumption.

Overall, Rising Titans, Falling Giants offers a great deal of evidence that runs counter to popular realist portrayals of the causes of U.S. primacy-seeking. Scholars like Mearsheimer and Walt are puzzled by America’s post-Cold War expansionism and attribute it to motivations outside the security realm. But in the pages of Rising Titans, Falling Giants, Shifrinson offers deep and thorough research on the internal deliberations that resulted in the grand strategic choice to sustain and extend U.S. primacy in Europe. This copious documentation reveals U.S. decision-makers who are “attuned to changes in the distribution of power and [who] privilege the resulting concerns and opportunities when shaping strategy.” There is scant evidence here of the reckless liberal crusaders, drunk with power, who star in Mearsheimer’s The Great Delusion, or of the complacent, self-serving, bubble-dwelling denizens of the “blob” who feature in Walt’s The Hell of Good Intentions. Instead, we see, well, realists: “leaders [who] recognized that preying on the Soviet Union improved the relative power of the United States, affording it advantages in peacetime negotiations and improving the odds of wartime victory.” Sound like realism to you?

Probing the Prescriptive Power of Predation Theory

Now, as someone who is on record arguing against abandoning NATO and coming home, I might be suspected of deriving unwarranted implications from Rising Titans, Falling Giants. After all, as noted, Shifrinson himself does not tout the book’s implication for this hoary grand strategy debate. If I have misread the book’s implications for that debate, the format of this roundtable gives him the opportunity to correct the record. So, let me close with a discussion of two potential objections to the implications I have derived here.

First, Shifrinson does not use normative language, as I have done, instead writing about his theory in terms of prediction and explanation. But that is a distinction without a difference, for he posits that great powers are rational and driven first and foremost by the desire to secure themselves. If, as he writes, predation theory “provides the most powerful and consistent account of rising state behavior,” it follows that he is claiming that what the United States did to the Soviet Union as the Cold War wound down is what a rational rising great power interested in security should have done.

Second, it could be that predation theory and the theories that have yielded the “Come Home, America” argument converge in recommending that a less primacy-oriented U.S. strategy is needed for Europe as Russia’s decline and China’s rise continue. If so, it would be a service to the grand strategy debate for Shifrinson to spell out this logic. Presumably, at some moment China’s rise might become salient enough to raise Moscow’s strategic value as a counter to Beijing, and so predation theory might call for a total revamping of the U.S. position in Europe to bolster or even strengthen Russia. If so, one wonders when in this process the revamp should have occurred, according to the theory: When is China strong enough and Russia weak enough to warrant trading U.S. leadership in Europe for Moscow’s help versus Beijing? According to predation theory, when in the post-Cold War period — if ever — does America’s policy of sustaining primacy in Europe and keeping Russia out begin to undermine U.S. interests?

Rising Titans, Falling Giants presents its arguments and first-rate empirical research efficiently and with verve. Shifrinson proves that the classical explanatory architecture that we know as realism, which has been with us in one form or another for centuries, can, when wielded by a smart and hard-driving scholar, still deliver novel insights.



William Wohlforth is the Daniel Webster Professor at Dartmouth College, where he teaches in the Department of Government. His most recent books are America Abroad: The United States’ Global Role in the 21st Century (Oxford, 2016), with co-author Stephen G. Brooks, and The Oxford Handbook of International Security (Oxford, 2018), co-edited with Alexandra Gheciu. He is currently working on a book on subversion among great powers.

Image: George Bush Presidential Library (Photo by Susan Diddle)

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