The Power of Narrative

A new book explains why some nations rise and others don’t.

By Sumit Ganguly, a columnist for Foreign Policy.
A national flag show is seen at Chaoyang park in Beijing on Sept. 30, 2006.
A national flag show is seen at Chaoyang park in Beijing on Sept. 30, 2006. China Photos/Getty Images

The dramatic rise of China over the past few decades and the relative decline of the United States have spawned a veritable cottage industry of observers seeking to explain the life cycle of great powers. Indeed, in 1989, well before China’s boom seemed inevitable—and near the height of U.S. power—historian Paul Kennedy sounded the alarm in his doorstopper book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. In it, Kennedy warned that the United States could be headed toward terminal decline if it did not rein in runaway defense spending and invest in domestic capabilities designed to sustain growth. The accessibility of Kennedy’s book made it an instant attraction; its erudition meant that it was widely read and cited for decades.

Since 1989, a number of political scientists have sought to update Kennedy’s work now that China really is rising. They tend to focus on Beijing’s increasing assertiveness and the likely implications for U.S. policy of a world in which it is not the singular power. A new book by Boston University’s Manjari Chatterjee Miller, Why Nations Rise: Narratives and the Path to Great Power, does not directly join this particular debate. However, it attempts to provide a novel explanation for why some states that acquire the requisite material attributes become great powers while others, despite obtaining such capabilities, do not.

Book cover of Why Nations Rise

Why Nations Rise: Narratives and the Path to Great Power , Manjari Chatterjee Miller, Oxford University Press, 208 pp., $99, February 2021

Her argument represents a direct challenge to the dominant strand of international relations theory. Realism, which holds that material power is the key determinant of a state’s position in the international order, in considerable measure undergirded Kennedy’s analysis as well as that of those who have sought to build on his foundational work. Miller’s account is rooted in a different intellectual tradition, one that emphasizes the role of ideas in shaping international politics.

To make her case, Miller compares the experiences of the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Japan, India, and China. Even with its broad sweep and careful attention to pertinent historical details, the book remains short, readable, and succinct. Miller argues that even though all states that became great powers had grand strategies and material assets that allowed them to do so, they also had narratives that accomplished three goals.

First, she describes how narratives allowed states to reconcile their expanding material capabilities with the constraints the extant international order imposed. They also helped states grapple with the prevailing notions of great-power status, whether that be the possession of colonies, weapons of mass destruction, or something else. Finally, rising states were also able to explain their increasing involvement in the global order both to domestic and international audiences.

So, for example, Miller carefully uses historical and contemporary sources show the ideational narratives underlying the failure of the Netherlands in the 18th and 19th centuries and postwar Japan to achieve great-power status despite their wealth and prosperity.

The obvious strengths of this book aside, it is nevertheless possible to disagree with Miller’s principal argument.

Miller’s discussions of the steady growth of material capabilities in the United Kingdom and the United States along with suitable accompanying narratives of great-power status are quite detailed. Nevertheless, one wonders if the narratives were little more than rationalization as states acquired their material accoutrements. As the American historian Thomas Metcalf demonstrated in a superb book, Ideologies of the Raj, the British came up with a dizzying array of justifications to prop up their rule in India. Accordingly, it is possible to argue that the narratives that accompanied the rise of these powers were really epiphenomenal. What truly mattered in the end was the ability of these states to harness some material capabilities, forge institutional capacity at home, and sally forth to seize foreign territories and their invaluable resources. The wanton plunder of these assets, in turn, bolstered their capabilities further.

Further, even Miller’s own evidence, so carefully amassed, sometimes undercuts her argument. For example, in her discussion of the failure of the Netherlands to emerge as a great power, she provides a fine-grained discussion of how Dutch intellectuals, colonial administrators, and diplomats made a case for the Netherlands as an “ethical” nation that would not emulate the behavior of other colonial powers of the time. Yet she also underscores the limitations of the country’s geography in relation to France and the United Kingdom. Might Dutch narratives then reflect rationalizations for the country’s relative material limits?

Moving to the modern era, the chapter on India is also less than persuasive. Focusing on the role of ideas in India’s grand strategy, Miller contends that across governments, the country has thought of itself in civilizational terms. Because of that, it has never really developed a compelling narrative to propel itself toward great-power status. Instead, it has been content to highlight its civilizational ethos as a way to rest on its laurels. Even as India acquired greater economic capabilities since the 1990s, its narrative remained timid and reticent, she suggests.

Her description, in large measure, may well be correct. But that may not be the principal reason for its failure to forthrightly forge a pathway to great-power status. As William R. Thompson and I have demonstrated in our book, Ascending India and Its State Capacity, India’s economic growth failed to coincide with a concomitant expansion of its state capacity. The Indian state apparatus still remains, as the eminent Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal put it decades ago, a “soft state.” Its ability to deliver a range of basic services to its population such as health care and primary education still routinely falls short three-quarters of a century after independence. These domestic infirmities, rather than the forging of an appropriate narrative, may well account for India’s ability to rise to great-power status.

Finally, her analysis of China’s quest for great-power status and its attendant narrative also seems a bit strained. Even as China embarked on a pathway toward rapid economic growth under Deng Xiaoping, its narrative remained quite restrained. Indeed, as Miller shows, Deng had counseled his country to bide its time and to quietly strengthen its sinews. Only with the dramatic emergence of both economic and military prowess has there been a concomitant shift in the narratives of great-power standing.

It is certainly possible to disagree with the basic argument of this book. Yet no fair-minded reader can contend that it will not be the basis of an informed, spirited, and meaningful debate on this critical subject in international affairs. Miller’s meticulous research, her explicit argument, and her work’s intellectual reach may provoke a discussion of how great powers emerge and/or fail to realize their potential.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.