Prestige and the Restraint of Power in International Relations

Change log
Brake, John 

Scholars of international politics have long linked states’ quest for prestige with assertions of national power: diplomatic saber-rattling, scrambles for colonies, arms races, and outright war. This thesis charts a sharply divergent, previously neglected, path to international prestige—foreign policy restraint. The argument in brief is that states seek prestige by conspicuously holding back from the use of power and thereby spurning opportunities for national gain.

Departing from the prevailing conception of restraint as merely a kind of inaction, this thesis reframes restraint as a performance. Performances of restraint are constituted intersubjectively when a state is perceived to refrain from pursuing its interests to the extent that its power allows. Forswearing the acquisition of nuclear weapons, liquidating profitable military interventions, renouncing territorial claims, de-escalating diplomatic crises, curbing carbon emissions—each of these policies of self-limitation, and many more besides, may constitute performative restraint if recognized as volitional (emanating from the actor’s will) and supererogatory (exceeding the actor’s normative obligations).

To secure others’ recognition of their performances, states appeal to existing normative standards of restraint in international society. By conspicuously exceeding those standards, states express both (1) their material capacity—the abundance of underlying resources that equips them to voluntarily forgo self- interested behavior; and (2) their moral character—the exemplary virtues that underlie their prosocial choices. When states believe that they can credibly perform restraint, triggering these signaling mechanisms, they may “hold back” from acquisitive or assertive policies in order to “rise above” others in terms of prestige. Notably, “holding back to rise above” appeals to states as an expressive strategy exactly because it is materially costly and socially non-obligatory.

This thesis draws upon insights into the performative nature of restraint from cognate disciplines and everyday life, integrating them into an overarching account with reference to Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical model of social action. It illustrates how “holding back to rise above” applies in four diverse historical cases: (1) the United States’ Good Neighbor Policy of non-intervention in Latin America (1933-40); (2) Germany’s post-reunification foreign policy, culminating with its non-participation in the US “Coalition of the Willing” for the Iraq War (1991-2005); (3) India’s decades of spurning of nuclear weapons and championing non-proliferation (1964-98); and (4) China’s restraint of its carbon emissions in the context of global climate change mitigation (1992-2017). In short, the thesis contributes to a wide range of debates in IR over the sources of international prestige and the reasons for states’ costly compliance with social standards.

Sharman, Jason
prestige, status, international relations, foreign policy, restraint, Erving Goffman, performance theory
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge