CSS Research and Policy Seminar with Joshua Shifrinson

By Thomas Cavanna

Joshua Shifrinson, assistant professor at Boston University’s Pardee School for Global Affairs, presented a new paper entitled, “Staying the Top Dog: Suppression Strategies and Great Power Politics,” at the CSS Research and Policy Seminar on February 25. The paper sets the foundations of his next book.

The paper analyzes when, why, and how existing great powers attempt to suppress the emergence of future security challengers. The research aims to fill a major gap in the international security literature. Although scholars have paid considerable attention to great powers’ efforts to counter real or credible threats, the literature has almost completely ignored their attempts to stem the rise of states that might one day become rising powers and, therefore, a security threat.

Shifrinson presented a novel framework of analysis to understand why and how incumbent powers conceptualize and implement so-called suppression strategies. According to his research, great powers always face a fundamental dilemma in that an excessive focus on existing threats (usually considered the priority) may hamper their ability to suppress future rising states, and the same is true in reverse. There are various types of suppression strategies combining pressure and incentives, including denying the future rising state a benign and propitious geopolitical environment or destabilizing its economic and political system. However, an incumbent power’s desire and ability to advance suppression strategies is conditioned by its “latent security” and by the degree of permissiveness in the environment.

Shifrinson investigated the suppression strategies the United States used for the European Economic Community and the European Union during the late stages of the Cold War and the early post-Cold War era. As the Soviet threat faded, American leaders became increasingly concerned about Western Europe’s potential emergence as in independent strategic actor. Shifrinson’s case study, which built upon an impressive array of newly declassified archival documents, provided a robust illustration of the internal validity of his analytical framework and offered new insights into the oft-forgotten competitive dimension of the transatlantic relationship.

Following his talk, Shifrinson addressed comments and suggestions from the CSS fellows and affiliated faculty in attendance. The discussion covered a wide array of topics, including the possible inclusion of additional cases, the role of “Europeanists” in America’s national security apparatus, the thresholds that differentiate a future rising power from an existing rising power, typologies on the behavior of rising powers, distinctions between suppression strategies and alternative frameworks (including the balance of power theory, hegemony, and others), the conditions presented in the theory, the role of domestic politics, and the U.S. decision to both check and support the potential rise of China.

The Center for Strategic Studies would like to thank Shifrinson for an extremely engaging session and looks forward to the development of his book project.

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