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Illiberal World Order

The Illiberalism Studies Program is working on two parallel projects.

The first will offer a new theoretical framework for studies of hegemonies by explaining how near-peer influence and regional balances of power are now embedded in competition in the knowledge economy. Following the spread of Western institutions across the globe in the last century, can Chinese and Russian substitutes rival them? And if so, what are the consequences? To better understand Russia’s and China’s ability to generate new forms of great power competitions that pose strategic challenges to the United States and its allies, we will test hypotheses that both countries’ rising global outreach can be explained by their status as service providers for illiberal governance. By illiberal governance, we refer to the tools of the knowledge and skills economy that can be deployed by state agencies to ensure political control over society, resilience to external forces, and elite capture of profitable sectors. 

The project’s main objectives are threefold: (1) produce a comprehensive understanding of the scope and spread of service provision by near-peer powers, (2) evaluate the impact of Chinese and Russian services on domestic governance of client countries, and (3) analyze the international order emerging as a result. We will incorporate analysis of large datasets to measure values of China’s and Russia’s services in 15 countries and conduct in-depth research in six countries over four continents with varying levels of either near-peer competitor’s presence. 


The second studies the components of great power competition by developing theory, collecting original qualitative and quantitative data and pursuing empirical testing to understand how great powers develop transnational topdown hierarchical political orders with subordinate states, how those same great powers engage in horizontal competition, and how smaller state actors negotiate the demands and opportunities presented by great powers. 

It addresses the following questions:

  • How do states, versus their peer competitors at the regional and global levels of politics, pursue and achieve a favorable balance of power?
  • How do we measure transnational stratification and differentiation between states to identify the extent of hierarchy in global power politics and model shifts in multi-level balances of power?
  • How do variations in hierarchical relationships generate different social, moral, and behavioral outcomes?
  • Do transnational hierarchies emerge because of structural anarchy or despite it?
  • What tools of statecraft and influence do great and regional powers use with smaller states to shape or limit the political, economic, and security decisions of subordinate states, and how do weaker actors navigate, leverage, resist or escape existing hierarchies?
  • How are existing hierarchies sustained or dismantled?

This project will show how international and regional orders develop in theory and in practice using cases from Central Asia, with the view to applying the lessons learned to different problem sets elsewhere in the world. Central Asia is ideally suited to this project because it possesses land borders with two great powers, Russia and China, while additionally attracting substantial interest from several other powers, most prominently the United States.