By Gregorio Bettiza and David Lewis
Are rising authoritarian powers such as China and Russia converging towards or challenging the normative structures of the liberal international order? This article argues that scholarship on norm contestation provides a fruitful theoretical avenue for addressing this question. It finds, however, that this literature has problematically tended to either overlook or externalize power dynamics from norm contestation. The article therefore proposes and develops a power political approach to norm contestation that, informed by a realpolitik sensibility, more explicitly and consistently makes power central to the analysis. A power political perspective conceptualizes norm contestation as the expression of battles for influence in world politics that take place at the ideational level and through symbolic instruments. It understands these struggles as occurring in the context of an international system profoundly marked by conflicting interests, cultural pluralism, hierarchical structures, and power asymmetries. This power political lens is then used to identify four modes of contestation that Russian and Chinese actors are engaged in: liberal performance, liberal mimicry, civilizational essentialization, and counter-norm entrepreneurship. It empirically explores how these contestatory practices express themselves at different intensity levels—applicatory, meaning, and validity—and display specific power political logics—fragmenting and integrative—with the goal of undermining the ideational hegemony of liberal Western-based actors and structures in world politics, and advancing alternative non-liberal visions of domestic and international order. Along with contributing to the literature on norms, this article also makes a broader intervention in current debates about rising powers and the future of the liberal international order.