Morality and progress: IR narratives on international revisionism and the status quo

Oliver Turner, Nicola Nymalm

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Scholars debate the ambitions and policies of today’s ‘rising powers’ and the extent to which they are revising or upholding the international status quo. While elements of the relevant literature provide valuable insight, this article argues that the concepts of revisionism and the status quo within mainstream IR have always constituted deeply-rooted, autobiographical narratives of a traditionally Western-dominated discipline. As ‘ordering narratives’ of morality and progress, they constrain and organise debate so that revisionism is typically conceived not merely as disruption, but disruption from the non-West towards a fundamentally moral Western order which represents civilisational progress. This often makes them inherently problematic and unreliable descriptors of the actors and behaviours they are designed to explain. After exploring the formations and development of these concepts throughout the IR tradition, the analysis is directed toward narratives around the contemporary ‘rise’ of China. Both scholarly and wider political narratives typically tell the story of revisionist challenges China presents to a US/Western-led status quo, promoting unduly binary divisions between the West and non-West, and tensions and suspicions in the international realm. The aim must be to develop a new language and logic which recognises the contingent, autobiographical nature of ‘revisionist’ and ‘status quo’ actors and behaviours.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)407-428
JournalCambridge Review of International Affairs
Issue number4
Early online date21 Jun 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 21 Jun 2019


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