Alternative Narratives to the Liberal International Order. The case of China and Russia from the early 2000s to today

Alternative Narratives to the Liberal International Order. The case of China and Russia from the early 2000s to today
Since the early 2000s, the rise of China and Russia has increasingly captured the attention of scholars and experts in International Relations (IR), becoming a trope in the academic and political debate. Specifically, several investigations have focused on the consequences of the emergence of these powers on the fate of the liberal international order (LIO), believing that China and Russia would represent a challenge to the dominance of the US-led West. Consistent with a mainstream perspective of IR Theory, China and Russia have been described as destabilizing actors, mainly struggling for power and world hegemony. Unlike traditional theories, however, other approaches to IR theory, above all constructivism, have suggested considering the impact of ideational variables such as state identity, social recognition, and perceptions on international politics, paving the way for the development of innovative theoretical frameworks. Thus, non-Western powers, such as China and Russia, have been seen as actors seeking greater plurality within the current international order. Analogously, this thesis aims to understand the interaction between today’s major powers, going beyond traditional notions of competition and rivalry but investigating how China and Russia’s perception of being marginalised has affected their posture on the international scene. In doing so, the research builds upon a cross-disciplinary theoretical framework which intertwines IR Theory, in particular, the Constructivist paradigm, with Social Identity Theory and Social Representation Theory from Social Psychology. It follows a two-stage approach that first focuses on the state identity’s formation and then explores its impact on social interaction at the international level. On the one hand, identity depends on the state’s affiliation with social groups and, particularly for great powers, on the need to feel recognized by others as part of them. On the other one, the need for social recognition compels states to take actions targeted at their membership in social groups or to retaliate against what they believe to be a situation of “status immobility”. In recent years, indeed, China and Russia have been convinced to suffer from structural marginalization within the LIO. Marginalisation – real or perceived – undermines the perception of the social recognition expected by the state by leading this either to be included in the existing order or create an alternative one, in which it the hoped-for status. It explains the contestation of China and Russia, as well as the creation of competitive international institutions to the existing ones as a strategy to create a different, and more plural, world order, where both countries can act like great powers.
The timespan examined goes from the early 2000s, when China and Russia emerged as rising powers, until 2020 when both countries have adopted a more assertive and aggressive posture within the current international order. The thesis relies on a qualitative and interpretive methodology and on discourse analysis to unpack the narrative that the leaderships of both China and Russia have developed consistent with their aspiration to be socially recognised as great powers.
Eventually, the dissertation draws on fieldwork conducted in both countries, which allowed me to consult national archives and local academic publications, visit museums and other relevant public spaces, participate in person in state celebrations, and talk to scholars, researchers, journalists, and students living in China and Russia. Along with theoretical and empirical findings, field research has been crucial in tracing the narrative elements through which the political leaderships of China and Russia have lamented their countries’ lack of social recognition on the international stage by evoking, and sometimes manipulating, the national cultural and historical context.


Flavia Lucenti

Defended in

1 Jan 2021 – 31 Dec 2021

PhD defended at

Roma Tre University, Department of Political and Social Sciences


Social Sciences


Global Asia (Asia and other parts of the World)


International Relations and Politics