Historians and political scientists have traditionally divided countries into status quo and revisionist powers. The former tend to accept the existing international system as it is, while the latter reject the prevailing legitimacy of the international system and seek to alter it considerably or to overthrow it entirely.
I would argue that there is a conceptual problem in ascribing the term revisionist to describe the respective foreign policy goals to international actors, such as Napoleonic France, modern Iran, and Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Revisionist, after all, derives from the verb to revise, i.e. to change, to modify, which does not exactly reflect the intentions behind the territorially expansionist and politically hegemonic policies of either power or, indeed, of any other so called revisionist power in modern history. In this respect, the term revolutionary, employed by Henry Kissinger and a few other scholars, seems to be a more accurate description.
The revolutionaries behind the French Revolution of 1789 tried to export its ideas to other parts of Europe, both through the pen and the gun. Napoleon’s France expanded much further, destroying the classical balance of power that had existed for most of the 18th century. The multi-polar international system that had characterized the pre-Napoleonic period was replaced by a system dominated by one major power wishing to impose its will on all the other actors within it. The foreign policy goals of Napoleon’s France could hardly be described as revisionist. This was a revolutionary power intent on destroying the existing international system.
The same concept applies to sub-systems of the international system. Thus, in a sub-system like the Middle East, the current Iranian regime can be said to have revolutionary foreign policy goals, leading it to seek major changes in the region, including the destruction of Israel as a sovereign state. The Islamic Republic of Iran cannot be described as a revisionist power. That would hardly reflect the dimensions of its regional objectives or the means it is willing to employ in order to bring them about.
Fidel Castro’s Cuba was likewise a revolutionary actor in the region, hoping to advance the cause of Marxism in its diverse radical forms both in Central and South America and beyond, as in Angola and Mozambique. Taking into account the scope and magnitude of the change resulting from accomplishing its goals, Castro’s government cannot be considered revisionist. His efforts to intervene in Angola and Mozambique in the 1970s to help the Marxist guerrilla, in addition to similar efforts undertaken throughout Latin America, make Castro’s Cuba a revolutionary actor in the international system.
Moreover, sovereign states are not the only revolutionary actors. Organizations such as Al Qaeda and its various affiliates are revolutionary in nature because they seek to overthrow the existing international system and its underlying norms. In the context of sub-systems, organizations such as Hezbollah in the Middle East can also be described as revolutionary.
It simply does not make sense to define an organization such as Al Qaeda as revisionist or to claim that Hezbollah merely wishes to revise the prevailing order in the region as it calls for the destruction of Israel and the advancement of Iran’s regional ambitions.
What matters in this regard is not necessarily the ability of these organizations to implement all their objectives, but rather their intention and willingness to do so. The same determination applies to sovereign states.
Revolutionary actors are not monolithic, nor are status quo actors necessarily static in shaping the political system. Some of the first may be more revolutionary in intention than others and some of the latter may be more satisfied with the existing international or sub-system than others. For instance, a status quo power like the United States was less satisfied with the prevailing status quo under president George W. Bush than it was under the presidency of his father George H.W. Bush.
Following the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, President Bush and his administration shaped a strategy aimed at changing the status quo, both by toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and by promoting democracy in the Middle East. The aim was not to destroy the prevailing international order, but to change some aspects of it. Thus, although he started his presidency by enunciating that his Administration would not intervene internationally as the Clinton Administration had done, due to 9/11 he altered his policy and transformed theUnited States, in a sense, into a revisionist power.
Considering the previous points, the term revisionist does not reflect the true nature of the actors to which the term is usually applied. Conceptually a revisionist state or organization may be a status quo actor wishing to introduce some changes in an otherwise acceptable order.
An international actor wishing to change substantially, let alone completely destroy, the existing international system cannot be said to be revisionist. There is a conceptual problem entailed in referring to such an international actor as revisionist, as its aim is not merely to revise the prevailing international order, but to overthrow it.
Dr. Yoav J. Tenembaum lectures at the Diplomacy Program (Political Science Department), Tel Aviv University, Israel. He holds a doctorate in Modern History from Oxford University and a master’s degree in International Relations from Cambridge University.
This post originally appeared on the blog of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.