In my research, I have several areas of focus: US-China relations, the role of concepts in academic and political life, the soft power concept, analogies, and the use of history in IR. My dissertation revolved mostly around the role of concepts in academic and political life, overall making a case to examine concepts as sites of political contestation (what I call conceptual politics). Empirically, I have traced the trials and tribulations of the soft power concept in the context of the ongoing power shift from the US and Japan to China. My postdoctoral project, funded by the Swedish Research Council and conducted at the Lau China Center (King's College London) and the Department of Economic History and International Relations, focuses on the role of analogies and analogy change in international politics (start date July 2022).
Below, please find an overview of my ongoing projects and work. For a complete list, please consult my CV.
Analogy Change in International Relations: The Case of the Return of the Cold War and the Future of US—China Relations
Swedish Research Council International Postdoc Project at the Department of Economic History and International Relations/Stockholm University. Start date: July 2022
While foreign policy elites used to rely on historical analogies of power shifts to make sense of US-China relations, in recent years the main analogy has changed to the Cold War. This analogy change is puzzling. First, the appropriateness of the analogy is not clear since many key Cold War features do not apply to US-China relations (e.g. China’s deep integration in global economics). Second, the recent deterioration of relations conforms well with expectations based on power shift analogies. The aim of this research is to understand the phenomenon of analogy change, and specifically the rapid emergence of the Cold War analogy as the main reference point for US-China relations through three distinct stages. First, the origins of the Cold War analogy are examined by incorporating conceptual history with digital humanities methods. Second, to assess the appropriateness of the analogy, a comparative historical analysis of current US-China relations with US-Soviet relations is conducted. Third, by drawing from theories on the role of history in IR, different explanations for analogy change are theorized and examined through a discourse analysis of Cold War discourses including interviews with drivers of the discourse. The research is important, since it (1) addresses the puzzling case of analogy change (2) nuances our understanding about the emerging new global order and (3) encourages a responsible reliance on analogies in politics.
Conceptual Politics in Practice: How Soft Power Changed the World
Defended 11 December 2020 at the Department of Economic History and International Relations (Opponent: Patrick Thaddeus Jackson)
Recipient of the best dissertation award in the Social Sciences at Stockholm University in 2020
How can we understand the role and consequences of concepts in international politics? Building on the emerging field of critical concept studies, the dissertation examines how actors coin, use, revisit and promote concepts in anticipation of performative effects. Examining such “conceptual politics” in practice, the dissertation advances an analysis of the “soft power” concept—the ability to affect others through attraction—in the context of the ongoing power shift between the USA, Japan and China. In addition, the study conceptualizes and empirically traces how feedback loops, reification and travel shape the trajectory of soft power.
You can find an open-access copy here.
A book manuscript based on the dissertation is currently in preparation.
Winkler, S.C., Jerdén, B. (2023) "US foreign policy elites and the great rejuvenation of the ideological China threat: The role of rhetoric and the ideologization of geopolitical threats."
Published in the Journal of International Relations and Development, https://doi.org/10.1057/s41268-022-00288-6
Since 2018, US foreign policy elites have portrayed China as the gravest threat to their country. Why was China predominantly cast as an ideological threat, even though other discursive formulations, such as a geopolitical threat, were plausible and available? Existing major IR theories on threat perpcetions struggle to address these questions. In this article, we draw from rhetoric and public legitimation scholarship to argue that the mobilization of adjacent policy debates was key to mainstream the representation of China as an ideological threat. By mobilizing debates on Russia and the soft power and sharp power concepts, a minority view in US foreign policy with a longstanding ambition to get tough on China established a seemingly natural link between liberal internationalism and an ideologically threatening China. Liberal foreign policy elites who originally opposed a realpolitik view of China could now subsume a geopolitical threat into an ideological one reminiscent of US-Soviet Cold War rivalry. This constituted a necessary catalyst to align most foreign policy elites to understand China as the gravest threat to the United States, at a time when China’s capabilities and behaviour, coupled with a deep sense of insecurity regarding America’s place in the world, provided the necessary backdrop.
You can find an open-access copy here.
Winkler, S. C. (2023). "U.S.-Chinese strategic competition and the Ukraine War: Implications for Asian-Pacific Security".
Published in the Czech Journal of International Relations, 58 (1)
Against the background of intensified U.S.-Chinese strategic competition in recent years, this paper examines the implications of the Ukraine War for security in the Asia-Pacific. Based on a qualitative analysis of hundreds of governmental documents, speeches and news article, the study finds that both the United States and China have exploited the Ukraine War to double down on their strategic rivalry in the Asia-Pacific. The Biden administration has cast China and Russia as similar threats to international order; intertwined Europe’s problems with the Asia-Pacific; and pursued a global anti-authoritarian alliance directed against both Russia and China. China has become an increasingly uninhibited security-seeker as it has recognized China’s rapidly deteriorating security situation; America’s resolve to maintain its China policy; and a unique strategic moment to present itself globally as an anti-hegemonic, responsible great power. Given these developments, the security situation in the Asia-Pacific is becoming ever more volatile.
Winkler, S. C. (2019). “‘Soft Power is such a Benign Animal’: Narrative Power and the Reification of Concepts in Japan.”
Published in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 32(4), 483–501
The purpose of this article is to analyse how the seemingly natural fit between Japan and the soft power concept has been possible despite the notorious vagueness of the concept and what the consequences of soft power’s reification are. By building on recent scholarship on concepts, expert knowledge and narratives, the article suggests that reification processes are best conceptualized as driven by concept coalitions. The article finds that soft power was narrated and nurtured into Japan’s cultural diplomacy, Japan’s relationship with the United States (US) and its security policy. The article, moreover, shows that the more soft power was understood, framed and accepted as benign and necessary, the more persuasive arguments about what Japan should do or be in order to wield soft power became. This has legitimized narratives that suggest that Japan’s 'proactive contribution to peace’ as a responsible ally of the US constitutes an inevitable source of soft power.
You can find an open-access copy here.
Work in progress
Article manuscript on critical concept analysis and researcher's positionality (stage: drafting)
For scholars interested in approaching concept analysis from a critical perspective, one of the key challenges is to develop an approach that on the one hand understands concepts as political phenomena, but that on the other hand also realizes the positionality of the researcher as part and parcel of the phenomenon under investigation. In this article, I reflect on my relation with the soft power concept, a concept whose trials and tribulations I have followed for more than five years, and unpack the challenges of remaining critical while simultaneously being sucked into the soft power machinery.
Book manuscript on the role of the soft power concept in enabling China's peaceful rise, the soft power concept and critical concept studies (stage: under review)
In this book manuscript, based partially on my dissertation, I examine how the academic concept of soft power has enabled the last three decades of peace between the United States, Japan and China. But at the same time, the book also demonstrates how the concept’s influence on world politics has played a key role in the sharp deterioration of China’s relations with the West since the late-2010s.
Article manuscript "A tale of two translations: Soft Power's journey to China" (stage: drafting)
Why has China embraced the soft power concept despite the concept's seeming liberal democratic bias that renders China's attainment of soft power challenging without political reform? Despite astounding interest in China's soft power, current research struggles to explain this question satisfactorily. This paper argues that the seemingly paradoxical embrace of the soft power concept can best be explained by focusing on the politics of its translation into China. Building on translation scholarship and by conceptualizing translation as a performative encounter in space and time between 'the West' and 'China', the paper demonstrates how soft power's translation as both a developmental goal/means to China's rise, as well as a trap to subdue China's rise lies behind the particularities of China's soft power approach and Western (mis)understandings of it. The article traces the process of soft power's journey to China and relies on material collected from governmental, journalistic and academic sources as well as interviews.
Article manuscript "Soft Power goes to Broadway" (stage: drafting)
The soft power concept—defined as the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion—is a fascinating phenomenon. Developed as an analytical concept in the late 1980s, it has travelled into nearly all corners of the world and become particularly popular among policy makers. Although Nye’s original formulation is broader in scope, from Japan’s anime ambassadors to China’s Confucius Institutes, most interest has been in conceptualizing and further encouraging the dissemination of cultural products as soft power assets. While some observers disregard the concept as little more than a shallow catchphrase or are frustrated with the dominance of cultural soft power, I argue that the effects of the soft power concept on the production of culture needs to be seen as an important site of world politics where actors contest diverging interpretations of past, present and future. Based on participant observation and interview material, the article sheds light onto an intriguing case, namely how Broadway—a key contributor to American culture and ironically often theorized as a source of its soft power—has turned to soft power in an attempt to make sense of the concept’s effects on its own self. This has culminated into a musical called “Soft power—A play with Musical” in 2018 that takes place in a future where China has replaced the US as the most powerful country. As the article demonstrates, the making and contents of the musical offer us an intriguing window into a site of global politics that typically receives little attention. Ultimately, I suggest that spaces of popular culture are not shallow responses to world politics or epiphenomenal, but need to be seen as alternative sites of theorizing the international with potentially performative effects.