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 Institute of Political Science at Frankfurt University 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.
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. (2019). “‘Soft Power is such a Benign Animal’: Narrative Power and the Reification of Concepts in Japan.”
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.
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.
A book manuscript based on the dissertation is currently in preparation.