The Great Powers In International Relations (I)

Global politics is, in fact, nothing else but mainly a constant historical competition between the Great Powers for more power, resources, and territory. Meaning of the term Great Power(s) (GP) in global politics from the beginning of the 16th century onward refers to the most power and therefore top influential states within the system of the international relations (IR). In other words, the GP are those and only those states who are modeling global politics like Portugal, Spain, Sweden, France, the United Kingdom, united Germany, the USA, the USSR, Russia or China. During the time of the Cold War (1949−1989), there were superpowers[i] as the American and the Soviet administrations referred to their own countries and even a hyperpower state – the USA, after the Cold War as it is called in the academic literature.[ii] A focal characteristic of any GP is to promulgate its own national (state’s) interest within a global (up to the 20th century European) scope by applying a „forward“ policy.

A term global politics (or world politics) is related to the IR which are of the worldwide nature or to the politics of one or more actors who are having a global impact, influence and importance. Therefore, global politics can be understood as political relations between all kinds of actors in politics, either nonstate actors or sovereign states, that are of global interest. In the broadest sense, global politics is a synonym for a global political system that is „global universe of actors such as nation-states, international organizations, and transnational corporations and the sum of their relationships and interactions“.[iii]

Originally, in the 18th century, the term GP was related to any European state that was, in essence, a sovereign or independent. In practice, it meant, only those states that were able to independently defend themselves from the aggression launched by another state or group of states. Nevertheless, after WWII, the term GP is applied to the countries that are regarded to be of the most powerful position within the global system of IR. Those countries are only countries whose foreign policy is „forward“ policy and therefore the states like Brasil, Germany or Japan, who have significant economic might, are not considered today to be the members of the GP bloc for the only reason as they lack both political will and the military potential for the GP status.[iv]

Great powers in 1792One of the fundamental characteristics and historical features of any member state of the GP club was, is and will be to behave in the international arena according to its own adopted geopolitical concept(s) and aim(s). In other words, the leading modern and postmodern nation-states are „geopolitically“ acting in the global politics that makes a crucial difference between them and all other states. According to the realist viewpoint, global or world politics is nothing else than a struggle for power and supremacy between the states on different levels as the regional, continental, intercontinental or global (universal). Therefore, the governments of the states are forced to remain informed upon the efforts and politics of other states, or eventually other political actors, for the sake, if necessary, to acquire extra power (weapons, etc.) which are supposed to protect their own national security (Iran) or even survival on the political map of the world (North Korea) by potential aggressor (the USA). Competing for supremacy and protecting the national security, the national states will usually opt for the policy of balancing one another’s power by different means like creating or joining military-political blocs or increasing their own military capacity. Subsequently, global politics is nothing else but just an eternal struggle for power and supremacy in order to protect the self-proclaimed national interest and security of the major states or the GP.[v] As the major states regard the issue of power distribution to be fundamental in international relations and as they act in accordance to the relative power that they have, the factors of internal influence to states, like the type of political government or economic order, have no strong impact on foreign policy and international relations. In other words, it is of „genetic nature“ of the GP to struggle for supremacy and hegemony regardless of their inner construction and features. It is the same „natural law“ either for democracies or totalitarian types of government or liberal (free-market) and command (centralized) economies.

Power differs very much from one state to another likewise of the same state from a historic perspective. Generally, the most powerful states enjoy and the most influential impact on international affairs either regional or global and control the majority of the power resources in the world. In practice, only several states have any real influence on global IR while the other states can have an influence just beyond their immediate locality. These two categories of states are named as the GP and the Middle Powers (MP) in the international system of intra-state relations.[vi] Status of the GP can be formally given and to some supranational structures like in the 19th century to the Concert of Europe or in the 20th century to the UNO, the NATO or the Warsaw Pact.

Nevertheless, the fundamental division of the world states according to their impact on global affairs is just into two basic categories:

  1. The category of the GP (several top-powerful states).
  2. The category of non-GP (MP and low- or non-influential states).

A GP state is such a state that is considered to be a member of the most powerful and influential group of states in a hierarchical order of the world state-system. Today, this term is related to the state that is regarded to be among the most powerful states in the global political system.[vii]

The most problematic issue in the categorization of the states within the world state-system is applied criteria. Nevertheless, the criteria which define one state to be or not to be a great power is usually, at least from the academic point of view, of the following basic ten-point conditions:

  1. A GP state is such a state that is on the top-rank level of military power, having the real capacity to protect and maintain its own security and to influence the politics of other states or other actors in international relations.
  2. A GP state is a state that can be defeated militarily only by another member of the GP club or by an alliance of some of the states coming from this club.
  3. A GP state is from the economic perspective of a powerful state. This condition is necessary but, however, in some cases (like today Japan or the USA at the time of its isolationist period of foreign policy) is not and sufficient condition for the GP status. This is a quantitative condition for the status of a GP. The other quantitative conditions are a certain level of GDP, GNP or GDI[viii] or the size of its armed forces. The economic conditions can be and of qualitative nature like a high level of industrialization or the capability to make and to use nuclear weapons.
  4. A GP state has rather global, but not merely regional or continental, spheres of influence and interest. It means that a GP is such a state that possesses, exercises as well as defend its own interest throughout the globe.
  5. A GP state has to be at the front rank in regard to its military power and therefore it has to enjoy both certain privileges and duties dealing with global peace and international security.
  6. Probably, the most important feature of a GPs states is that they adopt and apply a „forward“ foreign policy having rather actual but not only potential impact on international affairs and other states or groups of them. It practically means that a GP state can not adopt a foreign policy of isolationism.[ix]
  7. The members of the GP club tend to share a global outlook that is founded on their own national interests far from their homes.
  8. The GPs have the strongest military forces and strongest economies to support their GP status.[x]
  9. The GP cannot easily lose its status in IR even after heavy military defeat due to its size, manpower, and long-term economic potentials.
  10. The GP form alliances with smaller and weaker client (quisling) states.[xi]

Great powers timelineA GP status to some state can be and formally recognized by the international community as it was the case by the League of Nations in the interwar time or by the United Nations Organization (UNO) after the WWII up today (five veto-rights permanent member states of the Security Council – China, Russia, France, the USA, and the United Kingdom). A GP status of these five „extraordinary“ members of the UNSC is guaranteed by their practice of unanimity. In other words, a concept of the GP unanimity holds that on all resolutions and/or proposals before the UNSC, a veto by any one of these five (privileged) states can be used that practically means that one GP state can block further work of the UNSC on a certain issue.[xii] Undoubtedly, one of the critical features of any GP state is its power projection that is a considerable influence, by force or not, beyond state’s borders, i.e. abroad, that less powerful countries could not match (for instance, the NATO military aggression against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999 conducted in fact by the USA).

The GP states are interconnected within a Great-Power System that is the set of special relationships between and among this privileged club of the most powerful global actors in IR. Those special relations are conducted by their own rules and patterns of interaction as the GP has a very extraordinary way of behaving and treating each other. This special way is, however, not applied to other states or other actors in global politics and the system of IR.

To be continued

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.


[i] The term superpower was originally coined by William Fox in 1944 for whom such a state has to possess great power followed by great mobility of power. At that time, he argued that there were only three superpower states in the world: the USA, the USSR and the UK (the “Big Three”). As such, they fixed the conditions of Nazi Germany’s surrender, took the focal role in the establishing of the UNO and were mostly responsible for the international security immediately after the WWII (Martin Griffiths, Terry O’Callaghan, Steven C. Roach, International Relations: The Key Concepts, Second edition, London−New York, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2008, 305).

[ii] China, with its enormous economic and man-power potentials followed by its rising military capability, will soon emerge as the most influential GP in global politics overtaking a role of a sole hyperpower from the USA. The 21st century is already a century of China but not of the USA as it was the 20th century.

[iii] Richard W. Mansbach, Kirsten L. Taylor, Introduction to Global Politics, Second edition, London−New York: Routledge, 2012, 577.

[iv] Israel is the only exception from this definition as this state has as its “West Bank” the USA. In other words, when we speak about the USA in IR, we speak de facto about Israel and the Zionist lobby in the USA.

[v] The European Union (the EU, est. 1992/1993) with its central motor, the French-German axis, became a new GP in global politics. Therefore, the USA is not anymore in a position to dictate and implement global policies like at the time of the Cold War. After the creation of the EU, the US administration seeks a multilateral action with the EU in several hot-spot areas of the conflicts in Europe as ex-Yugoslavia or Ukraine.

[vi] Today, a formal GP status has the USA, Russia, China, France, and Britain and MP status arguably have Canada, Italy, Brazil, Japan, Germany, Argentina, Turkey, India and/or Iran. However, if we consider the USA as a West Bank of Israel then the later is the only hyperpower in the world.

[vii] Richard W. Mansbach, Kirsten L. Taylor, Introduction to Global Politics, Second edition, London−New York: Routledge, 2012, 578.

[viii] Gross domestic product (GDP) is the total sum of goods and services that are produced by one state in a given year but not including goods and services that are produced abroad by domestic individuals or companies. Gross national product (GNP) is a total value of all goods and services produced by a country in a year, whether within the state’s borders or abroad. Gross national income (GNI) is measuring the market value of goods and services which are produced during a certain period (usually within one calendar year) and provides an estimate of a state’s total agricultural, industrial and commercial output.

[ix] Martin Griffiths, Terry O’Callaghan, Steven C. Roach, International Relations: The Key Concepts, Second edition, London−New York, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2008, 134−135; Andrew Heywood, Global Politics, London−New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 7. On the GP, see more in (Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1987). On the historical role of the GP in international relations, see in (Bear F. Braumoeller, The Great Powers and the International System: Systemic Theory in Empirical Perspective, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[x] However, their strongest economic status is guaranteed by the combination of several inter-related factors: 1. Their large population, 2. Rich natural resources, 3. Most advanced technology, and 4. Highly educated labor force (Joshua S. Goldstein, International Relations, Fifth Edition, New York: Longman, 2003, 95).

[xi] In the Ancient World two the most prominent examples of client-system alliances have been Athens-led Arhe and Sparta-led Peloponnesian Alliance. These two political-military alliances fought the Peloponnesian War from 431 to 404 with the final victory of Sparta with crucial support by Persia (Alan Isaacs et al (eds.), Oxford Dictionary of World History, Oxford−New York: 2001, 486). In contemporary history two, the most prominent formal alliances to dominate the international security scene were the US-led NATO (est. 1949) and the USSR-led Warsaw Pact (est. 1955) during the Cold War. The NATO was a clear expression of the American post-WWII global imperialism when the US had “more than 300.000 troops in Europe, with advanced planes, tanks, and other equipment” (Joshua S. Goldstein, International Relations, Fifth Edition, New York: Longman, 2003, 105). Its imperialistic role continued and after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991 and the formal, but not essential, end of the Cold War.

[xii] Steven L. Spiegel et al, World Politics in a New Era, Third Edition, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004, 696.

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