The Great Powers In International Relations (II)

Part I


Historically, a time of the GP started in the 18th century when five European strongest states (the United Kingdom, France, Prussia, the Habsburg Monarchy and Russia) were competing against one another. Until the WWI the GP club was exclusively reserved for the European states[i] while after 1918 two non-European states joined this club – the USA and Japan. China became after the Cold War strongly incorporated into the concert of global GP. The existence of a GP system requires that the international system of foreign affairs has to be of a multipolar nature that actually means to be composed at least by three major actors in international politics. A GP state can not be dependent on another state for the security issue and it has to be militarily and economically stronger than other countries who are not members of a GP system of states. In fact, a security issue of those other states depends on one or more GP states. In addition, those other states are also usually dependent politically, financially and economically on one or more GP states. The security calculations of a GP state can be threatened only by other GP member state(s) who can challenge it politically and/or militarily. It is generally understood that to play a role of a GP, one state needs a large territory and population followed by a well-organized army and military system that is not possible without a strong, functional and above all a successful economy.

Historical experience shows clearly that to possess only one out of all necessary GP attributes means that the state cannot maintain its influence on the international arena for a very long period of time. That is now exactly, for instance, the case of decreasing international influence and domestic power by the USA. Sweden lost its status of a major European power in the 18th century mainly due to its small population or Holland in the 17th century primarily due to its smaller territory in comparison to neighboring France followed by English supremacy in oversea trade. Contrary, a state which is possessing all of the necessary factors of GP is in a real position to successfully exercise its own political and other influences on the others for a longer period of time. The process of passing from regional isolation to the status of European GP can be well seen in the example of the Russian Empire in the 18th century. The country was at the beginning of the century isolated and underdeveloped but due to general progress during the whole century Russia was finally in 1792 by the Jassi Peace Treaty with the Ottoman Sultanate and in 1795 by the Third Partition of Poland-Lithuania[ii] recognized by the other European GP as a member of their club. As a consequence, Russia was in the following period from 1798 to 1815 directly involved in the games of European GP regarding the confrontation of the French Revolution and revolutionary armies of Napoléon Bonaparte.[iii]

Europe in 1812Nevertheless, as the 18th century was progressing, Russia was becoming gradually stronger and influential in international relations due to three crucial factors: the size of the land, its huge population, and rich natural resources. All of these factors directly participated in the process of creation of the mighty Russian military land-force which became in 1815 strongest in continental Europe. This year, the Russian army entered Paris by crossing the whole of Europe and winning battles from Leipzig (1813) to Waterloo (1815).

Contrary to the Russian case, the United Kingdom at the end of the same century became a global GP mainly due to its powerful navy[iv] that was backed by its strong economy which was very much founded on direct exploitation of the British oversea colonies. In the next century, the Brits succeeded to establish an extensive oversea empire and to became a major player in the world politics at the time of Queen Victoria[v] but very much due to their geopolitical position as an „island nation“ whose security and colonial expansion was well protected by a powerful Royal Navy that was practically playing the role of protection wall around the United Kingdom.

Several theories of the Cold War argue, like the so-called „Freezer Theory“ for instance, that during that historical period of time both domestic and international conflicts were the products of the superpower competition in global politics. However, when the competition ended in 1989, the local and/or regional histories absorbed these conflicts where they became left transforming themselves into territorial disputes, conflicts and open wars between the regional powers for the sake to settle historical accounts. Probably the best examples are the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh, the destruction of ex-Yugoslavia, the conflicts over South Ossetia and Abkhazia or the Ukrainian crisis. All of those conflicts from the Adriatic to the Caucasus have been at the same time both the destabilizing factors of and challenge for the European integration and continental security.[vi] For the realists, post-Cold War conflicts in a new power context are simply returning back to the international relations to the normal geopolitical reality of global politics as inescapable power policy. The international system once again after the Cold War became the GP state system based on the „Westphalian Order“ as the states of the GP bloc are still the key factors and actors in both their own domestic areas and international politics as it was the case from 1648 to 1945.

Zero-Sum Game

The primary organizing principle of IR and global politics once again became after 1989 the „sacrosanct“ principle of state sovereignty[vii] that is only valid for the GP but not for the ordinary states („small fishes“) like for Serbia in 1999 or Libya in 2011. State-centric model of the international politics that is currently on global politics’ agenda is known in theory as „Billiard Ball Model“ which suggests that states, at least those having a rank of the GP, areas billiard (snooker) balls impermeable and self-contained actors. The model tells that the GP influence each other through external pressure either by diplomacy or direct military action. The survival is the prime concern of any state but struggling for power on the global scene is the concern of only those states which are considered to be the GP. The „Billiard Ball Model“ of global politics has two fundamental implications:

  1. The clear difference between domestic and international politics.
  2. Conflict and cooperation in global politics are primarily determined by the distribution of economic, political and military power among states.[viii]

The crucial characteristics of contemporary GP state are:

  1. To maintain order and carry out regulations within its own borders only by itself without interference from outside (ex. Russia and the Chechen rebels in the 1990s) that is a focal feature of a real sovereignty status.[ix]
  2. To promulgate its own policy of interest in international relations by all „allowed“ means that it is proving a real GP status in IR.

Therefore, it is, in essence, unavoidable that the state-system of international policy and relations is operating in a context of anarchy what means that external politics operates as an international „state of nature“.

A basic principle of any GP state is the principle of self-help that means as possible as reliance on inner resources which are understood as the crucial reason that the state prioritizes survival and security from the outside world. Therefore, the establishment and exploitation of all kinds of colonies or/and territorial expansion of the motherland in order to obtain natural resources, labor force, market or better security conditions are seen as quite necessary imperialistic practices. If the GP state is unable to establish its own global, continental or regional hegemony, it seeks to activate a concept of balance of power that is a condition in which no one state has a predominance over others at the same time tending to create general equilibrium and prevent the hegemonic ambitions of other states.

Nevertheless, in the case that IR of the GP work on the background of a self-help principle, the power-seeking inclination of one state is a result of competing tendencies in other states. That is exactly how we can explain the reason of the policy of Russia’s economic, military and political inclination on the global level during the presidency of Vladimir Putin as an atavistic reaction to the US unscrupulous and Russophobic policy of a global hyper-hegemony in the 1990s after the dissolution of the USSR and disappearance of the Cold War’s bipolar world.[x] Unfortunately, most often, in such cases of the IR system, conflicts and even direct wars are inevitable between the GP as the examples of both world wars are clearly manifesting.

One of the fundamental rules of the realistic view of global politics and foreign affairs is that any gain, especially territorial, by one state or side is equivalent to the loss by another competition state or enemy bloc. This is the so-called „Zero-Sum Game“ as it is added to the winner’s gains and the loser’s losses the total equals zero. That was the case, for instance, with Kosovo independence in 2008 (the US victory and Russia’s loss) related to Crimean reintegration into Russia in 2014 (Russian gain and the US/NATO/EU defeat).

Unrecognized statesNevertheless, in a global struggle for power, Realpolitik[xi] is an unavoidable instrument for the realization of national goals what means that the use of power, even in the most brutal way, is quite necessary and understandable as it is an optimal means to accomplish foreign policy’s aims. That was, for instance, clearly expressed in 1999 during the NATO aggression on Serbia and Montenegro (from 24th of March to 10th of June).


All the post-Cold War American imperialistic wars of aggression had the same formal ideological justification which was composed of a mixture of elements drawn from the Cold War time („Communist violations of human rights“) and after that. The cliché was and still is that the US as a leader of a „liberal democratic world“ is fighting against „new Hitlers“ and all other „dictators“ and „butchers“ (from S. Hussein to V. Putin) for the sake to „liberate“ the rest of the world that cannot progress under such monstrous rulers.[xii] Regional variations of the US imperialism policy explanations after 1945 are visible as, for instance, in the case of Latin America („Wars against Drugs“) or in the case of the Middle East and Arab/Muslim world in general („War on Terror“).

Such US foreign policy, however, created many ambivalent attitudes towards the American empire by many states, movements, parties or individuals around the world including and existing feelings of embarrassment that other GP have to be essentially dependent on the USA. For instance, many Europeans are convinced that the US cannot anymore active in global policy like it was at the time of the Cold War as it has to closely operate with the others. Today, it seems to be unlikely that the US will be able to keep its post-Cold War status of a hyperpower and global policeman. Surely, other GP will become stronger and influential in IR and global politics primarily China and Russia. It only remains to be seen whether they will co-operate or not in ways that promote or undermine world order.

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.


[i] Italy and Germany became the members of the GP system after their unifications in 1861, 1871 respectively.

[ii] In 1795, Lithuania became part of the Russian Empire for more than 100 years (Giedrė Jankevičiūtė, Lithuania: Guide, Vilnius: R. Paknio Leidykla, 2016, 8).

[iii] Georges Castellan, History of the Balkans From Mohammed the Conqueror to Stalin, New York: Columbia University Press, 1992, 213.

[iv] On the British navy, see in (Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, Second Edition, New York: Humanity Books, 1983).

[v] Иванка Ћуковић Ковачевић, Историја Енглеске. Кратак преглед, Београд: Научна књига, 1991, 64; Alan Isaacs et al (eds.), Oxford Dictionary of World History, Oxford−New York: 2001, 646−647.

[vi] On this issue, see more in (Славољуб Шушић, Пробни камен за Европу. Војно-политички коментари, Београд: Војна књига, 1999; Stefano Bianchini (ed.), From the Adriatic to the Caucasus. The Dynamics of (De)Stabilization, Ravenna: Longo Editore, 2001).

[vii] A concept of sovereignty refers to a status of legal autonomy (independence) that is enjoyed by states what means in practice that the government has sole authority within its borders and enjoys the rights of the membership of the international political community. Therefore, the terms of sovereignty, autonomy, and independence can be used as synonyms.

[viii] Andrew Heywood, Global Politics, London−New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 6, 7f, 113, 215.

[ix] The Chechen Wars in the 1990s were inspired by the Islamic religious nationalism and separatism by the Chechen extremists and have been the first serious post-Cold War test for Russia to prove or not her status of the GP in the new world order created and dictated by the US. Religious nationalism is a political doctrine in which religion and nationalism have a synonymous relationship (Jeffrey Haynes, Peter Hough, Shahin Malik, Lloyd Pettiford, World Politics, New York: Routledge, 2013, 52).

[x] An ideological architect of the post-Cold War US hyper-dominance in global politics was a US extreme Russophobe Zbigniew Brzezinski who is of the Jewish origin from Poland (Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives, New York: Basic Books, 1997). His doctrinal ideology of the US global hyper-dominance became the foundation of “Clinton Doctrine” that is the US foreign policy initiative under the Presidency of Bill Clinton (1993−2001), to promote democracy and human rights by using diplomatic means but, in fact, military aggressions, bombing (the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999), “colored revolutions” (Serbia in October 2000) and all other non-democratic means to accomplish crucial Washington’s political goal – global dominance.

[xi] This is a German term that became widespread from the time of the German Chancellor (PM) Otto von Bismarck. The term means in IR studies a cold calculation of a state’s national interests regardless of the human or moral aspects of its realization. The term is usually understood as an essence of Realism theories on global politics based on “ruthlessness” (Jeffrey Haynes, Peter Hough, Shahin Malik, Lloyd Pettiford, World Politics, New York: Routledge, 2013, 713). Realism is a political view that operates with power as the fundamental point of politics claiming, therefore, that international politics is in essence power politics behind which is a principle of Realpolitik. The advocates of Realism argue that international politics is a struggle for power for the sake to deny other states the capacity to dominate. Subsequently, a balancing of power became a central concept in IR developed by the realists. If there is a single world hegemon, global politics is going to be just a struggle between the GP in seeking both political, military, economic, financial, etc. domination and preventing other states or actors from dominating (Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki, Steve Smith (eds.), International Relations Theories. Discipline and Diversity, Third Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, 59−93).

[xii] Such cliché was used during the Cold War, for instance, against the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (President of Egypt in 1956−1970) but not against the Yugoslav real dictator and the “Butcher of the Serbs” of the Croat-Slovenian origin, Josip Broz Tito (dictator of Yugoslavia in 1945−1980). The reason for such US policy on J. B. Tito was that he became the US client politician, as many dictators all over the world, after 1948 and therefore was simply “intangible” in home affairs. On J. B. Tito biography, see in (Перо Симић, Звонимир Деспот (уредници), Тито: Строго поверљиво. Архивски документи, Службени гласник: Београд, 2010; Перо Симић, Тито: Феномен 20. века, Треће допуњено издање, Службени гласник: Београд, 2011; Vladan Dinić, Tito (ni)je TITO: Konačna istina, Beograd: Novmark, 2013).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
    One Comment
    1. Love this, such a good read!! Could you possibly read my post on the realist view in global politics? I’m new to blogging and was hoping I could get some feedback.

    Leave a Reply