Wednesday, October 22, 2008

On the Great Powers

Nick at Worlds Apart has two thoughtful posts on great powers in the early 21st century. Reading these posts reminded me that there is no consensus among scholars about exactly how to define 'great power' or exactly which states count as great powers. To a large extent, however, the disagreements are probably more terminological than real.

Nick argues for three categories: 'global great power' (a category currently occupied only by the U.S.), 'regional great powers,' and 'global middle powers'. To be a 'global great power', he says, a state must meet five criteria: 1) dominate its region; 2) have a first-class military, including secure nuclear second strike capability, and an economy to support the military establishment; 3) wield 'soft power'; 4) have a political system that major domestic actors see as legitimate; and 5) be recognized as a great power by other states, as reflected in holding key positions in international institutions. Of these criteria, the only one I might quarrel with is number 4, though I would not want to press the point too hard. Two of these criteria, numbers 3 and 5, suggest that being a 'global great power' requires a certain amount of prestige. Prestige is itself a contested concept and there is disagreement about whether and how states compete for it (whatever 'it' is, exactly).

So, who counts as a regional great power, to use Nick's phrase? I would say China, India, the EU, Japan, and Russia. These five plus the U.S. account for a bit more than half the world's population, three-quarters of global GDP, and 80 percent of defense spending (R. Haass, "The Age of Nonpolarity," For. Aff., May/June '08, p.45). Of these five, China and India are 'rising powers,' while the positions/trajectories of the EU, Japan, and Russia are more uncertain.

There is one other aspect of the great power role that deserves mention: great powers have, or traditionally have been thought to have, special rights and responsibilities with respect to the maintenance of international peace and security (H. Bull, The Anarchical Society, p.202). Several of the great powers arguably have not been discharging these responsibilities as they should in recent years. The U.S. invasion of Iraq; China's actions in Sudan/Darfur and Tibet and Xinjiang; Russia's war with Georgia -- while these are not 'equivalent,' and while the rights and wrongs of each particular case can be argued, it does seem to be time for the great powers to reacquaint themselves with what one writer (R. Jackson, The Global Covenant, p.173) calls "the moral significance of what is involved in being a great power."

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