Opinion

The Struggle for Power, Profits and Prestige in the International System [Part 1]

Caesar Wani

In today’s world, great powers are the most influential members of the international system. The impression of great power plays a significant role in the theory of international politics as any changes in the great powers’ strategies or the emergence of new great powers normally alter the status quo. A numeral of scholars has attempted to come up with a definition of great power and throughout the years, the concept of great power has been employed by a number of theoretical schools of international relations including liberal internationalism, realism, and constructivism. For instance, Arnold Toynbee defines great power as ‘a political force exerting an effect corresponding with the widest range of the society in which it operates’ and Martin Wight refers to great powers as those ‘powers with general interests, meaning those whose interests are worldwide’.  Professor Hedley Bull from Oxford University articulates that great powers contribute to the international system ‘by maintaining their relations with one another and by using their preponderance in such a way as to impart a degree of central direction to the affairs of international society as a whole. 

According to Kenneth Waltz, great powers possess extraordinary influence in the international system, which enables them to assume tasks that other states cannot execute. In addition, other scholars debated that within the international system there is an irregularity of power and when power irregularities are high; the frequency of an intervention is likely to increase. Realist Krasner further purports that great powers usually intervene in the internal affairs of weaker states by using various norms, values, and principles to justify and legitimize their actions. Nonetheless, the same great powers sometimes violate those values and principles, while at the same time they stay free from external interference. This is what he refers to as organized insincerity. 

In order to be a great power in the international system, a nation has to possess not only economic prosperity and military might, but also strong soft power and strong identity as a leader. In other words, economic strength implies a soaring level of development of the country. On the other hand, the military strength of a country is usually measured by its military expenditure, defense spending, the number of military personnel and aircraft carriers, and the size of the navy, among other factors. For soft power, strong cultural ties with other countries, moral strength, and technological level are considered features of great importance. Identity as a leader refers to the ability to bargain as well as the capability to take action independently while at the same time, being able to play an active and co-operative role in the international system.

Conferring to Bridget Rodgers, among the top 10 powers of the world include the United States of America, China, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, Japan, France, Italy, Brazil, and India with the United States is the number one superpower of the world, henceforth achieving its hegemonic status of the world. Not only does the United States possess the largest economy by a long bounce, but it also has the most powerful military by an even wider boundary. This gives the United States the self-assurance and bravery to stretch its military and diplomatic muscle whenever it feels like its interests have been jeopardized and this is something that has been both much-admired and denounced by the international community.

The end of the cold war witnessed a grate change in how great powers interact with each other. We are now in a world where there is little chance that major powers will engage each other in wars. This suggests that great powers no longer view each other as potential military rivals, but instead as members of a family of nations called the international community. In this promising new world, the possibility for cooperation is very high, with the likelihood of increased prosperity and peace to all the great powers. On the other hand, it is also argued that international politics has always been a cruel and unsafe business, and it is likely to remain that way. Although the level at which their competition keeps growing and declining, great powers fear each other and are always competing with each other for power. The superseding goal of states is to maximize their share of world power, which in turn implies gaining power at the expense of others. Much as the great powers embrace the outcome being the strongest powers of the world, their ultimate aim is to be the hegemon that is, the only great power in the system.

Great powers are hardly gratified with the current distribution of power; rather, they strive to face a constant incentive to change it in their favor. They almost always have heterodox intentions and endeavor to balance the stronger powers even to the extent of using force, if they think it is worth accomplishing their goals. In some circumstances, the costs and risks of trying to shift the balance of power could be too great, and this forces the great powers to wait for more favorable circumstances. However, this does not eradicate their mission for wanting more power, unless a state attains the eventual goal of hegemony. Ever since no state is likely to achieve global hegemony, hence, the world is destined for continuous great-power competition.

According to realists, great powers are in pursuit of power due to the structure of the international system, which forces states to seek security, nonetheless to act aggressively toward each other.  Henceforth, according to realists, three features of the international system combine to cause states to fear one another: the absence of a central authority that sits above all states (anarchy), the fact that states always have some offensive military capability, and the fact that states can never be certain about other states’ intentions (Security dilemma). Given this fear which can never be wholly eliminated states recognize that the more powerful they are relative to their rivals, the better their chances of survival.

The first feature implies that the international system is anarchic. This does not mean that the world is disordered or muddled. Slightly, it is an ordering principle which denotes that the system is made up of independent states that have no ultimate authority above them. In other words, autonomy is inherent in states because there is no higher ruling body in the international system. The second characteristic is that great powers inherently possess some offensive military capability, which gives them the means to hurt and possibly destroy each other. States are potentially dangerous to each other, although some states have more military might than others and are therefore more dangerous.

A state’s military power is usually identified with the particular weaponry at its discarding, even though if there were no weapons, the individuals in those states could still use their feet and hands to attack the population of another state. The third attribute (security dilemma) is that states can never be certain about the intentions of other states. Explicitly, states are uncertain that another state will not use its offensive military capability to attack them. This does not infer that states unavoidably have bad intentions, but it is only necessary for them to be on the lookout because the intentions of others can never be judged with inevitability.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to measure how much relative power one state must have over its competitors before it feels that it is secure. In addition, determining how much power is enough becomes even more complex when great powers consider how power will be distributed among them ten or twenty years down the road. The competences of individual states also vary over time, sometimes decidedly, and it is often problematic to foresee the direction and scope of change as far as the balance of power is concerned. Given the difficulty of determining how much power is enough, great powers recognize that the best way to ensure their security is to achieve hegemony, thus eliminating any possibility of a challenge by another great power. It is very unusual for a state to pass out on an opportunity to be the hegemon in the system especially when it believes it already has sufficient power to survive. Conversely, even if a great power does not have the resources to aid it in becoming a hegemon, it will still act in a provoking manner towards other great powers with the aim of accumulating as much power as it can, because states are almost always better off with more rather than less power. In short, states do not become status quo powers until they completely dominate the system.

The author is a Doctoral Fellow (Ph.D.) in the school of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University China, Majoring in International Politics. He worked as a Research assistant at Jilin University China; He Achieved  Master’s degree in International Relations from Jilin University China, and correspondingly graduated with honors from Cavendish University Uganda with bachelor degree in international relations and diplomatic studies.

error: Content is protected !!