The Struggle for Power, Profits and Prestige in the International System [Part 2]

David Ceasar Wani

In terms of profits, states can cooperate with each other, although cooperation is sometimes difficult to achieve and almost always difficult to sustain.  There are two factors that hinder cooperation between states and they include considerations about relative gains and concerns about cheating. Ultimately, great powers are always in competition with each other and they view each other as real or at least potential enemies, and hence look to gain power at each other’s expense. In the event that two states are considering cooperating with each other, they first consider how profits or gains will be distributed between them. The states contemplate the divisions in terms of either absolute or relative gains. With absolute gains, each side is concerned with maximizing its own profits and cares little about how much the other side gains or losses in the course of their agreements. Each side cares about the other only if the other side’s behavior affects its own prospects for achieving maximum profits. With relative gains, on the other hand, each side considers not only its own individual gain but also how well it fares compared to the other side.

When great powers consider cooperating with other states, they normally focus on the balance of power and their choices are based on the relative gains. Evidently, each state tries to maximize its absolute gains; still, it is more important for a state to make sure that it does no worse, and perhaps better, than the other state in any agreement. Cooperation is more difficult to achieve, however, states are only accustomed to relative gains rather than absolute gains. This is because states concerned about absolute gains have to make sure that if the pie is expanding, they are getting at least some portion of the increase regardless of the amount, whereas states that worry about relative gains always pay careful attention to how the pie is divided, which complicates cooperative efforts.

Another drawback to the cooperation of states is the concern about cheating. Great powers are often reluctant to enter into cooperative agreements with each other for fear that the other side will cheat on the agreement and gain a significant advantage over them. This concern is especially critical in the field of military, causing a “special threat of defection,” because the nature of military weaponry allows for rapid shifts in the balance of power. This could eventually create a window of opportunity for the state that cheats to impose a decisive defeat on its victim.

Nonetheless these cooperation barriers, great powers do cooperate in a realist world. The balance-of-power logic often causes great powers to form alliances and cooperate with each other against common enemies.  The bottom line, however, is that cooperation takes place in a world where competition is the center of attention and where states have powerful incentives to take advantage of other states. No amount of cooperation can, therefore, eliminate the dominating logic of security competition. It is very unlikely that genuine peace or a world in which states do not compete for power and profits will prevail, as long as the state system remains anarchic.

With regard to prestige, Nicholson (1937) defines it as “power based on reputation. Morgenthau, on the other hand, articulates that prestige specifically represents a reputation for power, or the ability to pursue one’s own interests while forgoing the use of power and force. Some scholars have further argued that security concerns are a significant part of state behavior and are actually driven by competitions for prestige. As such, states often acquire territory or weapons or exert their independence in international affairs not out of concern for their security but out of a desire to be recognized and listened to by other states. According to the Social Identity Theory (SIT), groups seek prestige when the comparison of the prestigious achievements of their group with other groups is lacking. By this logic, all groups except the most prestigious one would have a continuous incentive to vie for prestige, at least until their group become the most prestigious. Conversely, though, not all states are competing for prestige at all times. Much of the literature combining SIT focuses predominantly on status-seeking and the peaceful accommodation of emerging powers. Prestige does not rise automatically as states rise in their military and economic capabilities. Unindustrialized states often actively invest in supplementing their prestige just as they invest in augmenting their power relative to others.

Prestige has sometimes been interchangeably used with the word status. In both concepts, there is recognition of some ranking or hierarchy within a group in which appointment in the higher positions of the hierarchy is accompanied by privileges that would not be experienced by those who are lower in the ranks. In addition, both concepts are also based on the subjective beliefs of others. Among states, however, the terms are sometimes conceived of differently. We normally speak of states having ‘great-power statuses or ‘regional-power statuses. These terms expound the strong connection between military or economic power and status in the international system. An actor can have great-power status, however, without having prestige, if they are able to exercise power effectively but lack the respect of others, as was true of the Soviet Union during the most period of the Cold War. Similarly, states can have prestige for a particular quality but not have a particularly high status or vice versa.

In relation to powerful states, great powers seek prestige for the purpose of gaining recognition, having a good reputation and maintaining a high status in the international system and by doing so, they feel good and proud about themselves.

It is further pronounced that states which have experienced a publicly embarrassing experience such as China will be more likely to pay costs to seek prestige because they want to minimize the decline in the influence that might result from their demotion in the eyes of others. Also, if the humiliated state is near enough in influence to the dominant state in the system or region, the dominant state will match the humiliated state’s prestige investment, generating an international race for prestige. Prestigious states will be those most accustomed to wielding influence and often to control resources. They will have the incentive to invest in their prestige both in order to avoid the psychological stress of confronting a painful downgrade in self-concept as well as to avoid the potential downgrade in international respect and influence that accompanies high prestige.

Prestige is at times linked to nuclear weapons because of the particular properties that come with it. According to Barry O’Neill, nuclear weapons are natural bearers of prestige, in part because they are clearly bordered – an explosion is either nuclear or not.  In addition, nuclear weapons grab attention and testing them is always done discreetly as they are kept secret beforehand to avoid world pressure from stopping them or embarrassment in case they fail.  The nuclear explosions make sudden headlines and disagreement, so people are aware that others have gotten the news.  It is, on the other hand, tongue-in-cheek that just because the world worries about their spread they are better carriers of prestige. As evidence to support specific prestige, the possession of nuclear weapons is also related to the kinds of national skills that confer power. Nevertheless, the linking of the weapons and prestige depends on the behavior of all states, not just the potential proliferators.

In conclusion, over the centuries we have seen great powers competing for power, prestige, and profits. This is as a result of the insecurities that the great powers have towards each other. At the same time, great powers are always mindful of how others perceive them and so they are proactive in a number of ways to present a good reputation to the rest of the world, and in particular to the less powerful states with the hope of gaining their trust over the other powerful states. In order to succeed, however, the great powers need to maximize their profits by ensuring that they generate a lot of income. Nevertheless, they can only achieve this by cooperating with other states. In doing so, however, great powers give no room for trust towards each other as they are always concerned about cheating. In fact, over the past decade, we have seen a redeployment of economic power among the world’s great powers on a scale and rate that is probably unprecedented in history. In other words, power is now more evenly distributed in the international system as compared to the past. As a result, there is rising geopolitical competition among great powers. But the nature of the competition is limited by two significant factors: their domestic obsessions and their dependence on each other for economic growth. Conflict is, therefore, most critical along the periphery of great powers that are least integrated into the Western-led political order.

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.

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