What’s So Great About the Great Powers?

Craig Perry is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his second article for the program. As you can see from the title, he has a few points to make about the great powers. 

Before we can answer the question of whether another great-power war is inevitable, we should first clarify what constitutes greatness in the context of international relations. Scholars have debated this issue over the years, focusing primarily on military strength underpinned by economic vitality—which in turn are functions of population, resource endowment, and territorial expanse. A state’s political system can also contribute to its great-power rank, especially when it mobilizes its potential in pursuit of global interests. And of course, a state’s ability to shape the preferences of others through diplomacy, culture, and values—its soft power—augments its military and economic instruments of national power.

Given all that, the number of prospective great powers will remain quite small through the middle of the 21st century—with the world’s sole remaining superpower continuing to top the list. Although China and India will likely overtake the United States as the world’s largest economies by 2050, America’s steadily growing population should compensate for lackluster growth. Washington shows no sign of retreating into isolationism as it did after the First World War, and it will almost certainly continue investing in formidable military forces to defend its expansive interests around the globe, as well as exercising a significant—if increasingly contested—role in institutions ranging from the United Nations and North Atlantic Treaty Organization to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

By mid-century, however, America will no longer be the world’s unrivaled hegemon. The People’s Republic of China has already surpassed the United States in the gross domestic product at purchasing power parity, and this lead will only widen in the coming decades regardless of the Middle Kingdom’s impending demographic decline. The People’s Liberation Army is emerging as a near-peer competitor to the U.S. military, bolstering China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy ambitions in Asia and around the world. Frustrated by U.S.-dominated international institutions, China is developing a rival framework to advance its foreign-policy ambitions.

If China is slowly reemerging as a great power after a century and a half of foreign domination, the Russian Federation clings to delusions of Soviet grandeur despite the collapse of its empire, economy, and political system within the past three decades. Russia retains an enormous landmass and a wealth of natural resources, but it has less than half the population of the USSR—and it is expected to shrink further in the coming decades. Nevertheless, Russia is projected to remain the world’s sixth largest economy through mid-century—its overreliance on oil and gas exploitation notwithstanding—and Moscow will remain capable of fielding ever-more sophisticated military forces and projecting power across much of the globe. Moreover, unlike the Chinese, Russians can recall what it was like to be a superpower within living memory, and their leaders are determined to restore the Eurasian bear to (what they believe is) its rightful place in the international community.

While China and Russia are revisionist states challenging the U.S.-dominated international order, several other former great powers are less likely to disturb the status quo. Japan’s demographic decline and meager economic growth do not bode well for its future influence in a region increasingly dominated by its archrival, China. While Germany’s trajectory is similar to Japan, its influence is amplified by its membership in the European Union, whose combined population and economic output will continue to surpass America’s even after Britain exits the bloc. If Germany, France, and other EU member states were to renew their quest for an ever closer union by further pooling sovereignty in the foreign and security policy domains, it is not farfetched to imagine a European super-state could one day emerge as a great power alongside the United States—or even its rival, should America’s NATO commitments waver.

Of the remaining states whose economic and demographic growth ought to inspire great power aspirations, none are likely to overcome their internal weaknesses or emerge from the shadow of powerful neighbors anytime soon. India, for example, will boast the world’s largest population and second-largest economy by mid-century, but its unwieldy political system and China’s regional dominance will limit its great-power prospects.

Ultimately, what makes great powers great depends not only on what they bring to the table but also on which other states have already claimed a seat. The United States, China, Russia, and (perhaps) the EU will continue to crowd out most regional rivals through a combination of economic strength, military prowess, and soft-power appeal while leveraging their privileged positions in international institutions like the UN Security Council to advance their interests. Rogue regimes, terrorist and criminal networks, and transnational corporations and other nongovernmental organizations will undoubtedly nudge international relations this way or that, but it is the great powers who will continue writing the rules of the game.

© Craig Perry 2018