What is a Great Power? A Concept and its Meaning for understanding International Relations

Essay, 2011

11 Pages, Grade: 2.3

Ron Böhler (Author)


`A hegemon is a state that is so powerful that it dominates all the other states in the
system' (Mearsheimer 2004, p. 185). Under this assumption, who can be considered
to be a great power? A world leader? Can there be more than just one? And if yes,
what makes them so powerful? The purpose of this essay is to point out that the term
of great power states and politics has changed in recent decades from security policy
aspects of the Cold War to a more broaden definition including societal, economic
and cultural characteristics. Taking these indicators into consideration, the
international state system has turned away from a bipolar constellation between the
two superpowers USA and Soviet Union to a multipolar world with numerous big
players and growing regionalisation. In this world order, the BRIC states contemplate
the field of great powers next to the US and Russia.
The first section will outline a comprehensive definition of what a great power
is and which characteristics distinguish it from less powerful states. The second part
gives an overview of how great power politics has changed in recent decades from a
bipolar world system with two super powers towards a far more diversified multipolar
world with various great powers and no remaining hegemon. This approach will be
tested within the third part of this essay through brief inspections of the cases of the
US, India and the EU.
& C
The first step to elaborate a concept of great power politics requires an explicit
definition of what power in international relations is as well as why and with which
mechanisms actors possess and exercise it. Max Weber defined power in the early
stage of the 20
century as the ability of an actor assert his own will within a social

relationship, even against the will of the other (Weber 1922, p. 28). He adapted his
concept to interpersonal relations between human beings, the smallest unit capable of
acting politically. In any case, Weber´s definition can easily be employed on other
political actors such as states, (international) organisations as well as firms and
corporations. In the 1970s, Robert Koehane and Joseph Nye extended Weber´s
definition and understood power as `the ability of an actor to get others to do
something they otherwise would not do' (1989, p. 11). In contrast to Weber, power is
not solely based on coercion as a means to push through own interests. Instead, states
can also manipulate cost-benefit calculations of other actors, persuade them with
rational arguments, make them emulate successful or desired policy outcomes or
promote ideas by setting positive examples (Börzel and Risse 2009, pp. 9-14). Taking
these mechanisms of transformative power into account, the question remains what
actually distinguishes the power of one state from the power of another. What makes
some states more powerful and others less? Who is to be conceived as a great power
Some scholars terminologically equate great powers with empires (Geiss
1994; Münkler 2005). Geiss, for instance, emphasised the historical path dependency
of power configuration and its origins in states´ human resources: `Civilization
provides power ­ concentration of people, men in armed forces, economic potential in
social, political and military structures' (1994, p. 24). As obvious as this may sound,
empirical evidence can easily disprove the generality of this finding. It would mean
that the more people live inside a country, the more powerful the state would be.
Instead, civil power is more a necessary than a sufficient pre-condition of great power
developments, in particular when it comes to the economic performance. Otherwise,
China and India, for instance, would have been great powers for a long time as about

19.5 per cent of the world population lives in China and about 17.3 per cent in India
respectively (Population Reference Bureau 2010).
Especially if we look at the concept of a regional power, the question lags
behind what a regional power distinguishes from a great power. Or is a regional
power in any case a great power, at least among other regionally bounded great
powers? Nel and Nolte, for instance, differentiate between `major powers' and
`emerging powers' (2010, p. 877). Under the former they subsume both sovereign
states, e.g. the US and Japan, and regional actors such as the EU, the latter one
denotes rising economic powers such as the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China),
but also new aspirants like South Africa, Mexico and even Venezuela (ibid.).
Following Nel and Nolte, these countries demand to 'have a place at the tables where
decisions affecting the world are made' (ibd.). Unfortunately, their classification lacks
the justification why they have the power to do so.
The comprehension of what distinguishes a great power changed with time, first and
foremost after the end of the Cold War in 1989. The post-1990 transition of world
power politics lasts up to the present day. Until then, the United States led the
Western hemisphere and defended its values of peace, democracy and free markets,
first, in the Second World War and afterwards during the four-decade bipolar conflict
with the Soviet Union (Mandelbaum 2002). In the words of Barry Buzan,
`[t]he US was an effective leader not only because it promoted liberal economic
and political values that were attractive to many others, but also because it was
prepared to bind its own power in multilateral rules and institutions sufficiently
that its followers could contain their fear of its overwhelming power' (Buzan
2007, p. 1).

Buzan refers to an important aspect of international great power politics: such nations
are not self-appointed hegemons living in political autarchy, but as dependent on the
acknowledgement and allegiance of others as any other (weaker) state. With that said,
Buzan points at the exterior dimension of great power politics: the regional or
worldwide recognition as such (Buzan 2007, p. 2). Nowadays, the US has lost its
position as a prevailing hegemon and imperialistic empire (Münkler 2005, pp. 224-
234) in relation to other powers and their re-emergence or awakening.
Since the early 1990s, the world witnesses increasing regionalism, which is
referred to as `new regionalism' (Ethier 1998). This ongoing process, such as the
European Union, the Common Market of the South (Mercosur) in Latin America or
the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has two interrelated
consequences on what we can define and conceptualise as a great power in
international relations. First, in the post-Cold War era great powers do not only
accumulate massive military resources in order to defend its own territories against
outer threats as well as to constitute a threat to others itself (Mearsheimer 2004, pp.
187-189). Power can be obtained and utilised in many other ways, such as economic,
political or cultural dominance over a region or sometimes even in global scopes.
Globalization is as much as a reason for this development as it is a consequence.
Secondly, states as centres of power increasingly lose relevance as great powers in
intergovernmental/supranational regimes and are thus complemented rather than
replaced by great power regions.
In recent years, the bygone Cold War, which determined world affairs, has
been replaced by a multipolar world order with other important actors and new rising
powers to be expected. The United States, the former super power, is by now one
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What is a Great Power? A Concept and its Meaning for understanding International Relations
University of Bath
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Power, International Relations, World leader, US, Russia, EU
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Ron Böhler (Author), 2011, What is a Great Power? A Concept and its Meaning for understanding International Relations, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/376552


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