Contemporary Great Power Relations: Responsible Managers or Agents of Chaos?

Stories of war, crisis and cooperation in world politics are often told through the lens of the politics of the ‘great powers.’ These states, due to their material capabilities and social standing in the global order, have the unique ability to both foment and mitigate instability and insecurity in ways that shape the global order as a whole. 

Whether the role that the great powers play results in greater levels of stability and order or instead in crisis and disorder rests on the degree of managerial responsibility that these states accept. This forum will consider the prospects for a new age of ‘great power management’ in order to peacefully navigate the shift in the distribution of power currently underway in world politics.

Opening Comments From Chairs

In his final speech to the UN General Assembly last year, the then US President, Barack Obama claimed that “our international order has been so successful that we take it as a given that great powers no longer fight world wars.” In essence he argued that, in little more than a generation, the role of the most powerful actors in the international system had fundamentally changed. Could the great powers, rather than oscillating between being the keepers on the one hand, and the destroyers on the other, of global order have truly settled into acting only as what scholars such as Alfred Zimmern and Hedley Bull used to refer to as ‘the great responsibles’?

The contemporary global order is beset by transnational challenges from security to economics, from health to the environment. At the same time, the distribution of power between states, is in transition as unrivalled American power gives way to a new, but as yet unclear, order.

Both trends lead to increasing demands for effective great power management and for that reason, understanding the conditions that facilitate or hinder effective initiatives has become an urgent task.

Great power management can be thought of as the established diplomatic practice in which a small minority of powerful states play a disproportionately active role in the maintenance of international order through three categories of action: the avoidance of war between themselves through effective crisis management; the early resolution of crises involving non-great powers that could escalate into such war; and providing leadership on collective action problems that threaten international society as a whole.

In this sense, the special rights of the great powers to enjoy spheres of influence, privileged positions in international organisations and the role of setting the global agenda for multilateral diplomacy in general is matched by a concomitant responsibility for crisis management, restraint in their relations with one another and leadership on issues that threaten the fabric of international society.

One way of looking at the prospects for effective great power management today might be to draw a distinction between the role of the great powers in managing relations between themselves in order to avoid great power wars on the one hand, and addressing broader issues of society-wide importance on the other. This could be thought of as minimalist and maximalist versions of this managerial role. 

A minimalist approach offers an avenue for reducing tensions – or at least managing those tensions without recourse to armed conflict – between those states with the greatest ability to project large-scale military force against each other. A minimalist approach to great power management, in which crisis management between the powers is prioritised, may not meet the loftiest of goals set by some, and of course can result in the interests of small and middle powers being sacrificed in the interests of avoiding great power conflict. Could, for example, the management of US-Sino tensions result in a modern day version of the ‘partition of Poland’ for the Southeast Asian claimants to islands and reefs in the South China Sea?   

Whether one looks at the growing rivalry between the United States and China, the attempts by the United States and Russia to negotiate an end to the spiralling conflict in Syria, or the negotiations between the rising and established powers on addressing climate change, the possibilities for effective great power management appear present but elusive.  

A number of questions arise from this analysis that we need to get to grips with if we are to try and foster a new age of great power management. Forum panellists may like to respond to some of these:

  • To what degree does the traditional understanding of great power management itself make sense in the contemporary order?
  • Which states ‘count’ as great powers and could be looked to in this regard?
  • Can the exclusive – even collusive – role of the great powers in managing global crises still attract sufficient legitimacy today?   
  • What might facilitate or act as a barrier to effective great power management in particular areas today (North Korean nuclear crisis, Syria, climate change, South China Sea dispute etc.)?
  • To what degree does it make sense to distinguish between different forms of great power management (eg. minimalist and maximalist approaches, regional v. global etc.) and how should this inform policy advocacy?

I look forward to exploring these questions and more in the coming days. My thanks to Professor Camilleri for hosting this discussion. 

 - Dr Ben Zala.


Hypocrisy and barriers to great power management


"What might facilitate or act as a barrier to effective great power management in particular areas today?" The repeated global exposure of hypocrisies of Western great powers in recent years seems to me to be an increasingly important barrier. We have always been aware of these hypocrisies. But Wikileaks etc have brought them to light in particularly blunt ways and Trump's inability to string a sentence together has meant that the US has been less able to dismiss their significance as it once did. Reading UNSC debates from recent months and years, it seems to me that Russia, China, and others have had enough of the hypocrisies. They are boldly calling the Western powers out on them (in the realm of R2P, think Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Iraq etc), and they are refusing to be cajoled, shamed, entrapped etc into allowing the West to continue to get their way on matters that even marginally engage their interests.

The US is Not a Great Power Manager


Thanks Ben and Joseph for organizing this forum, and to my fellow panel members for agreeing to take part (I'm honored to be in their company). It is a fascinating topic and should be an interesting discussion!(As a quick aside, I've been interested in the concept of great power management for a few years now, mostly unsuccessfully on the publication-front unfortunately, but it seems to be a potentially very important one, as Alexander Astrov has shown).

Luke makes an interesting point about the unwillingness of non-Western great powers to play the great power management game the way the United States would like to see it played, and my comment picks up on that.

The key issue for me conceptually is that in my view the US is not a great power but a hegemon. These are different roles for states to play in international society, which is often hinted at but very rarely noted in the literature (with the exception of some work by Ian Clark). Hedley Bull made some interesting comments in this direction when he noted that the concept of "superpower" is basically meaningless. The United States and the Soviet Union, for him, were simply the new great powers. But I think the distinction between great power and hegemon is in fact useful to make.

Following Bull, the key distinction between great powers and hegemons is that the former are primarily regional in nature, with a stake in global order and its stability, whereas hegemons are expected to become involved at a deeper level of engagement all around the world.

The payoff from making this distinction is that it highlights the difficulty the US faces in allowing other states--especially non-Western states--to take part in the management of the international system with the hegemon. We see this in the case of East Asia, where the US hegemon faces a growing challenge from the regionally-focused (for now) China. The US hegemon has historically been ok with supporting western great powers to manage certain areas within their spheres of influence--think US efforts to support Britain east of Suez in the 60s, France in West Africa until today, even the EU in eastern Europe. The rubber hits the road though, as Luke Glanville notes above, in the case of Russia and China and their desire to engage in great power management.

This is why the debate over the idea of G2 and "new great power relations" as signaled by Xi Jinping is telling. The US would prefer to prop up Japan, India, (and to a lesser extent even perhaps Australia) as regional managers of the "Indo-Pacific". China would prefer a bilateral management scheme that cuts out Japan altogether.

My reason for making these conceptual points is really to stress that thinking in terms of great power management is useful precisely because the United States is not a great power in any simple sense. Hopefully this might prove useful to think with (or against!) for others in the forum. I look forward to continuing the discussion.

What can/should we expect of the great powers?


Very interesting comments from both Luke and David above. The issue of hypocrisy/double standards and their acceptance or otherwise is a central one for this idea of great power management. If it makes sense historically to talk about the role of the great powers as being something more than just the strategic interactions between materially powerful states then we are talking about there being some kind of social expectation on the part of the non-great powers that the ‘big few’ will define their own national interests fairly broadly.

My hunch is that over time the expectations of non-great powers have changed in important ways in this regard. In the aftermath of major wars (post-1815, 1918, 1945 etc.), the great powers were expected to manage the relations between themselves in such a way as to minimise the chances of returning to war. In other words, the ‘ask’ wasn’t all that much – just don’t let tensions and crises get out of hand.

Today, I think those expectations have more to do with providing public goods and maintaining order in a much broader sense. This is what I’ve described above as a “maximalist” approach to great power management. There’s a line in the new Australian Foreign Policy White Paper that states that “We believe that the United States’ engagement to support a rules-based order is in its own interests and in the interests of wider international stability and prosperity” (p. 7). The paper is actually more pessimistic about the prospects for minimalist management between the United States and China. It says that the two “have a mutual interest in managing strategic tensions but this by itself is not a guarantee of stability.”

Perhaps our expectations of the great powers and the role they should play in fostering a stable global order have been shaped by living through an era of unipolarity without serious great power competition. Now that strategic rivalry between great powers (both established and rising/resurgent) appears to have returned to world politics balancing our expectations between minimalist and maximalist goals may well be the key to fostering a responsible managerial role for the great powers. Yet doing so may require small and middle powers to, for example, expect less engagement and leadership on transnational challenges from a declining United States in return for more effective management of a stable relationship between Washington and Beijing. For smaller states, the costs of this could be significant.       

What to expect of powers that are no longer 'great'


What may we expect of the world's 'great powers'? My friend and colleague, Ben Zala, is to be commended for raising an issue that is critical to the human future, yet often provokes more heat than light.

What is a 'great power'? Commentators repeatedly use the term as if its meaning is clear. But is it? Both words, 'great' and 'power' raise more questions than they answer. Do powers refer to states? If so, are we thinking of the state as a whole, including its three arms – the executive, legislature and judiciary – or simply the executive or government, and specifically the military and diplomatic arms of government? If so, we are thin king of states which, despite the highly destructive military machines at their disposal, are a shadow of what they used to be. As I have argued over many years, states, even the most powerful, are less and less able to act as coherent, autonomous agents. Increasingly, they are buffeted by cross-border currents which they scarcely comprehend, let alone control.

As recent events have graphically demonstrated, so-called powerful states seem frighteningly ill-equipped to handle any number of upheavals, whether it be financial crises, climate change, epidemics, refugee flows or military conflicts. The great lesson of the last forty to fifty years is the diminished utility of the flexing of military muscle by both the United States and Russia. Defeat or at best stalemate has been the order of the day in one war after another: in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, and elsewhere. It is unlikely that Syria will prove to be an exception.
Two other developments are worth noting: First, the steady decline of US power over the last several decades and the corresponding rise of China. Second, the associated and decisive shift in energy and self-confidence from the Occident to the Orient.

At this point in time, it would appear that the United States and other Western states are generally less able to pursue a steady or coherent geopolitical path, while China and to a lesser extent Russia are more adept at charting something resembling a durable set of priorities, which is not to say that they are immune to the vagaries of the market, environmental disruption, or widespread and rising inequalities of wealth and income.

As for the civilisational shift, we are seeing an assertive challenge to so-called Western values from different parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and a determination to substitute liberal notions of national democracy with a new understanding of international democracy – understood as a revised inter-state order.

All of this signifies rather little or no prospect that ‘great powers’ will usher in some kind of stable international order. Notwithstanding globalizing currents, our world looks like remaining deeply fragmented and dangerously unpredictable.

More encouraging developments have come to pass, but seldom as a result of 'great power' initiative. Generally, these have been driven by a loose coalition of small to middle powers, civil society groups and multilateral agencies that have at different moments provided the necessary platform and catalyst for change.

I hope to have more to say about these happier signs in a subsequent comment.

Great power management in a culturally diverse world


Many thanks to the forum organizers for the invitation to contribute to this forum. It is a fascinating and highly relevant topic, and I wanted to pick up on a couple of interesting questions and comments raised above.

What is a ‘great power’? As Joseph Camilleri has rightly pointed out above, the term is seemingly more complex than one might imagine, with the actual characteristics and purpose of great power being continually debated. At what stage does a power become a great power, and at what stage does a great power transition to a superpower? What are the different combinations and components of power that make up a ‘great power’, or it is simply that we know one when we see one? Would we agree with Martin Wight in Power Politics that ‘The truest definition of a great power must be a historical one, which lays down that a great power is a power which has done such and such. A scientific definition, laying down the attributes that a great power may be supposed to possess, will be an abstraction in some degree removed from our complicated and unmanageable political experience’ (p. 48)?

I think an important dimension here is the notion of role expectations. The issue then is not simply what constitutes a great power in terms of material attributes, but a broader social and normative understanding of power in terms of what a great power does or should do. Here I believe that the ‘horizontal’ (managing relations amongst themselves) and ‘vertical’ (orchestration of international order) conceptions of great power roles and responsibilities that Bull, Clark and others have mentioned still holds weight in contemporary international society. What has become more challenging in terms of effective great power management, however, is that we now live in a culturally diverse world of greater normative and value plurality. China, for instance, sees a role in maintaining order but is also somewhat frustrated at the Western-dominated order and the double standards (as Luke Glanville raises above) that this sometimes entails. Questions about who defines, legitimates or sets the standards of what is ‘responsible’ great power behaviour are now far more complex.

A contribution to efforts to frame the current moment


First off, thank you to the organizers and other participants for including me in this rich and timely discussion.

I agree with the view that it is important for us in this discussion first to define the current attributes of the present international order, and then look forward to where present trend-lines are leading us, how those trend-lines may impact key actors, and then ultimately what could be done to mitigate risk of great power conflict and maximize potential for collective action in addressing transnational challenges.

For my modest contribution to this exercise, I would offer the following initial inputs for seeking to frame the current moment:

- America’s unipolar moment is receding.
- To borrow from my Brookings colleague Bruce Jones, a period of asymmetric bipolarity is emerging, with the United States and China becoming central factors in many other states’ calculations.
- Russia maintains outsized ambitions for its relative (and diminishing) national power. Moscow is willing to assume risk and tolerate friction in pursuit of its efforts to seed instability in Europe, exploit crises/conflicts further abroad, and rip holes in the fabric of the existing order.
- Great power competition is becoming a more prominent feature of international relations.
o This growing competition is attributable to a variety of factors, including uncertainty about the direction of China’s rise, questions about America’s reliability as a security guarantor, Russia’s interest in asserting greater influence over its periphery, India’s emergence as a more active and influential international actor, Japan’s unwillingness to assume the role of subordinate power to China in Asia, Europe’s concentration of energy on keeping its union intact and well-functioning, and continuing competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia for primacy in the Middle East.
o Without a referee to manage and mitigate risk from these concurrent challenges, they risk reverberating off of each other and adding to risk of interstate conflict in the future.
- Many of the most acute challenges facing countries around the world at present are transnational in nature (e.g., dealing with climate change, terrorism, cybersecurity, migration issues), but there is not presently a major power with the capacity and willingness to exercise convening authority and leadership to drive collective action in addressing these challenges.
- The open economic system is under stress, as challenges arising from the modern realities of global supply and value chains and state-led capitalism do not lend themselves to ready remedies from trade rules from a previous era.

In short, we find ourselves in a period of transition from a unipolar American moment to a new, as yet undefined, order. We face this moment at a time when some of the key actors (e.g., US and Europe) are inwardly focused and not appearing to be devoting significant mindshare to the question of how best to manage this moment of transition. This seeming absence of national focus in key countries raises the risk that key countries will find themselves in the future reacting to – and seeking to prevent the emergence of – trends that do not accord with their preferences for the distribution of power.

Great powers as (il)legitimate managers


First of all, I would like to thank Ben Zala for the opportunity to contribute to this excellent forum. The previous comments were extremely interesting. I hope my observations, albeit rather succinct, will add some value to the debate.

If we understand world politics/order in terms of multiple structures of organised inequality, the question of great power management is largely about the locus of legitimate authority under this basic condition. The problem, as I see it, is that most accounts of ‘which states count as authoritative great powers’ are premised on a logic of polarity based almost exclusively on material stratification.

To borrow from Pierre Bourdieu, an actor’s position (as ruler or ruled) in an given social order (including the international order) is the outcome of social and historical practices of differentiation. These practices, when successful, create the conditions for legitimate subordination, often without the need for direct military intervention or full-fledged economic domination. The hierarchical structures of legitimacy of the current liberal international order were historically constituted and ‘managed’ through the interaction between an European/Western centre, wherein the standards of legitimate practices were set, and several layers of differentiated backwardness.

For me, the interesting question is whether the current crisis of Western legitimacy is indicative of a more fundamental change in these hard-wearing hierarchical social structures. The establishment of alternative locations of international legitimacy and governance, particularly in the new institutional structures set out and managed by China, opens up the possibility to critically evaluate non-Western driven processes of international social interaction and the new types of legitimate authority and systems of inequality they create.

The Legitimacy of the Great Powers


Thank you for the invitation to participate in this forum. I want to pick up on one of the questions posed, "Can the exclusive – even collusive – role of the great powers in managing global crises still attract sufficient legitimacy today?" I'll make three points:

First, the question of whether the great power management role is still legitimate implies that it has previously been viewed as legitimate. Has the success of past great powers in managing crises been a product of the legitimacy of their effort or the material power that they brought to bear in resolving those crises? An alternative approach might ask the extent to which legitimacy might actually derive from the material power that certain states have available to pursue their interests.

Second, I similarly wonder whether great powers have historically been as collusive as we might imagine them to be. Have they actively colluded, or have the simply found their interests aligning in a way that conduced to peace? I find myself skeptical of an understanding of great power politics as collusive. I do see it as exclusive in places, but not necessarily because the great powers were working together to achieve some shared aim.

Third, what might this mean going forward? I am skeptical of the prospects for legitimate great power management as a way of managing international crises. Great powers will continue to pursue their perceived interests, and whether or not those pursuits are legitimate will be of secondary importance. But contra the opening question, I do not see this as much of a departure from the great power politics of the past. The more great power politics changes, the more it stays the same, I suppose.

Distinguishing between types of great power management


Thanks to those who put this together for having me along.

I'd like to start by pressing on three distinctions that have been introduced above. First, between great power and hegemon—that is, roughly, between an international order in which great power competition occurs and one in which it doesn't, for want of competitors. Second, between great powers or hegemons and all other states—that is, between those capable of system management and the rest. Third, between a minimal order, comprising great power balance management, and a maximal one, in which the managers provide public goods.

On the first, it's not clear to me we're in a hegemonic order at the moment, at least as David M defined it. While the US providing a variety of global economic governance public goods, it's record as a participant in global institutions is (perhaps surprisingly) spotty. The US has a long history of declining to sign on to liberal institutions, from the League to the ICC, and commonly has trouble securing its own population's support to supply global public goods, by means other than force. To the extent I've just overstated my case (I'll admit that's more than possible), developments over the last year certainly point in that direction. However, it's also not clear we're in a great power order: there's no clear club or concert of roughly equal powerful states. (This leaves us with, as Ryan says, asymmetric bipolarity—something that doesn't sound to me terribly stable.)

On the second then, the rank-ordered distinctions between types of states seems weak as well: it's not clear there's a consensus distinction between a club of system maintainers vs all the rest. China has lots of great power like attributes, but massively less than the US; Russia has trouble convincing its putative peers and subordinates it's a great power at all. Inversely, Germany finds itself functioning as a regional power without much wanting to, and certainly without wanting to foot the bill. (Given its somewhat recalcitrant electorate, this suggests odd parallels with the US.) This is surprising in part because even Waltz tells us to expect functionally distinct great power managers (in Chapter 9 of Theory of International Politics). (Chris LaRoche, who pointed me to this, may want to chime in here.)

On the third, finally, I'd like to suggest that Ben's distinction between minimal and maximal ordering may be stacked a bit wrong. Lots of governance or public goods work goes on, or at any rate probably can go on, in the absence of a great power consensus. It just happens regionally, within spheres of influence. So we can imagine worlds with or without consensus ordering on the global level (basically with or without s hegemon), and with or without public goods provisioning. The result is four possible worlds (yes, I'm afraid it yields a 2x2 table), in which governance does or does not happen, and is structured either regionally (within spheres of influence) or globally, under a hegemon (or perhaps under a well-integrated concert). But it's not clear how any of this works at the moment. We have neither an engaged hegemon, as of last January, nor a functioning system of spheres.

So, the kinds of state in the system, the roles they can play, and the resulting structures all appear wobbly. Where does that leave us? It leaves us with a messy enough field of view to permit a great deal of misperception—particularly (as Beverley suggests) with regard to role expectations.

Here, I'd like to draw out Marco's Bourdieu reference a bit further, to consider Bourdieu's concept of hysteresis. "Hysteresis is a mismatch between the dispositions agents embody and the positions they occupy in a given social configuration" (Neumann and Pouliot, 2011). That is, it's a disagreement between how one sees one's social situation and how others see it. Neumann and Pouliot usefully show Russia has a long history of hysteretic relations with the west.

I suspect the phenomenon is more common than that, though. The US has begun to have hysteretic moments of its own, speaking and acting as if its standing in the world granted it privileges others don't recognize. The 2003 insistence on invading Iraq, over European and other objections, suggests just such misperceptions. So does, well, much or most of the foreign policy under Trump—although the substance is quite different.

Thus, one lesson of Iraq is probably that the US has a more limited ability than it thought to rewrite the rules of the postwar liberal order it built. In Iraq, it turned out that, when Washington could engage in revisionist behavior, many of the systems' junior members pushed back. The result was not a revised order, so much as a damaged or hobbled one. Not new rules, so much as less rules—at least of a recognizably functional kind. The Bush Administration's apparent inability to anticipate that outcome suggests a significant misperception of it's own standing. Matters are worse under Trump, who seems to lack a coherent world view of any kind—let alone one with major supporters abroad.

A useful and concerning contrast here might be that Chinese leadership appears to be relatively clear-eyed and calculating on China's global standing. Some woolly rhetoric aside, I see little evidence of misperception or miscalculation.

As someone at least somewhat partial to American global leadership, my worries here are twofold and linked. First, it's not certain that new American leadership down the line will make the concerted effort necessary to regain lost status, which it would need to engage in serious system management. Second, it's not clear that those most likely to play the role of friendly non-great powers, that is the chief consumers of American global governance goods (roughly, the OECD membership) will reengage after a second bout of serious misjudgment from DC. So there may be neither leaders nor followers available to restore post-1945 arrangements.

That may seem to suggest conditions for a relatively swift and perhaps chaotic power transition toward China. But I think that's only part of the story. China faces similar problems of its own—a list of China's formal allies in its own neighborhood would be considerably shorter than a list of America's. Beijing may be comparatively clear-eyed in seeing that, but it can only do so much about it.

All this suggests, to me at least, a world in which multiple uncertainties, misperceptions, and sources of miscalculation are far bigger dangers than a great power confrontation no one appears to want. There appear to be prospects neither for readily established global leadership nor for a concert system of well-oiled multilateral power politics. That in turn suggests rudderlessness of a kind (not to say degree) we have not seen before.

Great power pessimism


Well done Ben and Joe for trying to start a dialogue about this issue.

I'm probably the last person who ought to make an initial response because a) it's not really my area of expertise or something I actually feel comfortable talking about in normative terms b) I'm increasingly pessimistic (from a low base!) about the prospects of great power management materializing. If the 'great powers' don't have a common interest in doing something about climate change, for example, what are they likely to cooperate about? I'm not overly optimistic about alternative power centres or movements from 'below' making much of a difference either - or not in the time frame available to do something effective, at least.

A cheery and uplifting start. You did ask, Ben!

The great power role


To pick up on Beverley's question "what is a great power?", it seems to me it can be thought about in two ways, which are often conflated in the literature: put simply, great power as either 1) an ideal-type theoretical construct (think neorealism - the poles of the international system are the great powers, or how I use the term above in a constructivist vein), and 2) as a real existing thing in the practice of international relations. For Hedley Bull, who we're all drawing on here it seems, it is a bit of both.

The problem with these being conflated, however, is that whereas for proponents of 1) there is no problem with thinking about Japan, Russia, China and other non-European and non-Western powers as great powers, for proponents of (2) this denies the fact that the great power designation in international history has been pretty much reserved for precisely the former European great powers plus the United States.

Here I'm thinking with Iver Neumann and Ole Sending and others who've shown how the liberal great powers have struggled to integrate non-liberal potential great powers into their ranks - think Japan and Germany in the early 20th century and Russia from the 18th century.

There are two take aways here then, perhaps. First, we need to be clear about what the great power concept is doing for us, is it more explanatory (1) or historical/interpretive (2)? My hunch is that most of us would like the concept to be more historical than the spare version presented to us by Waltz and more scientistic approaches. The second take-away, then, is to ask how, and under what conditions, the United States and other liberal great powers would allow non-liberal, non-western great powers to play the role.

The problem of 'international order'


The possibilities for effective great power management are problematic at present, to say the least. The rise of nationalism and protectionism raise questions about the ability and willingness of powerful states to provide and maintain public goods, central to international order and global governance. Notably, the US is no longer able or willing to offer leadership and in many ways its exercise of 'benign hegemony' is fading, giving way to short-term advantage/mercantilism. In addition, there are political challenges related to the transitional international order, which is exposing diverging interests amongst states whose support for global governance is essential, and acute conflicts related to ‘burden sharing’. Participation in decision-making and representation in the instruments of global governance are also increasingly contested. The 'rising powers' are not yet able to fill the void. But I want to question the idea of international 'order'. The kind of role reversal that we have seen - Xi's defence of globalisation and open trade vs. Trump's protectionism - is a reminder to us that we need to look more closely at the practices which underpin (or defy) order and order management to understand its dynamics. So, I agree with Marco's point about practice. The idea of 'international order' (including 'transitional international order') is increasingly problematic, because it implies far more coherence than actually exists in terms of the nature of international politics. I think we have to be careful with assumptions about grand design and strategic thinking on the part of political leaders - except China! - and look more closely at practice. 'International order' provides an interesting and default starting point for a lot of discussions on these topics - but we need to take a critical approach to the baggage and the assumptions that comes with that.

Great power politics and the 'Quad'


Thanks Ben, for inviting me to this online Forum, I've enjoyed the exchange this far.

To help get the conversation more focused on a current policy issue, I'm interested in thoughts on how the recently revived Quadrilateral (Aus-India-Japan-US) meeting relates to the concept of great powers. The most common critique of the 'Quad' is that it is an incipient coalition to contain China (as a rising, hegemonic 'great power'). I prefer "constrain" to the more problematic "contain", although that's another argument for another forum. But China's centrality to the quadrilateral concept is obvious.

Among the 4 Quad parties, only the United States has unarguable great power status. India has great power aspirations, but does not fully meet the criteria in terms of state capabilities, yet. Japan is a country in demographic decline, yet which may still consider itself to be a great power, in identity terms, though not on a scale comparable with the US, China, or India's future potential. It is more of an "upper middle" power, if there is such a category. That leaves Australia, which fits the middle power definition most easily, although the problem with classifying oneself as being in the middle means one is forever looking upwards - not a comfortable posture to hold indefinitely.

While the Quad is naturally seen now, as it was in 2007, in a China context, threat perceptions among the four towards Chna differ considerably. Alternatively, the Quad may serve as a diplomatic device for India, Australia and Japan to tether a less committed, more unpredictable United States into an Asian, or Indo-Pacific, regional balancing framework. The revivied Quad concept has also drawn flak for not including any Southeast Asian country, including Indonesia - the only ASEAN member with the material foundation and sense of national self-importance to take on the great power mantle in future. But not for while yet.

The importance of domestic politics/political economy


Thanks to Ben for organising this forum and all the other contributors for their insights so far. I want to pick up on the question of why states become (or cease to be) great power managers. The key to understanding this I think is domestic political and economic imperatives. China’s Belt and Road Initiative for example may have significant international strategic consequences but it is primarily driven by domestic factors such as uneven development and managing excess capacity. We are, I think, witnessing the long-term decline of the United States as a great power manager and this is also linked to its changing domestic political economy and the demands of domestic interest groups. The biggest problem with 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper was in its head-in-the-sand approach to acknowledging the deep structural challenges facing the United States and the significant international implications that these entail. Whether or not countries like India or Indonesia take more of a global role will depend on how their economies evolve but their limited interest in becoming great power managers now in large part reflects the still limited nature of the internationalisation of their political economies. In short, we need a better way to theorise the great power behaviour and one that places domestic political economy and domestic politics at the forefront.

On the Quad – having just returned from India, it was striking how often I heard Indians downplay the importance of the meeting in Manilla. ‘That was just a meeting of some mid-ranking officials’ was a phrase I heard a lot. This doesn’t bode well for Quad enthusiasts!

Managing the 'Indo Pacific'


So much to comment on! Thanks especially to Joseph for some responses to my initial points - which I will certainly chew on further.

Just a quick comment on Euan's useful attempt to get us talking about a specific issue. It's useful because the case of something like the Quad is where the rubber hits the road as far as bringing theoretical issues to bear on real issues is concerned.

In that vein, I guess my desire to keep hegemons and great powers distinct is to make it clear that the US's attempts to manage the Indo Pacific - the term Tillerson recently used in India is of course very telling (not East Asia) - are going to hit roadblocks if done through something that is so pointedly exclusive of a specific great power in the region, namely China.

The Quad suggests that Japan and India, and Australia, will be regional powers to the US hegemon. This is fine as long as they're happy with that. But China clearly won't be, and neither will Japan and India if signs of US instability continue. And as Euan notes, what about Indonesia and other regional players?

The take home is that US, whether now or in the near future, will have to seriously consider beginning to act like a great power rather than a hegemon, and genuinely co-manage the region - and cede some control. This primarily is a mind-set in Washington issue.

The Quad as a platform for creating a regional power balance?


Picking up on the last couple of interventions relating to the Quad, I think this is an interesting case to look at given that there are shades of the ‘great power management’ idea (an exclusive grouping taking on the provision of public goods around issues of stability and order). Yet, as Euan points out, it’s a group of states with very different positions in terms of the power hierarchy in Asia. As it leaves out the (clearly) second most powerful and influential state in the region (China), it is hard to see how its role in the geopolitics of the region could be a stabilising one.

The temptation to view it as a thinly veiled attempt to balance China’s growing power and influence is due to the fact that none of the Quad’s proponents have ever clearly articulated the need for, or the benefit of, these four states in particular acting in concert.

There’s no real agenda and plenty of overlap with existing arrangements. It’s a bit like the MIKTA grouping (ie. a group of states who have decided that it would be good to ‘do something’ together without any real sense of what that could be) but with one big difference – the potential for turning it into any kind of substantial grouping risks looking like an anti-Chinese coalition. Given that the defining feature that these four states all share is their liberal democratic political systems, the Quad is in effect a resurrection of the misplaced idea of a ‘concert of democracies’ just on a smaller and specifically regional scale.

The only substantial benefit of these four states meeting together and acting in concert would be in the military realm. Otherwise for what reason do the ‘Quad’ states in particular need to get together to discuss issues that affect all states in the region (piracy, arms smuggling etc.)?

In principle of course, balancing against a rising power could be thought of as a form of great power management (in this case with the United States and perhaps India being thought of as the great power managers who are encouraging the non-great powers of Australia and Japan to join their efforts). This would align with Richard Little’s conception of the difference between an associational balance of power and an adversarial balance of power. The latter is concerned with adversarial centres of power balancing each other in a zero-sum contest. The former has more to do with the (perhaps overly rosy) view of the early 19th century Concert of Europe idea of states actively cooperating to ‘create’ a balanced and stable distribution of power. If the Quad could be an example of states cooperating to ensure a purposive balance of power exists, it means there must be limits to how far it can push back against a rising China – as Euan puts it, constraining rather than containing.

The problem for me with this more generous view of the Quad idea is that it gets the baseline/starting point wrong. China today is not just ‘rising’ to become ‘one of’ the great powers in Asia (and therefore a grouping like the Quad would ensure that it remains one of the great powers rather than an all-dominant regional hegemon). Instead, China’s power and influence is rising in a region in which an extra-regional power (the United States) is the militarily dominant player. Close to 80,000 US military personnel less than half a day’s flight from mainland China, major military bases across the region and Washington’s string of formal military alliances, all result in China’s rise (in its own backyard) being highly constrained from the outset. So any balancing against a relative increase in Chinese power seems so premature as to be simply a form of containment. Such an attempt at containment seems to me likely to foster instability and tension.

For this reason I’m very sceptical about the Quad’s potential as a stabilising factor and a modern form of (regional) great power management.  

Legitimacy and democracy in global governance


Thanks to Ben for organising this forum, and to all contributors for a great discussion.

I would like to pick up on the question of legitimacy of great power management. “Can the exclusive – even collusive – role of the great powers in managing global crises still attract sufficient legitimacy today,” asked Ben in the opening statement, and a couple of contributors have addressed aspects of this question in the challenge posed by non-Western states and demands for changes in participation and representation.

David Edelstein rightly asks us to consider if great power management was ever considered legitimate. I believe the history of the UN Security Council tells us that there was a time when great power management was at least accepted as necessary, and by some states also seen as the most legitimate way of managing international relations. When the UN was founded in 1945 a majority of states accepted and supported giving special rights and responsibilities to the P5. During the Cold War the UN may have failed in preventing all conflicts – a maximalist version of great power management – but it did play a part in preventing the outbreak of direct war between the US and the Soviet Union – the minimalist version. In New York representatives from both sides built relationships and talked behind the scenes, and such informal contacts between the great powers helped to buy time and defuse tension in several crisis situations. As David Bosco has argued elsewhere, this concert function of the Security Council has largely been a success.

But if great power management was accepted or supported during the Cold War, today the current global governance structures face increasing challenges from non-Western states. As Beverley Loke noted on this forum, the current international order is more complex and contains greater cultural and normative difference than before. This naturally leads to questions of whether that order is legitimate.

One particular challenge to great power management comes from the idea that global governance should be democratic. There are two strands to this argument: one-state-one-vote on the one hand, and popular participation on the other. They are frequently in conflict. Both can be illustrated by looking at the 2016 process to elect the new UN secretary-general.

The one-state-one-vote version is supported by numerous non-Western states. This call for a more democratic international order is one that reinforces state sovereignty and the non-intervention principle. Each state should be allowed to decide for itself, and all states should have a say in global decision-making processes. The UN Charter says that the UN secretary-general is to be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council. Tradition has dictated that the Council only recommends one candidate, which essentially means that the choice of UN secretary-general is in the hands of the veto wielding P5. Before the 2016 election the 1 for 7 billion campaign argued that this opaque and old-fashioned process ought to become more open and transparent. They sought a greater role for the General Assembly in the process, by asking the Council to recommend more than one candidate to give the states in the Assembly a real choice. This demand aligns with other trends in international forums where rising powers and small and middle-sized states are demanding a seat at the table and a voice in decision-making. The P5 are no longer seen as legitimate representatives of the world as a whole.

A second demand of the 1 for 7 billion campaign was to ask for greater involvement for NGOs and the public. “We the people” should also have a say in deciding who was the most qualified candidate for the office of UN secretary-general. This demand is illustrative of broader trends demanding that international organisations display and facilitate accountability, transparency, greater responsiveness to stake-holders, and “local ownership” to processes. The great powers of today operate in a different world from the great powers of 1945. Greater media scrutiny and a much larger number of NGOs means that states are no longer seen as the only legitimate actors in international relations.

Both of these factors, increased demand from small, middle-sized, or non-Western states, as well as public pressure, offer distinct challenges to the continued legitimacy of great power management.

Then again, we could also ask if these demands from NGOs and increasing media scrutiny and public pressure make a difference. Antonio Guterres was still elected by the Security Council, where the P5 jealously guard their veto power. Through the United Nations and elsewhere, there are institutional structures in place which favour the great powers. They could still use them to manage their relations (if they wanted to), for the time being at least.

Who's a responsible stakeholder?


I’ve really enjoyed reading the contributions here. There are very pertinent questions being raised about the changing nature of international order. As many of the contributors point out, we are living in a somewhat ‘transitional’ period with less clarity on where we are heading. Amidst declining US global leadership and a more assertive China, seeking answers to the question ‘who’s a responsible stakeholder?’ have become more challenging and complex. But that complexity, I believe, has been a positive development. In many ways, it has compelled us to better tease out the contestation surrounding legitimacy and authority in an evolving international order and unpack the politics of great power management--both as concept and practice.

Great power management and status


I will try to add a few thoughts to this very rich discussion. I will draw a little bit on the Concert of Europe, a case I know better than others.

Overall, I have three thoughts, all of which mostly draw together bits of existing contributions to this thread than add anything original.

First, I think it's useful to consider the "great power" category a primarily social or recognitive category, rather than something "objective" or which can only be understood in terms of material capabilities or military power. This appears to be how most of the discussants above are treating the topic, but it may be worth underlining, particularly in the context of contemporary world politics, where military might does not necessarily translate into global influence, prestige, or or importance (or does these things less so than in previous eras). Clearly power projection and influence are tied to great power status, but I think the process of great power recognition is a tricky one that depends as much on how accepting existing powers in the system are of newcomers as it does on measures of military power. (We might, in fact, say that existing great powers' ability to recognize others as great powers is a kind of power itself, of course).

A very simple formula that focusses on the social aspect of great power politics might be something like: a great power is a power recognized by the greatest power(s) in the system as its peer. I realize this is circular, but it is to a degree borne out by periods of GPM in the record. It is also gets around the endlessly debated issue of what "material factors" count a state as a major, great, superpower, and so on--an issue where there does not seem to be much consensus. Here, we look simply at who is called a great power, by who, and conversely what that great power does with that status. My approach here is informed by 19th Century Europe, but Xi Jinping's recent declaration that China is now a daguo--great power--means (to me) that status recognition questions still matter.

Second, there are (at least) two issues at play if we understand the great power category from a social angle. First there is the issue of great powers jockeying for recognition as they rise. Second, there is the issue of how great powers interact once they've recognized each other. Especially in multipolar contexts, great powers have tended to create exclusive clubs of great power peers i.e., we here are great powers; you all over there are not. This fits in with status recognition as a club , rather than zero sum or simply hierarchical, good. In some cases it's easy to find moments where these exclusive clubs are established--the 1815 and 1919 postwar settlements are cases in point (to a degree the 1945 UNSC permanent seating is another instance). Other times it is not; rising powers make great power claims in the absence of a postwar settlement that might set them apart from other states, and in the absence of clear recognition otherwise (here I am thinking of Japan's struggle for recognition around the turn of the Century, and, of course, Imperial Germany). I think we're in such a situation now: China (and to some extent Russia and India) have status concerns, and by definition they must get this recognition from the United States--or wait create a system where the United States' status is diminished sufficiently that its recognition of them as peers doesn't matter. (I'm skeptical the latter will happen any time soon).

Even if our great powers are recognized by each other as great, relations inside the club can be unstable and further into the competitive end of a spectrum--as they were into WW1 & in 18th Century Europe--or stable and cooperative, as they were in the Concert of Europe period (though this period too had a fair amount of GP competition, particularly outside Europe). This connects with Richard Little's point about kinds of balancing (which echoes, to my mind, Paul Schroeder's idea of alliances or pacts of restraint).

To flesh this out a bit, in the Concert period (by my account, 1815-1853), a pentarchy of states that each possessed wildly different power projection capabilities recognized each other as peers, setting themselves up as sort of guarantors of the peace in Europe. As I suspect everyone here knows this was, overall, a reactionary system--peace in Europe meant restoring monarchy and often brutally putting down revolutions (though see Brian Vick's newish book on how the Concert restoration was in some ways quite progressive, particularly around commercial access rights and minority rights regimes vis Jewish populations, etc.).

But it was also a "progressive" international politic insofar as membership in the great power club entailed responsibilities. This is an aspect emphasized in recent literature. I won't trouble everyone with the details, but effectively this element boils down to the great powers using their coercive powers to guarantee the 1815 territorial settlement and its restoration of European monarchy; dividing up parts of Europe into relatively exclusive spheres of influence (think Russia in Poland, Austria in Italy, and Britain in Portugal); and using Article VI of the 1815 Quad Alliance treaty to coordinate on crises outside of those spheres (e.g. on crises in Belgium and the Ottoman Empire). Very importantly I think the rest of Europe bought it primarily because no one wanted another set of Napoleonic wars. But they also bought it because it moderated great power competition, which had been so destructive in the recent past (and fairly destructive before that). The great powers would need to be part of any settlement that could achieve peace because, by and large, they caused war. And they also had the power needed to set it up and keep it going. In this system the great powers engaged in maximal and minimal great power management in part because the stability of great power status--it was a club good until 1853, at least--particularly in Europe, the Mediterranean world, and to an extent Latin America, but it required a very specific set of events to establish the conditions under which that could happen.

Fast-forwarding to today, we're not in a system with a comprehensive postwar settlement, or a system with broad agreement on the kinds of norms that underpinned the Concert. I'm therefore skeptical there can be anything like maximalist great power management traditionally conceived that is widely legitimate. Further, it looks to me like a central problem of revanchist and rising powers is their status deficits, both global and regional. We're a long way off from a great power club that might have regional responsibilities, or global ones. But there are also significant differences in world politics today that let me end on a hopeful note. Old-school (if you're forgive the phrase) great powers were kept in check by shared norms and balances of power among them, greatness checked only by greatness, if you will. As some commentators here have noted, the international system now has all sort of ways of challenging or shaping power "from below"--NGOs, norms that emphasize human rights, the power of sub-state groups and individuals, and of course the extension of at least legal sovereignty to states outside of the great power club. Very simply, actors who are not great powers have more and more tools at their disposal to influence and contest the actions of the powerful. This means that any great powers seeking to manage global or regional affairs will need to put much more effort into attaining global or regional legitimacy based on broadly egalitarian norms--this is probably for the better.

Drawing the forum to a close.


My sincere thanks to all who have contributed to this discussion on contemporary great power politics and the prospects for a renewed practice of ‘great power management.’ Lots of interesting and important observations have emerged from the discussion over the last two weeks. Far too much to summarise properly so instead I thought I would close the forum by highlighting a couple of points that seem worthy of particular focus in the future:

Dave McCourt, Beverley Loke and Joe Camilleri have all raised the issue of defining which states ‘count’ as great powers. The analytical distinctions between great powers, superpowers and hegemons may seem like a topic of purely theoretical or historical interest but the contributions to this forum push us to think about the real-world policy implications of categorising states as the holders of one status over another.

The contemporary case of the so-called Quadrilateral Initiative discussed by Euan Graham, Priya Chacko, Dave McCourt and myself is perhaps the clearest illustration of this. The bringing together of an established power, a rising power, a regional power and a middle power to uphold a particular vision of order in the Indo-Pacific region tells us that the exclusivity associated with the concept of great power management may not fit the current moment.   

Joe Camilleri and Edward Newman remind us of the need for coherence and consistency in the foreign policy strategies of any state attempting to engage in some degree of order management. As Joe put it, “it would appear that the United States and other Western states are generally less able to pursue a steady or coherent geopolitical path, while China and to a lesser extent Russia are more adept at charting something resembling a durable set of priorities.” Durable priorities and the means to consistently achieve them (perhaps the best marker of great power status) must surely be a prerequisite for the kind of purposive order building that Chris LaRoche described as existing during the European Concert era. Chris, Ellen Ravndal and others note that the agency of non-great powers can too easily be overlooked in these discussions. As Chris put it, “actors who are not great powers have more and more tools at their disposal to influence and contest the actions of the powerful.” In other words, contestation of the great power role and especially the rights it entails appears to be a serious barrier to this kind of managerial role in the contemporary international system.

While a number of contributors including Ryan Hass and Joe Mackay have all raised the issue of the capacities of the current contenders for great power status to actually achieve their various ends, others have focused on the issue of legitimacy. In particular the issue of attracting the requisite degree of legitimacy to effectively ‘manage’ tensions, conflicts and challenges involving non-great powers in a culturally plural order (especially as non-Western powers continue to rise) emerged as an important issue from the interventions of Beverley Loke, Marco Vieira, Luke Glanville and Ellen Ravndal. The relationship between cultural and political similarities/differences and the expectations we have of the great power role appears to be an area requiring further work.

Again, my thanks to Joe Camilleri for hosting this forum on his website and for the excellent contributions of all the panellists. I look forward to continuing these conversations in the future.     


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