The Financial Express

An essay

Inter-active engagement between great powers

-Reuters file photo -Reuters file photo

Strategic analysts have been following the carefully organised efforts being undertaken by great powers in their efforts to underline their influence within the international paradigm. This is being viewed against their constant efforts to establish their own domain within the matrix of prestige in international politics.

International relations are greatly affected through the concept of great power being used in the forms of liberal internationalism, realism, and constructivism. In this context, remarks made by Professor Hedley Bull from Oxford University are worth mentioning. The Professor has articulated 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." We have seen this happening in a major way with regard to evolving relations between the USA and China (with regard to acceptable trade tariff arrangement), USA and North Korea (regarding the dynamics of de-nuclearisation), USA and Iran (regarding the nuclear format to be followed by Iran) and also USA and Israel (with regard to Palestine).

The above elements are imparting and creating their own priorities for great powers who feel that they have the necessary and requisite influencing capacity to execute their version of acceptable international politics related to peace. We have in the recent past witnessed the equation that is gradually being implemented with regard to coming to an understanding with the Taliban by the US in Afghanistan.

It has been observed that "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 through whether it has nuclear weapons and missiles, by its military budget and nature of defence spending, the number of military personnel and aircraft carriers, and the size of the navy and air force, among other factors.

For soft power, strong cultural ties with other countries, moral strength, digital skill and technological levels of achievements are considered features of great importance.

Identity as a leader refers not only to the ability to bargain but also to the capability to take action independently. At the same time, leadership within a group or a sub-region or region has to be demonstrated through the ability to play an active and co-operative role in the international system.

Such a description normally connotes that the following 10 countries need to be perceived as being in the category of top 10 great powers of the world - the United States of America (USA), China, the United Kingdom (UK), Germany, Russia, Japan, France, Italy, Brazil, and India, with the United States as the number one power of our unipolar world. Five countries within this Group are also Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, enjoying the right to cast a veto on any UN Security Council Resolution. The United States enjoys a forefront status because it possesses the largest economy and also the most powerful armed forces. This permits the USA to consequently flex its muscle whenever it feels that this is required for protecting its national interests.

However, there has been a significant change in the post-cold war era with regard to one aspect. In principle, while these countries do not hesitate to speak out pertaining to their own interpretation of an international situation, they know that it is unlikely that they will engage each other in a war. This has a significant denotation as the USA, UK, Russia, China, France, India, Germany and Japan [On  June 17, 1974, Japanese Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata told reporters that "it's certainly the case that Japan has the capability to possess nuclear weapons but has not made them."] - all have nuclear capability. 

Consequently, great powers tend to view themselves not so mush as potential military rivals, but more as countries who need to safeguard their interests and security in a competitive world - in the domain of trade, finance and investment.

The last two decades have, in its own way, created uncertainty and also anxiety. As a result of the evolving dynamics some parts of the world have become disordered or muddled. This has resulted in civil demonstrations and unrest. We have seen such action affecting Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, Yemen, France, Chile, Venezuela and Hong Kong. What has been taking place in these countries has been having an osmotic effect in the respective sub-regions.

Great powers possess not only military might but also economic strength. In addition, there is also the other factor - their joint strength - created because of their being members of military organisations - like NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). This element enables them sometimes to adopt measures - through the imposition of sanctions against their common opponent. We know how this has been affecting Iran and Venezuela. The economic aspect also gains necessary respect if some of them happen to belong to a group - like the European Union (EU) with its own ramifications.

However, it is quite difficult to measure how much relative power one State must have over its competitors before it feels that it is secure. Analysts have also observed that 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 in the future in a more digitalised world. 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 sometimes think 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 normally 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. It is interesting that sometimes strategists have compared this format to the intrinsic herd structure that has been noticed, for example, also among animals (who do so by baring their fangs) - be it among lions or tigers or among birds (through the plucking of their feathers).

Within the international socio-metric structure, States might seek to cooperate with each other. However, such cooperation might sometimes be difficult to achieve and sustain. This is so because, usually, there are two factors that hinder cooperation between States. The aspects include considerations about relative gains and concerns about not receiving the expected returns through such engagagement.

This usually leads to great powers eventually ending up competing with each other  - where they hope to gain power at each other's expense. Political scientists consequently feel that in such a format, stronger States first evaluate how profits or gains will be distributed between the concerned Parties. The States tend to analyse the evolving circumstances in terms of either absolute or relative gains. With absolute gains, each side is concerned with maximising its own profits and cares little about how much the other side gains or suffers loss in the course of their Agreements.

From this point of view, one needs to look at what is happening currently within the important security institution - NATO or within the paradigm of trade, with regard to United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), formerly NAFTA, or within the important resource-based format of OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries). Transactional diplomacy has slowly gained the upper hand. As such, great powers, in the context of their cooperation realise that they have to consider cooperating with other states, based on the relative gains rather than absolute gains. This, however, in its own way, has been complicating cooperative efforts. We, in recent weeks have seen this format affecting crude oil prices because of disagreements between Russia and Saudi Arabia during the on-going Covid-19 pandemic.

However, G20 nations appear to have moved forward by pledging a "united front" on 26 March in a virtual Summit in their fight against Covid-19.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

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