- Andrew Hurrell
This chapter examines the global order, led by the United States, that emerged at the end of the cold war and asks whether it has been effectively challenged by rising powers. It begins with a discussion of the challenges to the idea of a U.S.-dominated global order, focusing in particular on the role of large, emerging developing countries as well as the idea of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) in the context of the future of the global economy. The chapter then considers the more recent economic slowdown in the emerging world, along with the political and social challenges facing many emerging societies. It also analyses some of the major theoretical arguments about the impact of rising powers on international relations and whether they are powerful enough to affect international order.
Have rising powers effectively challenged the US-led global order?
Are rising powers actually powerful?
What does the debate about rising powers tell us about the longer-term evolution of a new global international society?
After a period of US dominance of the international political and economic systems, the world order began to undergo what many came to see as a fundamental structural change from the mid-2000s. This was initially associated with the rise of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China, and from 2010 South Africa), and was then accelerated by the financial crisis that hit the core Western countries after 2007. This chapter begins by examining the US-led global order that emerged at the end of the cold war and the arguments that this was likely to remain stable and to endure. The second section considers the challenges to the idea of a US-dominated global order, paying particular attention to the role of large, emerging developing countries, to the idea of the BRICS, to the regional role of these countries, and to the new Southern coalitions that were coming to play an increasingly influential role in negotiations and institutions affecting trade, climate change, and foreign aid. The third section distinguishes between different arguments about the diffusion of power and discusses what is involved conceptually when one talks of ‘rising powers’. The fourth section examines some of the major theoretical arguments about how rising powers affect the international political system. The concluding section evaluates the claims about rising powers in a very different international context marked by the return of geopolitical tensions, the growth of nationalist and populist governments in many parts of the world, and serious challenges to multilateralism and global governance. It suggests that rising powers matter not simply because of their current and likely future power but rather because of the longer-term challenge they pose to the Eurocentrism and Western dominance of the international order.
At the end of the cold war the structure of global order appeared clear and straightforward. The West had won. The United States was the sole superpower and the world was living through a period of unipolarity that many believed would continue well into the twenty-first century. The US-led order had three pillars: first, the unrivalled extent and many dimensions of US power; second, the Western-dominated institutions and multilateral organizations originally created in the wake of the Second World War—the United Nations, GATT (the World Trade Organization (WTO) from 1995), and the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund; and third, the dense set of transatlantic and transpacific relations and alliance systems. For many commentators, this liberal Greater West had triumphed and was bound to increase its global reach—partly through the intensification of economic and social globalization, partly through the power and attractiveness of Western ideas of democracy, human rights, and liberal capitalism, and partly through deliberate US policies and the effective deployment of American power.
The central question, however, was whether this period of US predominance would last. On one side, analysts considered the stability of US power. To what extent would the US fall prey to ‘imperial overstretch’, due to the loss of domestic support for its global hegemonic role? On the other side, attention quickly came to focus on the large, fast-growing countries in what had previously been called the Third World, or the Global South. Even if one leaves China in a category of its own, in the next tier down a range of other states were becoming more influential globally, as well as cementing a significant degree of regional influence: Brazil in South America, India in South Asia, Nigeria and South Africa in Africa. These developments came to be seen as a power challenge to the US and Europe, as well as representing a challenge to the historic Eurocentrism of the international order.
The post-cold war order
In the 1990s global order was widely understood through the lens of liberal internationalism or liberal solidarism (see Ch. 6) (Hurrell 2007). Globalization was rendering obsolete the old system of traditional international relations—the so-called Westphalian world of great power rivalries, balance of power politics, and an old-fashioned international law built around state sovereignty and strict rules of non-intervention. Bumpy as it might be, the road seemed to be leading away from Westphalia—with an expanded role for formal and informal multilateral institutions; a huge increase in the scope, density, and intrusiveness of rules and norms made at the international level but affecting how domestic societies are organized; the ever greater involvement of new actors in global governance; moves towards the coercive enforcement of global rules; and fundamental changes in political, legal, and moral understandings of state sovereignty and of the relationship between the state, the citizen, and the international community.
In addition to an expansion of inter-state modes of governance, increased attention was being paid to the world of complex governance beyond the state. Global order and global governance would no longer be the preserve of states. There was already a much more prominent role for NGOs and social movements, for transnational companies, and for the direct involvement of groups and individuals, often empowered by new technologies and new forms of social mobilization. From this perspective, the state was losing its place as the privileged sovereign institution and instead becoming one of many actors in a broader and more complex social, political, and economic process.
Academics, especially in Europe and the United States, told three kinds of liberal stories about the post-cold war world. Some stressed institutions and the cooperative logic of institutions. They argued that institutions are needed to deal with the ever more complex dilemmas of collective action that emerge in a globalized world. The complexity of governance challenges meant that international law and international regimes would necessarily increase in number, scope, and variety. It also meant that as large states, including large developing states, expanded their range of interests and integrated more fully into the global economy and world society—as they ‘joined the world’, in the popular language of the 1990s—they would be naturally drawn by the functional benefits provided by institutions and pressed towards more cooperative and ‘responsible’ p. 86↵patterns of behaviour. They would gradually become socialized into a Western-led global order. The process would not necessarily be easy. It would be uneven and often unsettling. But, on this view, the broad direction of travel was clear.
Others stressed the Kantian idea of the gradual but progressive diffusion of liberal values, partly as a result of liberal economics and increased economic interdependence, partly as a result of the growing influence of global civil society, and partly as a result of the successful example set by the multifaceted liberal capitalist system of states. A third group told a more US-centred story. The US was indeed the centre of a unipolar world. But, true both to its own values and to its rational self-interest, Washington would have a continued incentive to bind itself within the institutions that it had created in the cold war era in order to reassure smaller states and to prevent balancing against US power (Ikenberry 2001). A rational hegemon in an age of globalization would understand the importance and utility of soft power and self-restraint. In return for this self-binding and the procedural legitimacy it would create, and in return for US-supplied global public goods and the output legitimacy that they would confer, other states would acquiesce and accept the role of the United States as the owner and operator of the international system.
The challenge posed by the Soviet Union and its allies (the so-called Second World) had been seen off with the victorious end to the cold war. Through a mix of these three liberal logics, those developing states of the old Third World that had previously challenged the Western order (especially in their demands in the 1970s for a New International Economic Order) would now become increasingly enmeshed, socialized, and integrated. The nature and dynamics of power were changing. Soft power would outstrip hard coercive power in importance, and concentrations of liberal power would attract rather than repel or threaten. Just as the example of a liberal and successful European Union had created powerful incentives on the part of weaker and neighbouring states towards emulation and a desire for membership, so, on a larger scale and over a longer period, a similar pattern would be observed in the case of the liberal, developed world as a whole. The 1990s, then, were marked by a clear sense of the liberal ascendancy; an assumption that the US had the right and power to decide what the ‘liberal global order’ was all about; and a clear belief that the Western order worked and that it had the answers. Yes, of course there would be isolated rogues and radical rejectionists. But they were on the ‘wrong side of history’, as President Clinton confidently proclaimed.
The idea that this US-led order was stable was not confined to liberals. One group of neorealist thinkers argued that the extent of US power was simply so great that the normal logic of balance of power no longer applied, and that no state was likely to emerge in the foreseeable future with the capacity to disturb US power and primacy (Wohlforth 1999; Brooks and Wohlforth 2015/16). This was especially the case since, for neorealists, military power is the most important form of power. In terms of military power the United States is in a class of its own: it accounts for 45 per cent of the world’s total military spending; it has an enormous lead in new military technologies; it has a vast global network of more than 750 overseas bases in over 100 countries; and it has a unique capacity to project power to any corner of the world. Since active opposition was ruled out, the expectation was that weaker states would have no option but to seek accommodation with the US and with the US-led global order.
Many critical political economists also saw continuity. Across the developing world, neoliberal economic reforms were spreading, partly imposed by the US and the international financial institutions that it dominated, and partly reflecting the choices and class interests of elites in the Global South. The commonality of worldviews and class interests linking the transnational elite that met each year in Davos would ensure the on-going dominance of Western-led capitalism.
After the end of the cold war, the Global South came to be redefined in transnational social terms rather than as a grouping or category of nation-states (see Ch. 4). Attention was focused more and more on the social movements that were emerging in response to neoliberalism: the World Social Forum, anti-globalization groups, and the protest movements that had come to prominence at the WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle in 1999. The challenge, then, to the US-led order would not come from large developing countries (such as India, China, or Brazil). Rather, it would come from radical rejectionist states (such as Venezuela and other South American countries that shifted to the left politically or Iran and North Korea); from grassroots anti-globalization movements; and from transnational anti-Western Islamic groupings and terrorist organizations.p. 87↵
During the 1990s there was near universal agreement that the global system was led by the power of the United States and its allies and by the institutions that it dominated.
From the perspective of the emerging powers, the US order involved a powerful move to change many of the existing rules, norms, and practices of global politics. Seen from the Global South, the United States has rarely been a status quo power but has often sought to mould the system in its own image. After the end of the cold war it was in many ways a strongly revisionist power: in the 1990s, in terms of pressing for new norms on intervention, for the opening of markets, and for the embedding of particular sets of what it saw as liberal values in international institutions; and, in the early years of the twenty-first century, in terms of its attempt to recast norms on regime change, on the use of force, and on the conditionality of sovereignty more generally.
The states of the Global South did not face the United States within a stable notion of a ‘Westphalian order’. In their view, the dominant Western states were insisting that many of the most important norms of the system ought to change, above all in ways that threatened greater interventionism. But, at the same time, it seemed to many that there was little alternative but to accommodate Western power.
There was widespread consensus that challenges to the US-led order would result from ‘blowback’ or ‘backlashes’ against US and Western power and would be focused around anti-hegemonic social movements and radical states.
The US order under challenge
By the late 1990s, this picture of a stable, US-dominated global order was coming under increasing challenge. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 underscored the darker side of globalization. The experience of trying to fight a ‘war’ on global terrorism and of using hard coercive power to dominate weaker societies (as in Iraq or Afghanistan) brought to the fore the limits of military power for achieving political goals. The mismatch between Washington’s rhetoric of human rights and democracy and its systematic willingness to violate human rights in defence of its national security (as with Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and the policy of so-called rendition of terrorist suspects) undercut Western claims to moral superiority. And the unilateralism of the Bush administration, for many people, undercut the legitimacy and acceptability of US leadership.
One of the most visible signs that something was changing was increased diplomatic activism by large developing countries. The activist coalitional policies of Brazil and India in the WTO provide a good example, most notably in terms of the G20 coalition of developing countries created at Cancun in 2003 (known as the Trade G20). At the fifth Ministerial Conference of the WTO at Cancun in September 2003, developing countries came together in several overlapping coalitions and decided to block the negotiations of the Doha Development Agenda until their demands were met. The conference ended in deadlock. Cancun represented a symbol of the dissatisfaction of the developing world with globalization, and indicated its greater willingness to act in pursuit of its collective interests and against the developed world. In expressing this collective dissatisfaction, the emerging powers of the developing world—Brazil, China, India, and South Africa—took the lead, and were joined by many other developing countries.
A further example was the creation of IBSA: a cooperation project between the three democratic countries of India, Brazil, and South Africa. The organization was formalized by the Brasilia Declaration in June 2003, and was followed by other linked initiatives that fuelled cooperation in a broad range of areas. A third example is provided by the BASICs (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China). This group sidelined Europe in climate change negotiations at Copenhagen in December 2009 and forced the United States to negotiate in a very different institutional context.
On their own these events might have attracted only passing attention. Yet, for many, they reflected a much deeper structural change that was taking place in the global economy and in the dynamics of global capitalism. The idea of the BRICS captures this phenomenon. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, and China, and South Africa from 2010) comprise the five largest economies outside the OECD. By the early years of the twenty-first century they held around 50 per cent of total global foreign exchange reserves. They had reduced or eliminated any residual dependence on foreign aid and, in the cases of China, India, and Brazil, had themselves become major aid donors. In 2009 these new donors provided around US$11 billion of foreign aid. And they had expanded their relations with each other, with p. 88↵China eclipsing the US as Brazil’s major trading partner and Sino-Indian trade approaching US$60 billion a year. South–South trade rose from being marginal as late as the early 1990s to accounting for 17.5 per cent of global merchandise exports by 2010 (Zoellick 2010).
The language of BRICS and of rising and emerging powers took off from around 2003. Both popular commentary and a great deal of political rhetoric focused on the diffusion of power and the emergence of new powers. The central point of these debates was not where world order is now, but where it will go in the future. The BRICS were important not just because of their recent rapid development, but because of the predicted changes that were going to transform the global economy and change the balance of global economic power (see Case Studies 5.1 and 5.2). The financial crisis that hit the advanced capitalist core in 2007 fed into these changes and these perceptions. For many influential figures, it was historically extremely significant that the financial crisis broke out in the core Western countries. It not only seriously damaged these economies but also undermined the technical and moral authority at the centre of the global capitalist system. Finally, the crisis reinforced the view that international p. 89↵economic institutions had to be reformed to reflect shifting economic power. Brazil and India had long demanded reform of international economic institutions as well as seats on the United Nations Security Council. Although there had been little progress with UN reform, considerable change occurred in the WTO, with Brazil and India becoming members of the inner negotiating circle along with the US and the EU (the so-called ‘new Quad’). For many, a further major symbolic step occurred with the expansion of the G7 grouping of industrialized countries into the Group of 20 (G20),which would now include the major emerging p. 90↵countries. The inaugural leaders’ summit took place in 2008, and the following year it was announced that the G20 would replace the G7 as the primary grouping of major economies, with regular summits of heads of government and an expanded agenda. Across the emerging world the G20 appeared to be a symbol of how the structures of global governance were shifting in response to the new geometry of power, and a sign of what the future would bring.
Case Study 5.1 The BRICS
The ‘BRICs’ began as an acronym that referred to four emerging economies: Brazil, China, India, and Russia (see Case Study 16.1). The term was first coined in the research paper Building Better Global Economic BRICs by economist Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs in 2001. O’Neill regarded these four countries as the key emerging market economies, and projected that the relative size and share of the BRICs in the world economy would rise exponentially. In his report, O’Neill also described the implications of this for the Group of Seven (G7) and called for a rearrangement of the representation in such groupings as the G7. From this start there have been two ways of thinking about the BRICs.
The first, and most common, has been to understand the BRICs in the context of the future of the global economy. In 2003, a Goldman Sachs report compiled by Dominic Wilson and Roopa Purushothaman, Dreaming with BRICs: The Path to 2050, expanded on O’Neill’s argument. Their report predicted that in all likelihood, by 2025 the BRICs would account for over half of the size of the G7 in terms of GDP. And in less than 40 years, the BRICs economies together could be larger than the G7. Several reports have followed up on this, offering more detailed analyses and readjusted projections of the BRIC economies.
The key underlying argument behind these predictions was that China and India would rise as the world’s principal suppliers of manufactured goods and services, while Brazil and Russia would become similarly dominant as suppliers of raw materials. They all have an enormous potential consumer market, complemented by access to regional markets, and an abundant workforce.
More recently, attention has shifted to the fragility and vulnerability of the emerging economies. The growth of world trade has slowed very considerably; commodity prices have fallen; corporate and sovereign debt has surged; the flight of foreign capital and foreign investment from the emerging world has gathered pace; and the Global South has been hit hard by the slowdown in China and by the rebalancing of the Chinese economy towards a greater focus on domestic growth and consumption. The return of geopolitical tensions and the emergence of trade wars, especially between the United States and China, has added to economic uncertainty, and fears remain of a further financial crisis with severe limits on the ability of international institutions to do much to help.
The other way of talking about the BRICs has been in terms of a diplomatic grouping. The foreign ministers of the four BRIC states—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—first met as a group in New York at the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly in 2006. The first BRIC summit was held in Russia in 2009, and South Africa joined the grouping in 2010. Since then annual summits have been held. Understandings of the nature of the grouping vary widely. Some see it as a bargaining coalition or even a proto-alliance designed to balance the power of the United States. Others see it as a caucus for developing common positions on the part of a group of large states that have been marginalized by the power of the West. Still others see it as the embryo for attempts to build an alternative set of global order institutions, most clearly illustrated in the creation of the New Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Question 1: What are the differences between the ways in which investors and IR analysts view the emerging world?
Question 2: Is the BRICS grouping an alliance?
Case Study 5.2 Brazil
In November 2009 the Economist magazine had an illustration on its cover of the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer taking off from the Corcovado mountain. The idea that Brazil had finally ‘taken off’ captured much of the imagery of rising powers.
Brazil developed very rapidly in the period from 1930 to 1980. But, like most of the developing world, it was very badly hit by the debt crisis of the 1980s. In the 1990s, under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso—one of the architects of the theory of dependency in International Relations—the focus was on financial stabilization at home, an important degree of economic liberalization, and a cautious foreign policy of re-establishing the country’s credibility through joining agreements such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But it was under Cardoso’s successor President Luis Inácio Lula, universally known as Lula, that the notion of Brazil as a rising power really gained ground. Lula’s speeches repeatedly stressed the idea that Brazil is not a small or insignificant country and that it has options in a world where, despite all the challenges, unipolarity is more apparent than real. Brazil should reassert its national autonomy, form coalitions with other developing states in order to reduce its external vulnerability and to increase its own bargaining power, and work with others to promote a more balanced and multipolar world order.
The claims about Lula’s Brazil raise many questions about the nature of power. Although Brazil possesses enormous natural resources, it does not have any significant degree of military or hard power. Its rise would therefore have to depend on its soft power, in particular its diplomatic agility or what has sometimes been called its ‘diplomatic GNP’, and the legitimacy deriving from its role as a spokesperson of the developing world and from the significant successes of the Lula government at home in reducing economic inequality and hunger.
Yet, in contrast to the image on the cover of the Economist, Brazil now faces deep structural economic problems, high levels of social violence, and stark political polarization. Lula is in jail; his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached; and in 2018 the country elected a far-right outsider, Jair Bolsonaro, as president. The political and party system was unable to cope with a sprawling corruption scandal; street protests brought millions onto the streets; and, while Brazil had been able to navigate the 2008 financial crisis, economic conditions became far more constraining. Many orthodox commentators blame domestic policy failure, especially the absence of serious reform during the boom years of the early 2000s. Others highlight the difficulties facing a traditional political system in incorporating the new social forces thrown up by the immense social and economic changes produced by rapid development. Others again point to the structural weaknesses facing a country like Brazil in trying to climb the global power hierarchy. Brazil has remained structurally vulnerable to shifts in the global economy. Success had come on the back of huge Chinese demand for Brazilian commodities and Brazil was hit hard by the slowdown in Chinese growth. Brazil did achieve greater voice in international institutions. But what appeared as the epitome of an activist emerging and regional power could quickly shift into the image of a country in deep crisis with few international options.
Question 1: Can soft power substitute for hard power?
Question 2: To what extent can coalitional policies among developing and emerging powers affect negotiations on global issues such as trade or climate change?
Those stressing the continued importance of rising powers have pointed to a series of on-going developments, including: the continuation of annual BRICS summits; the creation of the BRICS Development Bank (now the New Development Bank) at the fifth summit in Brazil in 2014; the demand by first Brazil and then China for a new norm of ‘responsibility while protecting’ in response to what was seen as the West’s abuse of the idea of the responsibility to protect in the case of Libya in 2011; and the implications for the emerging world of China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative to establish a new Silk Road, announced in 2013, and its creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2015 (see Case Study 20.1). For the past several years, ‘One Belt, One Road’—subsequently renamed the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI)—has been the focus of speculation both about China’s geopolitical ambitions and the broader emergence of a post-Western global order (Hameiri and Jones 2018).
If poverty, weakness, and political marginalization had previously defined the Third World, something important seemed to have changed. As the Economist wrote, ‘The salient feature of the Third World was that it wanted economic and political clout. It is getting both’ (The Economist 2010: 65). There was much greater divergence in the development levels and power of the countries of the Global South. Western governments insisted that emerging powers should no longer use underdevelopment, poverty, and a prior history of colonialism or historical marginality as ‘excuses’ to evade their ‘responsibilities’ as emerging major powers.
In the first decade of the century, countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, the ASEAN states, and Mexico experienced significant economic development.
Many believed that the continuation of this trend would lead in the longer term to an alteration in the economic balance in favour of the dynamic emerging markets.
With this greater economic share of the world market, emerging countries felt they deserved a greater political say in the international community as well. The financial crisis that began in 2007 seemed to underscore the shift in relative economic weight and made this call for a seat at the top negotiating tables stronger and more urgent.
Recent developments such as China’s implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative and the creation of the New Development Bank by the BRICS countries suggest the increasing global influence of rising powers.
Three questions about the power of rising powers
Debates about the diffusion of power and the emergence of new powers have become ubiquitous. But there are many more questions than clear answers.
First, if power is shifting, where exactly is it shifting to? One view is that power is simply shifting to major emerging states as part of the on-going dynamic of the rise and fall of great powers. This is the whole point of stories about ‘superpower China’, ‘India rising’, or ‘Brazil’s moment’, and about the rise of the BRICS or the BASICs. We can debate exactly who these new actors are, how they have behaved in the past, and what they might want in the future. But the issues have fundamentally to do with what ‘they’ will do with ‘their’ power—a limited number of important new actors acquiring substantial amounts of new power.
An alternative view, however, is that we are witnessing a much more general diffusion of power, which is often linked to technological changes, to changes in the global economy, and to new forms of social and political mobilization. Thus if rising China is one central part of contemporary global politics, the Arab Spring is another. Both illustrate how power may be diffusing, but in very different ways. The ‘general power diffusion’ view holds that the story is really about the ‘rise of the rest’ (Khanna 2009). This will include other fast-developing societies, such as the so-called MINTs—Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey. But it is also going to involve a multiplicity of new actors. According to this account, the international system is increasingly characterized by a diffusion of power, to emerging and regional powers but also to many private p. 91↵actors and transnational groups; by a diffusion of preferences, with many more voices demanding to be heard both globally and within states as a result of technology, globalization, and democratization; and by a diffusion of ideas and values, reopening the big questions of social, economic, and political organization that were supposedly ended with the conclusion of the cold war and the liberal ascendancy. The combination of technological innovation with social and political mobilization has been extremely powerful. In some cases it has underpinned mass social protests—as with the Arab Spring and the massive protests in Brazil in June 2013 that brought 1.5 million people onto the streets, facilitated by social media and new forms of political mobilization. In others the challenge to the capacity and legitimacy of existing states and regional orders has provided space for new forms of challenge, as with the so-called Islamic State.
If this view of a general diffusion of power is true, then effective power and influence will be harder for everyone to achieve, including both the currently strong and the new emerging powers. It will be harder for the emerging powers to control their own regions and to secure sustained support from weaker states. This suggests that we need to pay as much attention to the relations between emerging powers and weaker actors as we do to relations between emerging powers and the currently dominant. Another likely consequence is that it will be harder for the governments of large fast-developing states to maintain coherent and consistent foreign policies as more groups domestically are mobilized and empowered. The overall expectation would be of less effective power, both within states and internationally.
Second, what is power? Power is one of the most complex and contested ideas in the social sciences (see Ch. 12). It is an essentially contested concept in that it is subject to the kind of debate that is not rationally resolvable. There is no overarching theory of social power and no single analytical approach that can provide a magic key. Political scientists differentiate between different levels of power (Barnett and Duvall 2005). These include:
relational power and the capacity of a political unit to impose its will on another and to resist the attempts of others to impose their will;
institutional power—power here becomes the ability to control the agenda, to determine what gets decided, and to exclude those issues that threaten the interests of the most powerful;
different forms of structural power that have to do with the constitution of action and the material and discursive conditions for action.
Others distinguish between hard, coercive power on the one hand and soft power on the other—the power of attraction, of getting others to emulate your own society and its values. Almost all the arguments that reject the decline of the US and the West highlight the importance of combining these different levels: global military dominance, the economic resilience and attractiveness of US society, and its continued pivotal role across global governance institutions. They also emphasize its unrivalled structural power, including the capacity to generate and promote the most powerful conceptions of international and global order (Nye 2011, 2019).
When told that a country is an emerging power, the first question one needs to ask is: influential over what actors, in what period, with respect to what matters? Thus one might want to trace the growing role of South Africa, India, or Brazil in terms of their influence within a particular region and the way in which being recognized as a regional power may be an important part of their growing global influence. Or one might want to understand Brazil’s influence not in terms of its very limited military capabilities but rather in terms of its diplomatic skill and what one analyst called its ‘diplomatic GNP’ (Hurrell 2010).
A further lesson from the literature on social power is still more important. Discussion of power and influence cannot be separated from the analysis of motives and values. It may be true that all states, including emerging powers, seek power and security, but the real question is the one pressed by constructivists: what sorts of power do they seek and for what purposes? Thus what makes a rising state want to revise or challenge the system is unlikely to come solely from calculations of hard power and material interest. Historically, revisionism has been far more frequently the result of particular sets of foreign policy ideas within rising states that explain why the existing status quo is resented and seen as unacceptable, even intolerable—for example, that the existing order embodies historical humiliations (as in the case of China); or that it does not grant the social recognition to which the rising state feels entitled as a result of its power, its values, and its culture (as in the case of India or Brazil); or that the existing order works against legitimate claims to special status within ‘its’ region.p. 92↵
Third, power for what? This is the most important question. It is impossible to make any sense of the idea of a power shift unless one has in mind some idea of why shifting power is important and what it might be affecting (see Opposing Opinions 5.1). The BRICs mattered to Goldman Sachs because they were emerging markets. They were therefore important for profits and long-run investment decisions. But this says absolutely nothing about why these same countries might matter politically or geopolitically. This is why the analysis of rising powers cannot just involve lists of power resources and evaluations of how different kinds of power have shifted from one state or society to another. It has to connect with our theoretical understanding of world politics.
Opposing Opinions 5.1 Today’s rising powers are powerful enough to affect international order
Most change in world politics is incremental and gradual. There has been a long-term erosion of the Western dominance of international society. International society today is far more strongly global—not just in terms of economic globalization but also in terms of the capacity of a much wider range of states and societies to mobilize, to express their values and interests, and to contest the policies of the old powers of the Western, US-led order. The capacity of the United States to unilaterally reassert its hegemony and to use its coercive military and other power to achieve its goals is, and will remain, limited.
Rising powers’ diplomatic achievements have been considerable and have persisted despite a more adverse international environment. In contrast to the Third World movement in the 1970s, today’s emerging powers are far more centrally a part of the global economy and international system. South–South economic exchange is far more deeply rooted than was the case in the 1970s.
The power of today’s rising powers is not just their economic resources. It derives from the role they are playing in functional institutions created to deal with ever more pressing sets of challenges (such as the management of the global economy, climate change, and nuclear proliferation). And it derives from their equally necessary role in the creation of legitimate institutions and representative structures of global governance.
Realists are right that military power remains the most important source of power in international relations. There is no challenger to the United States, and its dominance of the new military technologies means that this supremacy is set to continue well into the future.
The United States continues to have unparalleled influence over international institutions and global governance. It can use its agenda-setting power to shape new norms and to control what gets decided. Faced with the deadlock of existing institutions or criticism of its policies, it has a unique capacity to create alternative options. For example, it has brought together groups of like-minded states to negotiate so-called mega-regional trade blocs across the Atlantic and Pacific. The marginal role of the emerging world in these negotiations is a clear sign of their weakness in the global order.
The BRICS—and similar groupings—face deep divisions that have prevented them from achieving cohesion and influence. For all the talk of new coalitional politics, China, India, and Russia are competitors for power and their economic preferences and interests are strongly divergent. They have very little in common.
Does military power help countries to achieve political goals?
To what extent does the success of economic development underpin diplomatic influence?
Can you assess the influence of rising powers without advancing a clear view of global order?
For advice on how to answer these questions, see the pointers
Realists believe that power is the common currency of international relations. But for many analysts there can be no generally accepted definition or understanding of power in international relations.
Power diffusion can be understood in two different ways. Sometimes it is seen as a shift in the balance or distribution of power between and among states. Sometimes it is viewed as a broader and more complex process by which different groups across the world become economically more important and politically more mobilized.
For both liberals and constructivists, power is always connected with actors’ values, purposes, and identities.
Power is very rarely understood in terms of the resources that a single actor possesses. It is a relational concept and usually best understood in a given social context.
For some, the history and theory of emerging powers is simple and straightforward. International relations has always been a story of the rise and fall of great powers. For realists, this forms the very heart of the subject and there is a well-established set of ideas for understanding what is going on and for guiding policy responses (see Ch. 8). The names of the countries may change but the logic does not. From this perspective one should most certainly care about power transitions.
Periods of shifting power are difficult and dangerous times. Rising states will naturally seek to challenge the status quo and to revise the dominant norms of the system in order to reflect their own interests and their own values. Established powers will be tempted to use their power to block the emergence of rising or revisionist states, including through the use of military force. Classical realists, neoclassical realists, neorealists, and power transition theorists differ as to whether conflict derives more from the actions of revisionist powers seeking to remake the rules of international order, or from the status quo powers anxious to preserve their power. However, in the realist camp there is wide consensus that if new powers are to ‘count’ globally it will be exclusively through their impact on the global balance of power, and that power transitions are dangerous and unsettling (Mearsheimer 2001).
As one would expect, this approach to emerging powers devotes great attention to the measurement of material power, the construction of hierarchies of power, and the implications of power transitions and power differentials for both institutionalized cooperation and for the outbreak of major war. It is the possession of material capabilities, and especially of coercive power, that determines whether a state counts as a great power. And for many in the realist tradition, it is the successful deployment of coercive power, above all in a conflict against another major power, that is the true entry card into the world of great power politics.
If the results of power transitions are manifest in crises, conflicts, and hegemonic wars, the underlying dynamic results from structural changes in the global economy. As Paul Kennedy expressed it in the most influential modern version of this old idea:
The argument of this book has been that there exists a dynamic for change, driven chiefly by economic and technological developments, which then impact upon social structures, political systems, military power, and the position of individual states and empires … this uneven pace of economic growth has had crucial long-term impacts upon the relative military power and strategical position of the members of the state system … economic prosperity does not always and immediately translate into military effectiveness, for that depends upon many other factors, from geography and national morale to generalship and tactical competence. Nevertheless, the fact remains that all of the major shifts in the world’s military-power balances have followed from alterations in the productive balances; and further, that the rising and falling of the various empires and states in the international system has been confirmed by the outcomes of the major Great Power wars, where victory has always gone to the side with the greatest material resources.(P. Kennedy 1988: 566–7)
The most powerful and persuasive part of the realist tradition moves beyond material power and stresses instead the importance of the search for status and the acquisition of prestige. For Robert Gilpin (1981), the existence of a ‘hierarchy of prestige’ is central to the ordering of international relations; it is precisely the disjuncture between existing perceptions of prestige and changing material capabilities that underpins the logic of hegemonic conflict and the dynamics of change in international relations. Prestige is the currency of international politics. International politics is characterized by a recurring distance that opens up between changes in material capabilities and the hierarchy of status, perceptions, and markers of prestige and esteem. This means that emerging powers are likely to pursue particular policies for reasons of prestige (India’s nuclear test in 1998 is often seen as an example), or because of feelings of stigma, resentment, and the sense of being denied the status to which they feel themselves worthy (Zarakol 2010). Equally, we need to examine the way in which emerging powers attempt to persuade their peers that they are worthy of greater power status through various forms of ‘recognition games’—for example, Brazil sending troops to Haiti partly to show that it was qualified for membership in the UN Security Council (Suzuki 2008).
Finally, if power is shifting and if conflict is to be avoided or limited, then it is crucial that new powers are accommodated. The ‘Haves’ and the ‘Have Nots’ need to seek new forms of accommodation and negotiation. p. 94↵This perspective is stressed by classical realists and especially by writers about international society, who see great powers and great power concerts as fundamental to the ordering of international society. From this perspective, the natural response to shifting power and to the greater heterogeneity and diversity of culture and values is to return to a pluralist and power-centred order—both to avoid tensions and potential conflict among the existing and rising powers, and to achieve the consensus needed to tackle new and complex challenges such as climate change, terrorism, and global economic governance. This can involve the reform of formal multilateral institutions—such as bringing new members into the UN Security Council. But it can also involve increasing emphasis on different sorts of informal groupings, clubs, concerts, and coalitions. Indeed, the proliferation of discussion of new groups such as the G2 (US–China), the G8 + 5, or the G20 can be viewed in terms of a revival of concert diplomacy.
Liberal institutionalists look at these same changes through different lenses (see Ch. 6). From their perspective there has been a combination of power shifts together with an increased role for countries that have much more varied interests, preferences, and values. This has intensified many of the collective action problems facing global governance, leading to the deadlock of negotiations on many international issues, such as trade within the WTO. The emerging world has achieved greater voice and some institutional reform (as with the G20 and the WTO), and it has certainly achieved a significant level of veto power. Emerging countries have sought some ways to build alternatives to the existing institutional order (for example through the creation of the New Development Bank), but these opportunities have thus far been limited. As the still dominant country, the United States responded to the challenge of emerging powers by creating new agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), although it later withdrew from this agreement because of domestic pressures. The result is the paralysis or fragmentation of existing institutions and the danger that significant parts of the emerging world will be left behind in the new processes of smaller-group and selective multilateralism.
Finally, critical political economists challenge the whole idea of thinking about international relations in terms of the rise and fall of great powers. From a neo-Marxist perspective, it is simply mistaken to focus on the emerging nation-states of the Global South (see Ch. 7). Instead, what we have been witnessing involves the on-going transformation of global capitalism from an old core centred on the advanced industrialized states into a far more global and far more thoroughly transnationalized capitalist order. A new deterritorialized global capitalism is emerging that is made up of flows, fluxes, networked connections, and transnational production networks, but marked by inequality, instability, and new patterns of stratification (W. Robinson 2007; Starrs 2014). On this account, trying to count and categorize the ‘power’ of emerging powers tells us very little. Rather the intellectual challenge is to understand the ‘transnational whole’ in which so-called emerging powers are embedded, and to trace the patterns of class conflict within and across societies, the transformations in the nature of states in the emerging world, and the structural patterns of instability and inequality produced by global capitalism.
For mainstream realist and neorealist writers, rising powers matter because their growing material power disrupts the balance of power, resulting in conflict. Hence many neorealists predict that conflict between the US and China is inevitable.
These materially based approaches to rising powers and global order do not tell enough about the potential pathways that might lead to the emergence of major power competition. What remains unexplained is precisely how an international system might move across a spectrum from the general diffusion of power, to a situation of multipolarity, to a system in which the foreign policies of the major states are driven by balance of power politics and logics.
Material understandings of power provide an insufficient basis for comprehending the crucial importance of status and recognition as factors in the foreign policy behaviour of emerging powers. Even if one accepts the idea of rising states as revisionist, it is difficult to understand the sources of their dissatisfaction purely within a world of material power and systemically given incentives.
For international society theorists, great powers constitute a particular social category. Being a great power is of course related to material power, but also to notions of legitimacy and authority. Membership in the club of great powers depends on recognition by others—by peers in the club, and also by smaller and weaker states willing to accept the legitimacy and authority of those at the top of the international hierarchy. The stability of power transitions will be crucially affected by the accommodation of rising powers.
Marxist and critical political economists stress the need to look at the underlying structural changes in global capitalism rather than the world of nation-states.
In the early years of the twenty-first century, the narrative of ‘emerging powers’ and ‘rising powers’ seemed to provide a clear and powerful picture of how international relations and global politics were changing. Yet the story has not unfolded in the way many analysts expected. Indeed, it is possible to argue that the focus on the BRICS reflected a moment in time that has now passed. On this account, the storyline is now about backlash at the core and, with the exception of China, rising powers have returned to their role as secondary or supporting actors in the drama of global politics.
There are four aspects to this argument.
In the first place, economic frailties and vulnerabilities in many of the countries in transformation have become more evident. Many emerging economies have witnessed slower growth or even outright recession, an intensification of capital flight, and an erosion of the possibilities for export-led growth on which their emergence was seen to depend. At the same time, social tensions and political instability have spread, often driven by corruption and by protests against corruption. The political crises in Brazil and South Africa, for example, are deep, systemic, and undoubtedly the most serious since their respective democratic transitions (P. Anderson 2019). Expectations that the emerging powers would overhaul and reform global governance institutions were overly optimistic. Once heralded as the engine of global growth, many analysts now highlight the hype surrounding the BRICS, which amounted to a ‘BRICS fallacy’ (Pant 2013). Rather than a single collective story about the BRICS’ linear trajectory to greater growth and power, we have instead observed multiple narratives of more measured and uneven growth across the emerging world, together with a much greater emphasis on both domestic and systemic instability and vulnerability (on India see Narlikar 2017; and on Brazil see P. Anderson 2019).
Second, the global system into which the BRICS were said to be emerging has changed dramatically as a result of the return of geopolitics, the structural instabilities and inequalities of global capitalism, and the impact of new and disruptive patterns of social and political mobilization. Especially from a realist perspective, economics does not exist in a vacuum and economic globalization will inevitably affect the balance of global power—feeding back into the structures and dynamics of a Westphalian state system rather than pointing towards its transcendence, as liberals had expected. The state as an economic actor has proved resilient in seeking to control economic flows and to police borders, and in seeking to exploit and develop state-based and mercantilist modes of managing economic problems on such issues as preventing foreign investment in sensitive sectors, the control of cyberspace, and access to natural resources. Most significant, the very dynamism and successes of liberal globalization are having a vital impact on the distribution of inter-state political power—above all towards the East and parts of the South.
In addition, other factors have pushed global order back in a broadly Westphalian direction. These include the renewed salience of security and geopolitical conflict in the South and East China Sea and in Ukraine and Crimea, the re-valorization of national security, and a renewed preoccupation with war-fighting and counter-insurgency. The continued power of nationalism is evident; it is no longer potentially containable politically or analytically in a box marked ‘ethnic conflict’ but manifest in the identity politics and foreign policy actions of all the major states in the system. The renewed importance of nuclear weapons is apparent; they are central to the structure of regional security complexes, and in the construction of great power hierarchies and the distribution of seats at the top tables. And the balance of power has quietly returned as both a motivation for state policy (as with US policies in Asia) and as an element in the foreign policy of all second-tier states—not hard balancing and the building up of hard power, but what is called ‘soft balancing’, either in the form of explicit attempts to delegitimize US hegemony or to argue for alternative conceptions of legitimacy (Paul 2018).
Finally, of course, the election of Donald Trump and the referendum win for Brexit have become a shorthand to capture the salience of backlash and nationalist politics: anti-immigrant sentiment; anti-elite and anti-expert feeling; dissatisfaction with traditional political parties; and a multifaceted reaction against globalization, ‘free trade’, and global governance (see Chs 4 and 23). The spread of backlash politics and populist nationalism and the specific rhetoric and policies of the Trump administration place the primary challenge to the existing global order at the centre of the system. As a result, many global governance institutions are p. 96↵under severe strain. Gridlock, stagnation, fragmentation, contestation, and, most recently, backlash have become the dominant frame within which to analyse global governance. And in many advanced economies, new cleavages have opened up between those in favour of continued global integration and global governance on the one hand, and those who reject the opening of borders, the transfer of political authority beyond the nation-state, and the promotion of proclaimed universal values on the other.
As a result, both the players and the plot look very different. The challenge to the Western-centred global order now seems to come from the heartland of that order, and many of the assumptions behind notions of emergence no longer hold. For example, much work on rise and emergence centred on institutions and on global governance. Large emerging countries mattered because of their obvious centrality to tackling global challenges such as climate change. Equally, if one is concerned with bolstering the legitimacy of global governance institutions, then greater inclusion of the largest and most dynamic countries of the Global South and greater regional representation are obvious political avenues to explore. For emerging countries, institutions are logical ‘paths to power’, both as domains for voice and as constraints on the powerful. But in a world in which the most powerful can either seek alternative institutions (as was already evident under Barack Obama, for example in relation to TPP) or where the United States simply walks away from institutions and multilateralism (as now under Trump), then such pathways to power will inevitably be undermined. For realists, power has been exposed for what it really is: hard power and especially military and coercive power. On this calculus of ‘who is up and who is down’, the generalized pretensions to greater influence made by, or on behalf of, the emerging world fall away. And in any case, when it comes to global economic governance, emerging countries have powerful interests in the stability of liberal economic institutions as bulwarks against protectionism in the West and as protectors of the very globalized economic environment that has helped to secure their rise. They are far more likely to be status quo powers than radical revisionists.
See Professor Andrew Hurrell discussing the changing role of the BRICS in this video
Contrary to expectations at the beginning of the twenty-first century, emerging powers, with the exception of China, have returned to their role as secondary actors in global affairs.
Many of the emerging powers have experienced economic frailties, social tensions, and political instability.
The global system has been characterized by the return of geopolitics, the structural instabilities and inequalities of global capitalism, and the impact of new and disruptive patterns of social and political mobilization.
The Westphalian state system has been more durable than many expected.
The biggest threats to global order come from backlash and nationalist politics, characterized by the Trump administration and Brexit, rather than from emerging powers.
Conclusion: rising states and the globalization of world politics
Yet it is important to note the powerful arguments as to why rising states continue to matter in global politics.
In the first place, the emerging and developing world remains central to understanding both the causes of current challenges to global order and the debates on what kind of order is likely to emerge. In the context of Trump or Brexit, it seems obvious that we should focus on the losers of globalization, on the ‘left behind’, and on those threatened both by globalization and trade and by movement and migration. In the emerging world the global distribution of winners and losers also matters but it plays out in different ways: globalization has led to significant ‘winners’. As Branko Milanovic (2016) has argued, ‘In short: the great winners have been the Asian poor and middle classes; the great losers, the lower middle classes of the rich world’. But what does this mean politically? It means that there are increasing numbers of people who are still poor and highly exposed to the vulnerabilities and vicissitudes of the market; at the same time, they are more mobilized politically, including in new, technologically enabled ways, and more effective in raising demands against governments—over participation, over corruption, and over the delivery of basic state services. Yet p. 97↵these demands are being raised against governments, regimes, and state structures that are often unable to meet or satisfy them, and for whom the siren calls of nationalism are an obvious political expedient. To understand the challenges to global order we need to place the contestation over global governance and the demands to ‘take back control’ in the developed world side by side with the emergence of populist nationalism in the emerging world.
Second, it may be the case that emerging powers share with nationalist and conservative forces in the developed world an emphasis on harder sovereignty, a resistance to talk of ‘universal values’ and humanitarian intervention, and a desire for an order that allows for greater pluralism. Hence they should not be seen as challengers. Yet this view downplays their historical distinctiveness. Even if China is placed in a category of its own, countries such as India, Brazil, and South Africa are large developing countries that nevertheless continue to be relatively poor in per capita terms. They are very different from the rising powers of the early twentieth century: the US, Germany, and Japan. Poverty and inequality are still major problems, and high growth rates remain a major political imperative. For all their economic success, these countries remain developing economies and developing societies, marked both by incomplete development and by incomplete integration into a global economy whose ground rules have been set historically by the industrialized North. In addition, dominant foreign policy ideas are often shaped by the legacy of historical perceptions of second-class treatment, of subalterneity, of marginalization, and of subordinate status in what has been widely viewed across the Global South as an unequal and exploitative global political and economic system. What distinguishes today’s emerging powers is their historic position outside, or on the margins of, some notion of the West. Historically, large parts of the world have sought to reject or revise a Western-dominated order that was built around their marginalization and around structured patterns of hierarchy and inequality; in which they suffered consistently at the hands of US and Western intervention; and in which they are now faced by powerful political forces in the West proclaiming new versions of the very old ideologies of racial, religious, and civilizational superiority.
This leads, finally, to the continued developing reality of a post-Western global order. Here it is important to escape from the shadow of the post-1990 world and to see the BRICS as only one element in the longer-term historical process by which an originally Western-dominated international society became global, and as one stage in a longer-term revolt against Western dominance that has by no means wholly ended (Bull and Watson 1985). The focus on the post-cold war period and on the apparent naturalness of a Western-dominated, self-described ‘liberal’ order has led to a foreshortening of history. There was never a liberal global order during the cold war. A central part of the problem of global order in the twentieth century involved the struggle of the Third World, or later the Global South, against what was widely understood as the on-going legacy of the Western-dominated international society (Bull and Watson 1985). The empowerment and social and political mobilization of the previously subordinate has been one of the great drivers of historic change, indeed perhaps the most important of all. As a consequence, the global order in which we live is now far more strongly global. The longer-term movement towards a post-Western world was interrupted, but not fundamentally dislodged, by the brief and fleeting period of US unipolarity. From this perspective, the period from 1990 to the early 2000s is the historical anomaly, and the BRICS do not stand as some unique and novel development but rather as one element in a longer-term story. History has not ended, and major ideological cleavages about the best ordering of politics, economics, and international relations have re-emerged. Among these questions the continued economic and developmental success of an illiberal and non-democratic China poses the greatest ideological challenge to ingrained Western liberal assumptions.
The most crucial dimension of ‘global’ does not, therefore, lie in the nature of the problems (climate change, nuclear proliferation, etc.), nor in notions of interdependence and globalization and the degree to which states, societies, and peoples are everywhere affected by global processes. It lies rather in the increased capacity of a far wider range of states and social actors to become active subjects and agents in the politics and practices of global politics and different forms of ordering, both around and beyond states. It is the diffusion of agency and of political consciousness that has been the most important feature of the globalization of international society and which explains why the emerging world continues to matter. This means that the historical self-understandings of a much wider and culturally diverse range of players need to be central to the theoretical and practical analysis of global politics.p. 98↵
Has the United States been a status quo or a revisionist power since the end of the cold war?
Should the United States, Japan, and Europe be ‘afraid’ of the BRICS?
What is left of the BRICS without China?
Does the BRICS grouping represent a cohesive economic unit and power bloc?
Does realism tell us all we really need to know about rising powers and power transitions?
Which is more important: to measure changes in the relative power of the nation-states in the emerging world or to understand the underlying processes of social and economic change taking place domestically?
Is India a great power?
Does Brazilian foreign policy indicate that a state can be a major power without significant military capabilities?
Do today’s emerging powers mean the end of the Third World?
Do you think that the permanent members in the UN Security Council will ever be willing to offer an additional seat to countries such as India, Brazil, or South Africa?
Test your knowledge and understanding further by trying this chapter’s Multiple Choice Questions
http://www.goldmansachs.com/our-thinking/archive/brics-dream.html Offers the latest reports and videos on the BRICS by Goldman Sachs.
http://www.cigionline.org Provides many research articles on the BRICS and the G20 from the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).
To find out more follow the web links