The Two Clubs: Major Powers, Regional Powers, and Status Considerations in International Politics

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The Two Clubs: Major Powers, Regional Powers, and Status Considerations in International Politics.

Thomas J. Volgy, Renato Corbetta, J. Patrick Rhamey, Ryan G. Baird and Keith A. Grant

In 2010, China surpassed Japan as the world's second largest economy.1 One consequence of this event relates to its significance for the two countries' competition for global and regional status. Over the last four decades, their trajectories have presented an interesting paradox. As an economic powerhouse, Japan has been considered a global power by the rest of the international community and by other major powers. Yet, within East Asia, Japan has not been attributed regional power status by its own neighbors (Cline et al. 2011). Conversely, for several decades East Asian states have considered China to be the most relevant regional power, while the international community has struggled to attribute her global major power status. China's slow but steady ascendance from regional to global power and Japan's failure to achieve regional recognition despite being considered a global power lead to several challenging questions about the relationship between regional and global major power status. This effort focuses on one such question: In an era of shifting major power hierarchy, which regional players are the most likely to be attributed global power status next?

We begin with the premise that status in international politics matters and states may belong to a variety of status clubs.2 Our purpose is to explore whether the current most powerful members of the regional powers club (India and Brazil) who also have aspirations to join the most prestigious club of major powers, will likely do so in the foreseeable future. Whether these states can make the transition to the major power club, and the manner in which such a change would occur, should have substantial consequences for the study and practice of international politics.

The Status of Research on (Major Power) Status

The salience of status attribution and status competition for explaining international political phenomena has waxed and waned among international relations (IR) scholars. Major powers have been the object of constant interest, yet scholarly attention to their status—separate from their capabilities—has followed a cyclical pattern. The salience of major power status was recognized as early as the Melian debates (Thucydides 1951:331), resuscitated systematically by Galtung’s (1964) classic work, and followed by a short explosion of scholarship (e.g., East 1972; Gilpin 1981; Midlarsky 1975; Wallace 1971; 1973). However, status considerations receded again as empirical models narrowed their foci on more measurable observations involved with the changing capabilities between major powers.

Yet, over the decades, major power status has stubbornly persisted in significance across empirical conflict models: major power status, in addition to military or economic capabilities, is a significant predictor of conflict initiation, alliance formation and membership, militarized interstate disputes (MIDs) and crisis intervention, and multilateralism.3 These findings are based typically on an empirical identification of major power status created by the Correlates of War (COW) project. COW creates a dummy variable identifying major powers based on experts’ perceptions about the attribution of major power status by other states (Singer 1988).

Following the end of the Cold War, there has been a reemergence of studies focusing on status attribution, status seeking, and status competition between major powers (Deng 2008; Larson and Shevchenko 2003, 2010; Mercer 1995; 1996; Nayar and Paul 2003; Volgy and Mayhall 1995; Wohlforth 2009; Wohlforth and Kang 2009). Some of these works have been driven by dissatisfaction with the limitations of the COW measure. Others have been motivated by the recognition that the field lacks an adequate theoretical framework for understanding status, especially in comparison with sociology or social psychology. Increasingly, social identity theory (SIT)—probing the social constructivist dimension of being a major power—has been utilized as the theoretical foundation for exploring status attribution as well as its consequences.4

Our work (Corbetta 2006; Corbetta et al. 2008; Grant et al. 2010; Volgy et al. 2011a) has relied on the integration of SIT and materialist explanations to create a conceptualization and measurement of status for major regional powers. We have delineated membership within two status clubs: the club of major powers (Volgy et al. 2011b) and the club of regional powers (Cline et al. 2011). Within these clubs we have differentiated conceptually and empirically between status consistent and status inconsistent powers and suggested likely consequences of such a distinction (Volgy et al. 2011). Our framework accounts for variation within the major power hierarchy since 1950 and variation in behavior within the exclusive club of major powers. It offers a methodology with which to identify empirical conditions about how such a club may expand or narrow in the future. Below, we discuss the salience of major power status, summarize our definition and operationalization of the concept of membership in the club of major powers, explore differences across status types in terms of their engagement with international politics, and propose a set of conditions that the strongest of regional powers need to meet to achieve higher (global) status. We apply these criteria to India and Brazil, and suggest some consequences for international politics.

Why Status?

Why focus on major powers’ status and status inconsistencies rather than simply on their material strength? As noted above, there is substantial empirical evidence that the status of major powers matters—in addition to their capabilities—for a variety of interstate behaviors. We summarize below the theoretical reasons we believe are behind these empirical relationships.5

Much of the extant literature has treated status attribution as a unidirectional process through which an unspecified number of countries recognize that a few states occupy a special position in the international system. We argue, instead, that the process of major power status attribution is bidirectional and three-pronged. It is bi-directional because major power status is not likely conferred on some states if they do not actively seek it. It is three-pronged because it depends on the convergence of three forms of attribution: (a) self-ascription; (2) attribution by the international community; and (3) attribution by existing major powers.

Self-ascription, or the seeking of status, is salient for states because it provides a form of soft power with which status recipients can complement their material capabilities. Acceptance by others as being a major power creates legitimacy for a wide variety of foreign policy pursuits, making it less costly to either intervene in conflicts or create mechanisms of cooperation. The reputation associated with major power status strengthens the credibility of both threats and commitments, increasing the likelihood that great powers will achieve their diverse goals in international politics.

Thus, status-based soft power provides major powers added influence and motivation to pursue policies and interests outside their immediate neighborhoods. Major power foreign policies constitute to a large extent a self-fulfilling prophecy. An expansive foreign policy is a pre-requisite for the attribution of status by the international community and by other major powers (Levy 1983). However, once status has been ascribed, the range and scope of commitments that come with it force major power states to expand further their role and prevent them from disengaging from international politics.6 When the community of states attributes major power status to a few of its members, such attribution comes with expectations that these states will exercise leadership on a variety of issues and conflicts central to international or regional politics. Recipients are expected to be involved in international affairs, and may even be asked for assistance. French involvement in simmering disputes among and within Francophone African countries, Kyrgyz requests for Russian assistance with its domestic conflicts, or recent involvements in Libya are examples of expectations and receptivity toward those considered as major powers assisting with regional order.7 Status-based receptivity to major power activity is similar to the Weberian notion of status as a soft power that confers privileges to certain states (Sylvan, Graff and Pugliese 1998:7-8; Nayar and Paul 2003).

However, while major powers are clearly the strongest actors in international politics, evidence also suggests that their structural strength has been diminishing. Relative strength is about the strength of one state versus another; structural strength is the strength a major power possesses with which to effectuate the course of global affairs (Strange 1989), or for a regional power to create order within its region. It is plausible that while the relative strength of a major power may increase substantially compared to other major powers, the structural strength of all major powers may be diminishing. Volgy and Bailin (2003), for example, show that structural strength has declined among all major powers, including those whose relative strength appears to have increased (U.S., China) after the Cold War.

Thus, status attribution may be even more salient for major powers when structural strength is decreasing. To the extent that states look at great powers for leadership and assistance in the face of crises and collective action problems, high status may reduce some of the material costs of efforts to structure order and/or institutional development necessary for global governance. Major powers may seek additional status if they perceive a mismatch between the status attributed to them and the status they “deserve” or create maintenance strategies if they are in jeopardy of losing the status they have had. For instance, we suspect that status issues motivated both Russia and China to develop new governance mechanisms for the conduct of relations in Central Asia after the Cold War. Seen in this context, the aspirations of India and Brazil to become major powers and to be attributed the corresponding status is not just of symbolic value: it is likely embedded in foreign policy strategies aimed at pursuing vital regional and global interests.

When major power status is valued domestically, foreign policy makers also gain from status attribution by receiving added support from domestic constituencies and political elites for being active, influential, and important major players in global politics. Conversely, the domestic value placed on such international status may require policy makers to seek to maintain or increase their state’s status or run the risk of being removed from office.8 In democratic systems, the acquisition and preservation of major power status may represent one "public good"—not unlike national security—that policy-makers provide for their large winning coalitions. In non-democratic systems, the policies associated with achieving or preserving major power status may produce privatized "externalities" that policy-makers dole out to their narrow coalition of supporters (see Bueno de Mesquita et al. 2003). Thus, status should matter across regime types, and as structural strength declines, status may matter even more.

Defining Major Powers and Their Status

The question of regional power ascent to the major power club requires first defining what is meant by a major power and its status. We begin with and slightly modify Levy’s (1983) classic definition. A state is a major power if it: a) has the opportunity to act as one through unusual capabilities; b) demonstrates its willingness to act as one by using those capabilities to pursue unusually broad and expansive foreign policies beyond its own region and does so relatively independent of other major powers; and c) is attributed an unusual amount of status by policy makers of other states within the international community. A state belongs to the major power club if it meets minimal empirical thresholds on all these dimensions. For theoretical reasons we focus on community attribution (rather than self-ascription or in-group attribution). Community attribution comes closest to the “soft power” considerations we consider salient in the context of declining structural strength and is, therefore, of most immediate interest to the prospects of major power aspirants.

The attribution of major power status by the community of states is based on a number of factors, including perceptual judgments about whether a state looks and acts as a major power. These judgments may be influenced by existing major powers who seek to act as gatekeepers for the club, excluding rivals or granting access to like-minded states.9 The extent to which being a major power corresponds to receiving major power status should vary with these perceptions and constraints. 10

Since some states receive status consistent with their capabilities and behavior while others do not, we differentiate between types of status: assuming a threshold above which a state would be considered a major power, status inconsistency occurs either when major power status attribution is not in synch with the capabilities and/or the foreign policy pursuits of the state in question, or, if states are inconsistent in awarding status to a major power. We suggest three types of status conditions for major powers: status consistent major powers (status attribution parallels major power capabilities and behavior), status underachievers (lacking the status proportional to their capabilities and behavior), and status overachievers (who are attributed more status than their capabilities and/or behavior would warrant).

Status Consistent Versus Status Inconsistent Powers

This framework suggests that the amount and type of status a major power has matters. Status consistent powers should have the most legitimacy and influence, engaging in a range of activities that are too costly for status inconsistent major powers and regional powers. Given their strength and receptivity to their actions, status consistent major powers are likely to pursue their objectives with higher expectation of success, run lower risks of failure externally, and risk fewer domestic political consequences for their foreign policy pursuits.

Wolforth (2009) proposes that when states experience status inconsistency they will seek to resolve it. This will result in status competition with other states “whose portfolios of capabilities are not only close but also mismatched (2009: 40).” We agree and suggest that status underachievers—given their muscular portfolios but unmatched status attribution—will seek to resolve uncertainty around their status by competing more aggressively than overachievers11 to create larger roles for themselves in global affairs. However, lacking the soft power of full status attribution, they will be less aggressive than status consistent major powers.

Status overachievers have full status attribution but lack either some opportunity and/or willingness to match the position accorded to them. Given this mismatch, we expect that overachievers would be less likely to risk exposing their weaknesses and would engage in international affairs less aggressively than underachievers.12 Their quest to keep status can be pursued with fewer risks by engaging in architectures of cooperation: creating, sustaining, and participating in networks of intergovernmental organizations consistent with social creativity and social mobility strategies of status enhancement (Larson and Shevchenko 2010).

Identifying Membership in the Major Power Club

Previously (Corbetta et al. 2008; Grant et al. 2009; Volgy et al. 2011b) we had identified measures of major power opportunity, willingness, and community-based status attribution. Unusual opportunity is measured by military size and military reach, as well as the size of a state’s economy and its economic reach beyond the region.13 We consider opportunity and willingness to be "unusual" if a state is situated at least one standard deviation above the mean in the distribution of the aforementioned measures. Willingness to act as a major power is measured by unusually high levels of both cooperative and conflictual activity globally.14 Willingness, however, cannot depend exclusively on a state's "volume" of foreign policy activity. The ability to chart an independent foreign policy path also matters.15 Independence in foreign policy orientation is measured by matching foreign policy portfolios16 to the lead major power (U.S.) and requiring low thresholds of conformance with U.S. leadership.17

Measuring community status attribution is problematic: it is largely based on the perceptions of policy makers, for which there is no direct, systematic measurement. Such perceptions, however, have behavioral consequences and result in actions that reflect symbolically when states view others as major powers. We measure major power status by an unusually high level (two standard deviations above the mean) of embassies sent to the major power, and a corresponding number of state visits to its capital.18

Applying these measures and the standard deviation criteria to the 1951-2005 period (in five-year aggregates), we identify cases above the thresholds where states are status consistent major powers, underachievers, or overachievers. Below the thresholds states are not considered to be members of the major power club. Status consistent major powers a) demonstrate opportunity to be one by consistently crossing the threshold on all four capability measures; b) demonstrate unusual willingness to act by crossing the one standard deviation threshold on both cooperation and conflict outside their regions, while maintaining relative foreign policy independence from other major powers; and c) are attributed full status by crossing the thresholds on both diplomatic contacts and state visits. Status underachievers meet criteria on both opportunity and willingness but lack consistency on status attribution. Status overachievers cross thresholds on both status measures while they fail to do so consistently across measures of opportunity and willingness.

Our delineation of major power status differs substantially from the COW designation. It is based on observable data and does not rely on experts’ assessments (Singer 1988); it allows us to differentiate between status consistent and status inconsistent powers, showing more variation in club membership across time than by COW; finally, we "fix" some of the most glaring anomalies in the COW designations.19 Our results are displayed in Appendix A.20

Consequences for Variation in Major Power Status

Differences in status attribution should be manifested both in major power conflict and cooperative behaviors. Status consistent major powers, equipped with capabilities, willingness to act, and substantial status, should be more likely to intervene in ongoing interstate conflicts than both status inconsistent major powers and other states. Status underachieving major powers should intervene frequently in conflicts, although less so than status consistent major powers because they lack full status attribution and have limited capabilities to engage successfully. Lacking sufficient material capabilities to match their status, overachieving major powers should be least willing to join ongoing interstate conflicts.

These predictions are tested using data on states joining ongoing militarized interstate disputes (MIDs) 21 for the 1950-2001 period (Table 1). Three logit models are used. 22 Model 1 consists of a standard, baseline model of control variables used in the empirical literature to analyze MIDs involvement:23 capabilities, contiguity, regime type, peace years, and GDP/capita. We substitute our measure of major power status for the COW designation in Model 1, while Models 2 and 3 differentiate between types of status attribution. The relationships hold as expected, even as the capabilities of states are separately estimated in the models. Status overachieving, status underachieving and status consistent major powers demonstrate significantly different patterns of involvement with ongoing militarized interstate disputes.

Table 1: Logit Models of Major Power Status and MID Joining, 1950—2001.
Variables Model 1 Model 2 Model 3
All Major Powers .83***


Status Consistent Major Powers 1.34*** 1.34***

(.332) (.333)

Status Inconsistent Major Powers .59**


Status Inconsistent Overachievers .61


Status Inconsistent Underachievers .58***



In (Capabilities) .33*** .32*** .32** (.048) (.048) (.048)

Constant 1.33*** 1.25*** 1.25***

(.369) (.372) (.375)

N 6,441 6,441 6,441

Chi 2 493.88*** 738.81*** 770.96***

Status overachieving major powers do not appear to be engaged with MIDs as significantly as are status consistent and underachieving major powers. This conforms to our expectation that overachievers behave more assertively in the realm of structured international cooperation, where states are less dependent on overwhelming material capabilities for the pursuit of their objectives. Overachievers are most likely to be engaged in intergovernmental organizations through creation, participation, and maintenance.

Since the end of the Cold War, status overachieving major powers have been at the forefront in creating inter-regional formal intergovernmental organizations (FIGOs) and articulating visions of global FIGOs, though lacking the substantial capabilities necessary for creation. Russia and China, two overachievers, have led in the creation of inter-regional structures in former Soviet space since the end of the Cold War (Volgy et al. 2009). Russian policy makers have also been most vocal in demanding new global security arrangements to replace Cold War structures (Larson and Shevchenko 2010).

Recent analysis of post-Cold War organizational creation24 suggests that, when inter-regional FIGO creation occurs after 1989, overachieving major powers lead the effort in partnership with at least one other overachieving major power or a regional power that is highly salient to the geopolitical space in question. The long term viability of these efforts, given limited resources with which to nurture and stabilize these organizations, is somewhat questionable: while FIGOs created by overachieving major powers tend to outlive those without any major power involvement, they are less likely to endure than those created by status consistent major powers.

Crossing Thresholds: When Will India and Brazil enter the Major Power Club?

One of the advantages of our definition and measurement of major power status is that it moves us beyond a binary view of the concept, allowing a more fine-grained assessment of the hierarchy of states. As Appendix A indicates, the club of major powers is constant neither in terms of membership nor in terms of its members’ status consistency. One or more states outside the club will likely seek membership in the future while some of the present powers may lose their membership. We assume that the states most likely to gain community-based major power status attribution are the strongest members of the regional power club and have demonstrated an explicit interest in becoming major powers. 25

We identified eleven different regions in post-Cold War international relations using cluster analysis based on capabilities, primary interactions between states, and cultural/linguistic similarity. Then we estimated, based on a regional version of our approach to identifying major powers, whether or not there are any regional powers in those regions. Finally, we ranked regional powers based on their capabilities (Cline et al. 2011).

As Appendix B indicates, apart from the global powers that are also regional powers, embedded in eleven regions are five regional powers: Australia in Oceania, Brazil in South America, India in South Asia, Nigeria in East Africa, and the Republic of South Africa in Southern Africa. The five members of the regional powers club are all status consistent regional powers. Two of the regional club members dwarf the others with their economic capabilities and military potential: Brazil and India.26 We focus on these states as most likely to seek and receive major power club status.

We present two sets of data to estimate the likelihood of Brazil and India’s prospects for gaining entry into the major power club. First we assess their current status, capabilities, and foreign policy behavior with those states that have most recently emerged27 as global major powers after 1989: China, with growing capabilities, but as an overachieving major power; Japan with shifting status attribution between status consistency and inconsistency; and Germany, which emerges briefly into the major power club but only for one of the three post-Cold War periods (Appendix A).

Second, we present a number of alternative scenarios with which to make judgments about when/if, and under what conditions Brazil and India are likely to enter the club. The scenarios attempt to project when these states are likely to cross the major power thresholds on opportunity, willingness, and status attribution, given various assumptions regarding a) their historical progress over the last decade; b) the degree of political extraction ability of their governments; and c) what major powers may or may not do to counter such movements by these aspirants.

Foreign policy independence, especially from the U.S., is one of the conditions states must meet to enter the major power club. Both Brazil and India meet this requirement: using the IDEA events data base for 1990 through 2007, we compare the foreign policy profiles of the two states to the U.S. by generating conflict and cooperation activity—scaled for intensity using Goldstein’s (1991) scale—for all three states. The scale ranges from 1 (perfect similarity) to -1 (complete dissimilarity). Major powers typically range between +.6 and -.8. Both Brazil and India range around 0, satisfying the independence criterion (Volgy et al 2010).

Where are they now?

We first compare trends in capabilities, foreign policy activity, and status attribution for Brazil and India since the end of the Cold War, with the three states that emerged into the major power club after 1989, while illustrating the standard deviation thresholds that aspiring powers need to cross to attain major power club membership. Comparisons on military spending and reach are presented in Figures 1a and 1b. While both Brazil and India have increased their military spending in the last decade, they are substantially below the major power threshold on this measure. The measure of military reach shows an even larger gap between these aspirants and the threshold for major power membership. By comparison, China, over the last two decades doubles her efforts on both measures.

Figure 2 indicates capabilities regarding economic reach, measured by trade as a function of global trade. We do not show statistics on GDP size since both Brazil and India have been above the one standard deviation threshold on GDP size for over two decades. Despite the large and growing size of their economies, neither Brazil nor India appear to be moving towards the economic reach threshold crossed by club members.

Figures 3A and 3B present trends in the volume and intensity of global activity. While both Brazil and India are very active in their respective regions and meta-regions, neither demonstrates levels of cooperative and/or conflictual engagement outside of their regions above the thresholds.28

Figures 4A and 4B present trends for status attribution measures. The pattern for diplomatic contacts received (Figure 4B) shows a substantial movement on the part of India toward the volume of contacts received by Japan and Germany. India also receives substantially more state visits after 2000,

although it still fails to reach the designated threshold. Given the combination of the two status measures, it appears that India is progressing toward high status. Brazil’s numbers lag behind and

only diplomatic contacts are progressing toward the threshold, while the state visits measure does not show any substantial movement.

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