Differing significance of states in global affairs and how – and why – state power

is classified

Different factors enable states to influence the behaviour of other states and gain power. A state can derive power through:

Capabilities: Resources that it can draw on, such as population, wealth, military capability or geography. A poor country with a small population can never become a military power and will never be able to exercise hard power in any meaningful sense.

Relationships: What is known as relational power. Making the right strategic alliances or joining certain international institutions can confer power on a state far beyond the extent of its resources.

Structures: A state’s establishment or control of knowledge, financial, security and production networks. The USA has significant structural power because it is the architect and leading power in a number of political and economic international organisations.

One way of ranking of states within a hierarchy, has been to identify the capacities that states or other actors use to exert influence.

Military strength. For many commentators, especially in the realist school, power in international politics boils down to military capacity. Realists, for example, have traditionally favoured a ‘basic force’ model of power, on the grounds that military capacity both enables a country to protect its territory and people from external aggression and to pursue its interests abroad through conquest and expansion. Key factors are therefore the size of the armed forces, their effectiveness in terms of morale, training, discipline and leadership, and, crucially, their access to the most advanced weaponry and equipment.

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Economic development: States’ ‘weight’ in international affairs is closely linked to their wealth and economic resources. This applies, in part, because economic development underpins military capacity, as wealth enables states to develop large armies, acquire modern weapons and wage costly or sustained wars. Modern technology and an advanced industrial base also gives states political leverage in relation to trading partners, especially if the national currency is so strong and stable that it is widely used as a means of international exchange.

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Population. A large population benefits a state both economically and materially, giving it a sizeable workforce and the potential to develop an extensive army. Level of literacy, education and skills may be just as important, however. Economic development, and particularly industrialization, require mass literacy and at least basic levels of work-related skills. As production, distribution and exchange are increasingly dependent on modern technology, higher-level scientific and ICT skills have become a requirement for economic success.

Geography. The primary significance of geographical variables, such as land area, location, climate, topography and natural resources, has traditionally been stressed by geopolitics. Beneficial geographical features include access to the sea (for trading and military purposes); a temperate climate away from earthquake zones and areas where violent tropical storms are frequent; navigable rivers for transport, trade and energy production (hydroelectric power); arable land for farming; and access to mineral and energy resources (coal, oil and gas).

Prior to the First World War there were several great powers, including Great Britain, France and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The emergence of new powers during the interwar period, such as Fascist Italy, Japan, Nazi Germany, the Communist Soviet Union and the USA, meant that global power was now shared more equally. But after the Second World War, power shifted again to the war’s successors, the dominant Allied powers (China, Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the USA). This is reflected in the many international institutions that were formed by and contained representatives of these powers, for example the UN Security Council (UNSC). The balance shifted again in the Cold War era, during which time there were two clear superpowers: the Soviet Union and the USA, who were engaging in a superpower rivalry based around ideology. These two superpowers were unrivalled by any other state, and both had their own clear ideological and regional spheres, with the USA dominating the Western world with capitalism and the Soviet Union dominating the Eastern world with communism. Virtually every other world state was aligned to either the USA or the Soviet Union and their respective ideologies during this period. Soviet Union in 1991, the USA, as the sole remaining superpower, possessed

When communism collapsed in eastern Europe, leading to the fall of the global hegemonic status. No other power came close to matching its influence, and leading US political commentator Charles Krauthammer coined the phrase America’s unipolar moment’. However, especially since the bloody aftermath of the Iraq War and the global financial crisis, emerging powers, such as China and Russia, have begun to challenge US hegemony. This has led to some political philosophers, like John Mearsheimer, predicting that we are once again entering a period of power transition, which is likely to lead to a more multipolar balance of power.