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Who Are You Calling a Great Power?

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Editor’s Note: The United States is in the throes of a new era of great power competition, but few analysts or policymakers pause to consider which countries count as great powers and, perhaps more importantly, why. Dana Stuster, the Foreign Policy Essay’s deputy editor, deconstructs the term, explaining the different dimensions of great power status and why using multiple measures is the best way for leaders to craft successful policies. 

Daniel Byman


It is a truth universally acknowledged, at least in the U.S. policy community, that international politics has entered a new era of “great power competition.” It shows in the number of instances of the phrase in books, which nearly doubled between 2012 and 2019, according to Google Books. The phrase had a particular moment when the Trump administration released its inaugural National Security Strategy in 2017, which declared that “after being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition has returned.” The consensus has persisted and deepened, declared in think tank reports from across the political spectrum. Though the Biden administration tried to switch to the terminology of “strategic competition” and “major powers,” the sentiment is the same.

From the start, the phrase has been fuzzy, and it has rarely been clear just who counts as a “great power.” The United States is a given. China is always a looming peer rival. Russia crops up from time to time, though in inconsistent ways. For instance, that 2017 National Security Strategy shifts from asserting that Russia “seeks to restore its great power status” to just a couple pages later actualizing that goal for Moscow by identifying it as a great power rival alongside China. Though great power competition has conventionally referred to rivalries between states, the European Union is also occasionally floated as an emerging pole in this new multipolar world.

This is an oddly disparate collection of actors in want of a definition. If the term “great power” has meaning, it is because these actors are somehow different from other, less powerful states. They perceive their interests differently and behave differently than, say, a “regional power,” a “middle power,” or any of those states that are politely but condescendingly called “small powers.” But trying to define great power status is difficult in ways that are evident from the mismatched assortment of candidates that emerge in the recent literature. Power varies across issues and domains in ways that are glossed over when international politics is reduced to great power competition. It can be a convenient shorthand, but policymakers should not lose track of the nuances: Who counts as a great power may vary from issue to issue.


Too Many Definitions


While the policy community might have put too little thought into defining great power status, the academic community has arguably done too much. The literature on great power competition is vast and impossible to survey in its entirety, and it seems that each author has their own addendum to the definition of great power status. But there are certain core criteria.

At a minimum, there’s a security requirement: A great power is any country that could mount a serious defense against any other country in the world—even if it might not defeat the other country, it could force a war of attrition. In a world of nuclear-armed countries, nuclear weapons are a necessary but insufficient condition for great power status (so North Korea doesn’t qualify). Some scholars, like the late Nuno Monteiro, have argued that this is still too encompassing a definition and argued for an “offensive” criterion; in addition to being able to defend capably against any rival, a great power must also be able to “engage unaided in sustained politico-military operations in at least one other relevant region of the globe beyond its own on a level similar to the most powerful state in the system.” Great powers, under this definition, possess international reach and the capacity for unilateral action. This winnows the field considerably—Monteiro uses it to make the case that the United States is the sole great power in a unipolar world, though others may qualify depending on the scale of the intervention. After all, France recently concluded a limited but long-term intervention in Mali, Russian proxies have done similar work throughout Africa, and China’s expanding military footprint has increased its ability to project force.

Other definitions look beyond just military capacity. As Kenneth Waltz, author of “Theory of International Politics” and godfather of neorealist international relations theory, stipulated, great powers must be able to not just ensure their security but also support that defense capacity over time. That requires territory that can be defended, an economy that can support the military and other essential government expenses, a population to staff the private sector and provide the national defense, and the political stability and competence for it all to function.

Other foundational authors introduce other criteria. Great power status, Jack Levy wrote, is not just about military capacity. It’s about how a country sees its place in the world. Great powers, in his definition, “define their national interests to include systemic interests and are therefore concerned with order maintenance in the international system.” Great power status, he argues, is also contingent on how a state is perceived by its peers and whether it is treated as “relative equals with respect to general attention, respect, protocol, negotiations, alliance agreements and so forth.” For example, high-status countries like the United Kingdom joining the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015 affirms the perception of China as a great power, and Russia’s ouster from the Group of Eight in 2014 was a rebuke of Moscow’s great power aspirations. A great power must have the capacity for international action but must also consider itself an influential state with global interests and have that role and influence reflected back to it by its peers.


Measuring Power


All of these definitions still leave a lot of wiggle room for know-it-when-I-see-it-ism. The fundamental criterion of a capable defense is a hypothetical that hasn’t been observed since the development of nuclear weapons and would be disastrous if ever put to the test; in the absence of clear examples, policymakers and academics must rely on estimates of military capability that can sometimes prove shockingly inaccurate. And few of these definitions set clear thresholds. How much independent action abroad is necessary to qualify? How large must an economy be to underpin great power status? How global must a state’s national interests be, and what recognition counts from its peers?

When trying to quantify great power status, academics often rely on parsimonious proxy metrics that treat these essential conditions lightly. Studies focused on international security often use the Composite Index of National Capabilities (CINC), which assesses state capacity on the basis of six material components: the size of a country’s military, its military spending, its steel and iron consumption, its energy consumption, its total population, and its urban population. Others use gross domestic product (GDP) or GDP per capita as a rough indicator for state power. And while it’s true that economic size is often correlated with military size, research by Michael Beckley has suggested that GDP has historically been a poor predictor of actual military capacity (he argues that this is because GDP discounts the share of that economic product that must support the state’s citizenry, and that a more accurate metric would increase the salience of the size of a state’s population).

GDP is a particularly telling example for the ways that national-level statistics elide the nuances of the concepts usually cited in definitions of great power status. In 2014, the size of China’s GDP surpassed that of the United States when adjusted for purchasing power; breathless news coverage claiming a dramatic shift in the global balance of power has followed in waves every few years since. But there are many ways to assess GDP and varying predictions about the actual trendline. Just in the past year, estimates of when China would surpass the United States in nonadjusted GDP slipped from 2030, to 2035, to 2060 or maybe never. Clearly, a metric that indicates a 31 percent advantage for the United States when calculated one way and a 19 percent advantage for China when calculated another has a whopping margin of error for extrapolating what it indicates about overall state power. Not only are different versions of GDP inconsistent about rank order, the disparity between the United States and China is vast—and even greater for other actors sometimes included in discussions of great power competition. The entirety of the European Union has a combined economy comparable to that of China, but the largest economy in the eurozone, Germany, has an economy less than one-fifth the size of the United States’. Russia is an even greater outlier: It ranks 11th in the world in terms of GDP, with an economy less than one-tenth the size of the United States’. If that’s the threshold for great power status, the bar has been set very low.

Parsimonious national-level indicators lack important nuances, prompting the development of new metrics. A careful examination of measures of state power published by RAND in 2000 noted that, while CINC, GDP, and similar efforts to assess state power produce similar rank ordering of countries, they aren’t tailored to the factors that matter most in the postindustrial age—for instance, they say little about which countries excel in innovative research or best protect intellectual property, which are key determinants of the strength of a modern national economy. Other research has stressed the relativity of power and developed indicators, like the Foreign Bilateral Influence Capacity (FBIC) index, to assess power in specific relationships between pairs of states.


Great Powers and Relative Power


National-level statistics leave out the ways that power creates self-reinforcing institutions that grant powerful countries distinct advantages. The historical centrality of the United States and Western Europe to the international financial system has meant that many of the institutions that underpin international trade are under these countries’ jurisdiction. This has meant that the United States and its partners are better placed to observe international financial flows than other countries, and they can weaponize this position to isolate actors through imposing sanctions and cutting them off from the international financial network. This disproportionate power afforded the United States has irritated China and Russia, among other countries, but efforts to establish alternative networks to circumvent U.S. centrality have faltered. China’s counter to the SWIFT international banking system has limited reach, and efforts to evade sanctions through cryptocurrencies still face detection and legal penalties from the U.S. government. Institutions are sticky, slow to change, and almost never replaced in their entirety—but that institutional power baked into the international system is not reflected in any of the standard metrics of power.

Some recent research has deconstructed state power, looking at it by issue area. Russia and Saudi Arabia, for example, exert influence in oil markets disproportionate to their share of other indicators of state power, like their militaries and economies. They are great powers in terms of oil production. But even this comes with caveats. As Emily Meierding has noted, the exercise of that power in the domain of oil production intersects with other networks of power. The sale of oil requires engaging with international financial networks, in which the United States is the dominant power, and the energy transportation network, in which power is distributed across the countries transited by oil pipelines, China’s large tanker fleet, and the United States, which has an unparalleled capacity to monitor and control access to international sea lines of communication.

This approach to thinking about state power suggests other ways it can be broken down in other domains. Taiwan could be described as a semiconductor great power, China as a manufacturing great power, and these comparative advantages are enmeshed in networks of transit and exchange that have still other distributions of power. France, according to the FBIC index, is something of a diplomatic great power, punching further above its weight in diplomatic influence than its military and economy would suggest. This characterization of the international distribution of power restores nuance, but at the expense of simplicity. The great power competition it describes is one of context-specific powers that are great maybe only in one of a proliferating number of domains.


Great Power Competition in the 21st Century


The challenge for policymakers is to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and retain the ability to function. Great power competition is a characteristic of the international system as a whole, describing how countries perceive and interact with one another; it is also a characteristic of specific issue areas, and the cast of characters may look very different on an issue-by-issue basis than in the international system as a whole. Being able to shift between these two modes, though confusing, is an important check against sloppy thinking about which countries count as great powers.

The United States is a great power. It has the largest economy in the world in raw size and over the past 80 years has entrenched its central position in the international economic system. Its military is more capable and more distributed than any other in the world and is enmeshed as an essential part of many other countries’ national defense. Indeed, rather than the current consensus about the return of great power competition, there should be more debate about whether China is in the same category as the United States as a global power.

But the distribution of power is in flux. China’s power has certainly grown in the past two decades, and it is exerting greater regional influence—it may be a great power on some issues, and a regional power on others. Europe might be a great power on the issues on which it can act collectively, and a collection of middle and small powers on the issues on which it cannot. Including Russia as a great power in the international system, though, requires just too much conceptual stretching for my mind. As much as it may still rankle Vladimir Putin, President Obama was right to describe Russia as a “regional power” and a second-order actor in the global great power competition.

This is not a simple definition of what counts as a great power. There’s no litmus test or threshold—some minimum share of GDP or CINC score, though these can be helpful guides and are still part of the story. And that’s the point. Politics is relative, so the way policymakers think about the role of great powers in international politics should be, too.