The interplay of great, mid-size and small powers plays out against a backdrop of growing geopolitical competition and regional polarisation. Countries around the world increasingly engage one another along partly overlapping paths of cooperation, competition and conflict, and often outside established multilateral regimes and institutions, writes Riccardo Alcaro, Research Coordinator and Head of Global Actors at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome.
In international politics, the key to power is the ability to translate economic, military and technological resources, as well as cultural ties and societal connections, into actual influence beyond national borders. Immaterial factors, such as the competence of policymakers, are central to the effort. This explains why states exhibiting huge resource differentials can nonetheless be grouped together as great powers and countries economically, demographically or militarily small may be more influential than larger and wealthier ones.
In these terms, the resolve and ability of states to pursue a foreign policy course in full or partial autonomy from other ones captures interstate dynamics with more precision than would be the case if one just applied a criterion based on the size of material resources. Distinguishing countries as independent, partly autonomous and dependent has surely its shortcomings, not least because all interstate relations involve a degree of interdependence. However, it helps us place states along an independence-dependence continuum and better grasp the interplay of powers in a world of emerging, but not emerged yet, multipolarity.
The most important factor shaping interstate relations today is the relative decline of American power. The trend is commonly attributed to the rise of other states – first and foremost China. Yet it has an arguably more important domestic origin, as the US foreign policy establishment struggles to give meaning, purpose and direction to America’s global pre-eminence. No consensus exists on whether the United States should guarantee the multilateral order, lead coalitions of like-minded states against non-aligned countries, or seek to extract better terms from bilateral interactions driven by narrowly defined national interests.
Such tribulations, reflected in at times wild foreign policy oscillations, have dented America’s standing and capacity to organise international consensus. Nevertheless, its military and economic resources remain intact. In fact, US domination of financial markets has increased its external influence, as the success of ‘secondary’ sanctions – that is, sanctions with extra-territorial effect – in compelling other countries to follow US desiderata eloquently attests. Declining leadership, in other words, is not the same thing as declining strength, which is why the United States has shown little willingness to re-negotiate its position in areas where its influence is widely felt. This said, the growing gap between leadership and strength increasingly leads other countries – eagerly or reluctantly – to re-position themselves vis-à-vis US power.
First come the states that see US power as menacing their interests.
The most important of these are China and Russia. Powered by an ultra-dynamic economy and big strides in technology, China is the only country with a real shot at threatening America’s superiority. Through direct investments in physical and digital infrastructures along land and maritime trade routes, China’s international influence has undoubtedly grown. Thus far, however, Beijing has not truly presented itself as a replacement of US power, but as an alternative model of development that can co-exist with US power within global governance structures.