Great Power Politics Return to International Relations

Sean Para, Columnist

Last year was a watershed year in international relations. We are seeing its dramatic effects this year and will continue to do so in many ways, as 2014 marked a return to previous Great Powers’ political relationships.

First of all, the Ukraine Crisis and ensuing civil war in Donbass laid bare the divisions between Russia and the West and reintroduced the specter of war to Europe. China has become a central player in international politics and has been actively trying to replace the United States as the country with the greatest influence in East Asia, a role the U.S. has fulfilled since 1945. A few years ago many still believed that the end of the Cold War had brought an end to this sort of geopolitical competition, but in fact this was a serious misjudgment.

What our society has seen in the past quarter century falls well within an established pattern of the rise and fall of Great Powers. Great Powers emerge onto the world stage as major political players only after a substantial period of economic development, during which a country’s wealth far exceeds its influence abroad.

This pattern can be seen again in our own age with the rise of China, which has assumed its new position as a burgeoning superpower only after decades of rapid economic growth. The U.S. is another example, as it experienced hasty economic growth and became recognized as a Great Power after defeating Spain in 1898. The U.S. only achieved a place of global preeminence after two apocalyptic World Wars, long after it had been the world’s largest economy. Paul Kennedy first pointed out the pattern of a power’s economic then political rise in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and the theory rings true today.

The United States is still by far the most powerful nation in the world, and leads a coalition of liberal democracies that, between NATO and America’s Pacific allies, represents perhaps the wealthiest and most militarily able alliance in world history. However, after a decade of economic stagnation and imperial fatigue, many of its alliances have frayed. China is now the second largest economy in the world and exerts an enormous amount of influence in its region and increasingly around the globe.

For instance, China has recently launched an aggressive campaign of land reclamation in the South China Sea, creating military bases to buttress its claims to sovereignty in the area. It has also taken aggressive actions against Japan and recently created an international rival to the IMF, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Russia, after almost collapsing in the 1990s, had a period of rapid development during Putin’s first decade in office. Russia’s future is not as certain as China’s, largely due to the economy’s over-dependence on exporting fossil fuels and a lack of a strong manufacturing or consumer economy.

Nonetheless, Russia exerts an enormous amount of influence in the post-Soviet world and Eastern Europe, most clearly seen in its massive intervention in Ukraine, which has weakened Ukraine to such a degree that it will not be able to affiliate itself with NATO any time soon. Like China, Russia clearly desires to push the United States out of its backyard and assert itself as a major power.

Therefore, what we are seeing now is a balancing act: Rising powers, foremost China and Russia, are asserting themselves more forcefully on the geopolitical stage after a period of economic growth since 1991. The incipient alliance between Russia and China therefore falls into the traditional pattern of Great Power fluctuations and should have come as a surprise to no one.