What does it mean to be an emerging power?


This might be a tricky question to ask nowadays, but there are theories that help us understand better the role of emerging powers in the world today. Although are there only relatively simplistic definitions, it is understood that an emerging power is a country whose conquest of space in the international arena occurs gradually, through economic and political means.

Such definition is commonly used for the following countries: The BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), and Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Australia, South Korea, Indonesia, Mexico, and Turkey.

The work of an emerging power in the world today is often collaborative: it is of a country that adds new insight to the anachronistic decisions of the established powers. An example is the emerging powers’ common view on reform of multilateral bodies such as the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions (World Bank and IMF), which reflect a retrograde international order. In a historical and multilateral context, one can illustrate the performance of today’s emerging powers in former consultations, such as the Non-Aligned Movement (India and South Africa), and the G-77 (Brazil, India, China and South Africa), the latter under the aegis of UNCTAD, in which these countries decided to form vindicatory coalitions against decisions of the developed countries, demonstrating the will to be heard on the international stage. Indeed, multilateralism as a way to state promotion, as seen in the examples above, is an attribute used by emerging powers in the past (as well as by the poor countries) to climb the ladder of the international stage.

Seeking a theoretical definition, one can point Robert Keohane’s work, which states that emerging powers are “states whose leaders recognize that they can not act alone effectively, but that they may be able to have a systemic impact in a small group or through an international institution.” Therefore, what does it mean to be an emerging power? In other words, with the help of Keohane, it means that countries denominated emerging – those who, according to Xiaoyu Pu “have recognized legitimacy to govern the international hierarchy” – may have some influence (in regional terms, for instance) and rely on organized institutions and predetermined rules (UN, WTO etc.) to achieve a greater position in relation to the superpowers. Indeed, the definition of emerging power helps us to understand that these countries alone are not as effective as they would like, perhaps they are able to produce results only in a regional context, but do need solid structures to influence in higher scale, which is offered by multilateral institutions.

Even if there is a specific category for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, be it emerging powers, there are also inherent differences in each country, affecting the perception that other countries in the international system have about them. To demonstrate these differences, Robert Keohane categorized four ways to understand how countries are perceived in relation to the international system: i. system-defining States, which are “strong” countries that define the rules of the system; ii. system-influencing States, which are countries that can change the rules already defined by the international system; iii. system-affecting States, which are countries that although can not change the system’s rules, they have their voices somehow heard; and iv. system-ineffectual States, which are submissive countries to the international community. From the above categorization, one can clearly see that there is a side for Brazil, Russia, India and to a lesser extent, South Africa, that is, they are countries that can not change the rules already established, but they somehow affect the world (system-affecting States) in their regional scope. On the other hand, China is on the list of countries that influence and can change the pre-defined rules of the international system (system-influencing States), but it is still considered by others, and maybe by itself as well, as an emerging power.

Another way of emerging powers to vindicate the superpowers is through soft balancing (or buffering), which is exemplified by little institutionalized consultations, such as the BRICS, IBSA, BASIC and the G-20, in which these countries can talk more autonomously in relation to developed countries. It is through dialogues in these platforms that they try to reach consensus on certain topics, in order to transform the ideas of emerging powers into reality. Successful cases of dialogue are the various cooperation agreements among the countries, in order to reduce their differences and, consequently, conquer their respective spaces in the international stage.

So, being an emerging power is to use up the mechanisms created by the great powers as a means of self-promotion and insertion in the international arena, as having a prominent position is a fundamental feature of these countries’ national interests. Also, cooperating with other emerging countries through political and economic consultations, even knowing that there are asymmetries among them, it is a way to promote States’ soft balancing.


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