In today’s world, great powers are the most influential members of the international system. The impression of great power plays a significant role in the theory of international politics as any changes in the great powers’ strategies or the emergence of new great powers normally alter the status quo. A numeral of scholars has attempted to come up with a definition of great power and throughout the years, the concept of great power has been employed by a number of theoretical schools of international relations including liberal internationalism, realism, and constructivism. For instance, Arnold Toynbee defines great power as ‘a political force exerting an effect corresponding with the widest range of the society in which it operates’ and Martin Wight refers to great powers as those ‘powers with general interests, meaning those whose interests are worldwide’. Professor Hedley Bull from Oxford University articulates that great powers contribute to the international system ‘by maintaining their relations with one another and by using their preponderance in such a way as to impart a degree of central direction to the affairs of international society as a whole.
According to Kenneth Waltz, great powers possess extraordinary influence in the international system, which enables them to assume tasks that other states cannot execute. In addition, other scholars debated that within the international system there is an irregularity of power and when power irregularities are high; the frequency of an intervention is likely to increase. Realist Krasner further purports that great powers usually intervene in the internal affairs of weaker states by using various norms, values, and principles to justify and legitimize their actions. Nonetheless, the same great powers sometimes violate those values and principles, while at the same time they stay free from external interference. This is what he refers to as organized insincerity.
In order to be a great power in the international system, a nation has to possess not only economic prosperity and military might, but also strong soft power and strong identity as a leader. In other words, economic strength implies a soaring level of development of the country. On the other hand, the military strength of a country is usually measured by its military expenditure, defense spending, the number of military personnel and aircraft carriers, and the size of the navy, among other factors. For soft power, strong cultural ties with other countries, moral strength, and technological level are considered features of great importance. Identity as a leader refers to the ability to bargain as well as the capability to take action independently while at the same time, being able to play an active and co-operative role in the international system.
Conferring to Bridget Rodgers, among the top 10 powers of the world include the United States of America, China, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, Japan, France, Italy, Brazil, and India with the United States is the number one superpower of the world, henceforth achieving its hegemonic status of the world. Not only does the United States possess the largest economy by a long bounce, but it also has the most powerful military by an even wider boundary. This gives the United States the self-assurance and bravery to stretch its military and diplomatic muscle whenever it feels like its interests have been jeopardized and this is something that has been both much-admired and denounced by the international community.
The end of the cold war witnessed a grate change in how great powers interact with each other. We are now in a world where there is little chance that major powers will engage each other in wars. This suggests that great powers no longer view each other as potential military rivals, but instead as members of a family of nations called the international community. In this promising new world, the possibility for cooperation is very high, with the likelihood of increased prosperity and peace to all the great powers. On the other hand, it is also argued that international politics has always been a cruel and unsafe business, and it is likely to remain that way. Although the level at which their competition keeps growing and declining, great powers fear each other and are always competing with each other for power. The superseding goal of states is to maximize their share of world power, which in turn implies gaining power at the expense of others. Much as the great powers embrace the outcome being the strongest powers of the world, their ultimate aim is to be the hegemon that is, the only great power in the system.
Great powers are hardly gratified with the current distribution of power; rather, they strive to face a constant incentive to change it in their favor. They almost always have heterodox intentions and endeavor to balance the stronger powers even to the extent of using force, if they think it is worth accomplishing their goals. In some circumstances, the costs and risks of trying to shift the balance of power could be too great, and this forces the great powers to wait for more favorable circumstances. However, this does not eradicate their mission for wanting more power, unless a state attains the eventual goal of hegemony. Ever since no state is likely to achieve global hegemony, hence, the world is destined for continuous great-power competition.
According to realists, great powers are in pursuit of power due to the structure of the international system, which forces states to seek security, nonetheless to act aggressively toward each other. Henceforth, according to realists, three features of the international system combine to cause states to fear one another: the absence of a central authority that sits above all states (anarchy), the fact that states always have some offensive military capability, and the fact that states can never be certain about other states’ intentions (Security dilemma). Given this fear which can never be wholly eliminated states recognize that the more powerful they are relative to their rivals, the better their chances of survival.
The first feature implies that the international system is anarchic. This does not mean that the world is disordered or muddled. Slightly, it is an ordering principle which denotes that the system is made up of independent states that have no ultimate authority above them. In other words, autonomy is inherent in states because there is no higher ruling body in the international system. The second characteristic is that great powers inherently possess some offensive military capability, which gives them the means to hurt and possibly destroy each other. States are potentially dangerous to each other, although some states have more military might than others and are therefore more dangerous. A state’s military power is usually identified with the particular weaponry at its discarding, even though if there were no weapons, the individuals in those states could still use their feet and hands to attack the population of another state. The third attribute (security dilemma) is that states can never be certain about the intentions of other states. Explicitly, states are uncertain that another state will not use its offensive military capability to attack them. This does not infer that states unavoidably have bad intentions, but it is only necessary for them to be on the lookout because the intentions of others can never be judged with inevitability.
Nonetheless, it is difficult to measure how much relative power one state must have over its competitors before it feels that it is secure. In addition, determining how much power is enough becomes even more complex when great powers consider how power will be distributed among them ten or twenty years down the road. The competences of individual states also vary over time, sometimes decidedly, and it is often problematic to foresee the direction and scope of change as far as the balance of power is concerned. Given the difficulty of determining how much power is enough, great powers recognize that the best way to ensure their security is to achieve hegemony, thus eliminating any possibility of a challenge by another great power. It is very unusual for a state to pass out on an opportunity to be the hegemon in the system especially when it believes it already has sufficient power to survive. Conversely, even if a great power does not have the resources to aid it in becoming a hegemon, it will still act in a provoking manner towards other great powers with the aim of accumulating as much power as it can, because states are almost always better off with more rather than less power. In short, states do not become status quo powers until they completely dominate the system.
In terms of profits, states can cooperate with each other, although cooperation is sometimes difficult to achieve and almost always difficult to sustain. There are two factors that hinder cooperation between states and they include considerations about relative gains and concerns about cheating. Ultimately, great powers are always in competition with each other and they view each other as real or at least potential enemies, and hence look to gain power at each other’s expense. In the event that two states are considering cooperating with each other, they first consider how profits or gains will be distributed between them. The states contemplate the divisions in terms of either absolute or relative gains. With absolute gains, each side is concerned with maximizing its own profits and cares little about how much the other side gains or losses in the course of their agreements. Each side cares about the other only if the other side’s behavior affects its own prospects for achieving maximum profits. With relative gains, on the other hand, each side considers not only its own individual gain but also how well it fares compared to the other side.
When great powers consider cooperating with other states, they normally focus on the balance of power and their choices are based on the relative gains. Evidently, each state tries to maximize its absolute gains; still, it is more important for a state to make sure that it does no worse, and perhaps better, than the other state in any agreement. Cooperation is more difficult to achieve, however, states are only accustomed to relative gains rather than absolute gains. This is because states concerned about absolute gains have to make sure that if the pie is expanding, they are getting at least some portion of the increase regardless of the amount, whereas states that worry about relative gains always pay careful attention to how the pie is divided, which complicates cooperative efforts.
Another drawback to the cooperation of states is the concern about cheating. Great powers are often reluctant to enter into cooperative agreements with each other for fear that the other side will cheat on the agreement and gain a significant advantage over them. This concern is especially critical in the field of military, causing a “special threat of defection,” because the nature of military weaponry allows for rapid shifts in the balance of power. This could eventually create a window of opportunity for the state that cheats to impose a decisive defeat on its victim.
Nonetheless these cooperation barriers, great powers do cooperate in a realist world. The balance-of-power logic often causes great powers to form alliances and cooperate with each other against common enemies. The bottom line, however, is that cooperation takes place in a world where competition is the center of attention and where states have powerful incentives to take advantage of other states. No amount of cooperation can, therefore, eliminate the dominating logic of security competition. It is very unlikely that genuine peace or a world in which states do not compete for power and profits will prevail, as long as the state system remains anarchic.
With regard to prestige, Nicholson (1937) defines it as “power based on reputation. Morgenthau, on the other hand, articulates that prestige specifically represents a reputation for power, or the ability to pursue one’s own interests while forgoing the use of power and force. Some scholars have further argued that security concerns are a significant part of state behavior and are actually driven by competitions for prestige. As such, states often acquire territory or weapons or exert their independence in international affairs not out of concern for their security but out of a desire to be recognized and listened to by other states. According to the Social Identity Theory (SIT), groups seek prestige when the comparison of the prestigious achievements of their group with other groups is lacking. By this logic, all groups except the most prestigious one would have a continuous incentive to vie for prestige, at least until their group becomes the most prestigious. Conversely, though, not all states are competing for prestige at all times. Much of the literature combining SIT focuses predominantly on status-seeking and the peaceful accommodation of emerging powers. Prestige does not rise automatically as states rise in their military and economic capabilities. Unindustrialized states often actively invest in supplementing their prestige just as they invest in augmenting their power relative to others.
Prestige has sometimes been interchangeably used with the word status. In both concepts, there is recognition of some ranking or hierarchy within a group in which appointment in the higher positions of the hierarchy is accompanied by privileges that would not be experienced by those who are lower in the ranks. In addition, both concepts are also based on the subjective beliefs of others. Among states, however, the terms are sometimes conceived of differently. We normally speak of states having ‘great-power statuses or ‘regional-power statuses. These terms expound the strong connection between military or economic power and status in the international system. An actor can have great-power status, however, without having prestige, if they are able to exercise power effectively but lack the respect of others, as was true of the Soviet Union during the most period of the Cold War. Similarly, states can have prestige for a particular quality but not have a particularly high status or vice versa. In relation to powerful states, great powers seek prestige for the purpose of gaining recognition, having a good reputation and maintaining a high status in the international system and by doing so, they feel good and proud about themselves.
It is further pronounced that states which have experienced a publicly embarrassing experience such as China will be more likely to pay costs to seek prestige because they want to minimize the decline in the influence that might result from their demotion in the eyes of others. Also, if the humiliated state is near enough in influence to the dominant state in the system or region, the dominant state will match the humiliated state’s prestige investment, generating an international race for prestige. Prestigious states will be those most accustomed to wielding influence and often to control resources. They will have the incentive to invest in their prestige both in order to avoid the psychological stress of confronting a painful downgrade in self-concept as well as to avoid the potential downgrade in international respect and influence that accompanies high prestige.
Prestige is at times linked to nuclear weapons because of the particular properties that come with it. According to Barry O’Neill, nuclear weapons are natural bearers of prestige, in part because they are clearly bordered – an explosion is either nuclear or not. In addition, nuclear weapons grab attention and testing them is always done discreetly as they are kept secret beforehand to avoid world pressure from stopping them or embarrassment in case they fail. The nuclear explosions make sudden headlines and disagreement, so people are aware that others have gotten the news. It is, on the other hand, tongue-in-cheek that just because the world worries about their spread they are better carriers of prestige. As evidence to support specific prestige, the possession of nuclear weapons is also related to the kinds of national skills that confer power. Nevertheless, the linking of the weapons and prestige depends on the behavior of all states, not just the potential proliferators.
In conclusion, over the centuries we have seen great powers competing for power, prestige, and profits. This is as a result of the insecurities that the great powers have towards each other. At the same time, great powers are always mindful of how others perceive them and so they are proactive in a number of ways to present a good reputation to the rest of the world, and in particular to the less powerful states with the hope of gaining their trust over the other powerful states. In order to succeed, however, the great powers need to maximize their profits by ensuring that they generate a lot of income. Nevertheless, they can only achieve this by cooperating with other states. In doing so, however, great powers give no room for trust towards each other as they are always concerned about cheating. In fact, over the past decade, we have seen a redeployment of economic power among the world’s great powers on a scale and rate that is probably unprecedented in history. In other words, power is now more evenly distributed in the international system as compared to the past. As a result, there is rising geopolitical competition among great powers. But the nature of the competition is limited by two significant factors: their domestic obsessions and their dependence on each other for economic growth. Conflict is, therefore, most critical along the periphery of great powers that are least integrated into the Western-led political order.
What Is a Sovereign State?
Against the backdrop of the rapid collapse of the US-led world order, the question of which states will survive in the new world is becoming increasingly relevant. It is no coincidence that the President of Russia regularly addresses this problem. In one of his recent speeches at the forum of the Agency for Strategic Initiatives, Vladimir Putin defined “genuine sovereignty” as the main condition for the success of the countries of the world in the new era.
At first glance, it may seem that we are talking about the obvious — over the past 100 years, the formal sovereignty of dozens of countries has become commonplace. However, in reality, the problem is much deeper — it is not at all evident that formally-recognised statehood indicates the viability of a state as a social organisation.
That is why we now associate the survival of a state with its ability to independently determine its development and foreign policy behaviour. There are almost 200 sovereign countries in the world, including large, medium and small ones — but not all can be considered truly sovereign; fewer than half, in fact. This is not surprising — the entire international order after the Second World War was focused on somehow solving the problem of an ever-increasing number of formal sovereign jurisdictions. This is really a problem, because only a limited number of states have the resources to ensure a relatively independent existence. The rest had to rely on special connections with more powerful players from the start. Here there is no need to talk about complete sovereignty.
The last century was marked by three waves of emergence of states whose ability to survive independently in a chaotic system was unproven. The first set of these includes the countries that became the product of the collapse of European empires as a result of the First World War. At that time, practically all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, the former possessions of the Austrian, German and Russian empires in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, arose. The only exception was Iran, which has maintained its tradition of statehood for centuries. The small new countries of Eastern Europe existed in an incomprehensible status for two decades and, after the Second World War, actually lost their sovereignty in favour of one of the superpowers — mainly the USSR.
The second wave of sovereignty is associated with the collapse of the world colonial empires, whose metropolises are located in Western Europe. The collapse of the British, Belgian, Dutch, Portuguese and French empires led to the emergence of dozens of new jurisdictions in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia, most of which immediately came under the decisive influence of their former colonial masters. Only a few powers in Asia and a few in Africa were able to achieve true independence. India, Vietnam or Egypt owe this to their demographics — a large population made it possible to create military and economic resources for independent behaviour.
And, finally, the third round of fragmentation into small formally sovereign units is associated with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Then 14 new countries of the so-called post-Soviet space appeared at once, and Moscow’s satellites did not restore their sovereignty, but simply came under the patronage of the winners — the United States and the large countries of Western Europe. Among the countries that emerged after the collapse of the USSR, only a few still look like they are capable of independent development. Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan have unique resources — population and natural wealth — the rest cannot boast of this, and their sovereign future is in question. In some cases (Georgia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) their geopolitical position contributes to the gradual strengthening of their sovereignty. These republics behave adequately to the power composition of Eurasia because they know how to look at the map. Although in the case of Georgia, the development of this skill does not take place without the help of Russia.
As a result of these waves of sovereignisation, more and more countries have emerged in the world whose power capabilities do not allow them to be considered fully autonomous units. This means that their own contribution to global stability is minimal, if anything. However, the endowment of small and medium-sized countries with formal rights within the framework of the UN system invented by the West after the Second World War required somehow the solving of the problem of managing these rights from outside.
For several decades, the consequences of the participation in world politics of many sovereign states which are incapable of independence have been mitigated through the institutions of the Liberal International Order. This gave small and medium-sized countries the opportunity to develop within a certain system of rules and norms determined by the West, led by the United States. Scores of countries throughout the world were actually deprived of sovereignty with respect to their domestic and foreign policies. In some cases, as, for example, in the system of agreements between the European Union and groups of developing countries, the renunciation of full sovereignty was fixed in the form of obligations in exchange for access to the resource development offered by Europe. All this, however, required the West to actually share a part, albeit a small one, of the development resources that the global market economy created.
The process of depriving many countries of real sovereignty gained particular intensity after 1991, when even the elementary system of checks and balances that existed during the Cold War was destroyed. It is not surprising that it was during this historical period, the discussion about the withering away of “Westphalian sovereignty” actively began in the context of the strengthening of international institutions. In fact, these institutions were controlled, directly or indirectly, by the victorious countries in the Cold War, who themselves were in no hurry to give up their sovereignty.
However, be that as it may, even if the deprivation of sovereignty by many countries did not receive formal implementation at the level of international law, they themselves were quite ready for this, in fact, glad about quite specific benefits. Moreover, many countries from among the last “wave” of sovereignisation even associated their plans for solving the main tasks of development with the loss of independence. In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, we can find a whole group of countries for which the renunciation of sovereignty has already turned out to be practically the official “key” to a brighter future within the Liberal world order. It even went so far as to introduce such a task, in a veiled form, into the national Constitutions. In other cases, such as Kazakhstan, the transfer of some sovereign rights to partners in the West is seen as a way to protect themselves from the US and allies using local corruption and social stratification as a tool to influence the ruling regimes. There were countries which were suppliers of labour, other countries were gas stations, still other countries were granaries, other countries were military bases, and so on. The partial renunciation of sovereignty in favour of the West, in addition, is considered by individual regimes as a kind of ideal “guarantee” that the bigger neighbours — Russia or China — could more insistently indicate to their small neighbours their place in the geopolitical position.
However, this international order proved to be short-lived. First, because the largest of the countries outside the narrow community of the West — China, India and Russia — were not ready for their own desovereignisation. For them, following the proposed path would be disastrous for internal reasons and, accordingly, irrational from the point of view of the state’s survival. Therefore, such powers sooner or later had to create direct or indirect opposition to the West. Second, and more importantly, the world’s leading countries themselves have run out of resources that could be exchanged for the sovereignty of small and medium-sized countries. As a result, the US and Western Europe are increasingly forced to resort to extremely repressive measures — sanctions and special trade regimes — in order to ensure that their desires are met. The most striking example here is last year’s initiative of the European Union to make the ability of external partners to trade with its states dependent on the fulfilment of EU requirements in terms of climate change.
Finally, in the international community, a fairly significant group of states has emerged that feel so confident in their abilities that they can challenge the West’s monopoly in world affairs. This behaviour became evident in the US attempts to isolate Russia after the crisis around Ukraine turned into a military-political matter. And we are not talking only about such powers as Iran or Pakistan, whose interaction with the Liberal World Order has always been strained. In recent months, more and more middle-sized developing countries have shown that they are not going to follow the instructions of the US and its allies in politics and economic relations.
The result is the collapse of the system of limited sovereignties and, as a result, the “freezing” of many countries that are internally weak and incapable of independent development. Several dozen modern states are currently approaching a choice between gaining real sovereignty or losing it within the existing territorial limits. In fact, there is an alternative to such a gloomy choice — it is the formation of foreign policy and development policy based not on the institutional features of the outgoing world order, but on an objective assessment of one’s geopolitical position and place in the regional power composition. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine now when this or that great power will seek to deprive its neighbours of formal sovereignty — this is extremely costly in all respects. There is no doubt that not everyone is given the right choice, but only it, most likely, can become the basis for survival amid modern conditions.
From our partner RIAC
An interview with Joel Angel Bravo Anduaga: Are international organizations still relevant?
With recent developments in the international arena, and ghost conflicts from the past exacerbating contemporary global issues, it is inevitable to question what is happening with international organizations in different regions across the globe. Joel Bravo shares his insights about the importance of international organizations nowadays. Mr. Bravo is an international affairs practitioner with more than twenty years of experience managing design and implementation of strategies aimed at institutional strengthening and governance. Joel is a former electoral adviser for the United Nations to Ivory Coast (West Africa) and Timor-Leste (South-East Asia), respectively. Currently, he is a PhD candidate in Processes and Political Institutions at the University Adolfo Ibañez in Chile and a Professor at the Tecnologico de Monterrey University in Mexico. His ample experience in the field of international affairs as well as his theoretical and practical knowledge and expertise in international organizations, is crucial to help us understand the current state, challenges, and opportunities organizations faced by ongoing international conflicts.
What is the current role of international organizations?
For starters, Joel Bravo made it clear that is very important to take into account the period we talk about when explaining the role of international organizations because different periods in time have called for different roles. There must be a differentiation between what these organizations should do and what they can do. There are two levels of analysis towards them. First, the operational level which entails the everyday actions. Second, what the mass media portrays the actions of the organizations to be. There is a lot of speculation in the media about whether the United Nations (UN) works or if the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has a fair agenda, however in the operational sense they still work every day. Hence, the true answer lies within the background and the essence of each organization; circumstances and the purpose of each one are key.
From your personal experience in the peace missions of the Ivory Coast and Timor-Leste, what is your opinion about the influence of international organizations when it comes to conflict resolution?
To begin with, Mr. Bravo explained that the interests of world powers and regional powers are crucial factors. In both cases mentioned, it logically depended on the context of the countries directly involved and the external countries as well. So, it is a mix of variables that must be considered to see what the influence of an international organization in these situations truly is. Meanwhile, in Ivory Coast, at some point, the peace mission led to elections after a certain time; the peace operation from the Security Council was one of accompaniment. In contrast, the mandate that was held in the different missions in East Timor gave the United Nations more power, not only to organize the elections from a logistical and operational point of view, but also to make political decisions.
How do international organizations influence the exercise of democracy?
Joel Bravo shared that sometimes democracy can be seen simply as a concept and other times as a system or a way of living; it stretches and lengthens according to conditions and needs. Elections are a clear example of this. In the case of Ivory Coast, the efforts to hold elections started in 2005 and did not happen until 2010 because there were no appropriate internal or external conditions. On the other hand, in East Timor in 1999, when the referendum was held and then the presidential elections occurred, it was because there were conditions to do so. Additionally, it is crucial to understand what as well the underlying interest of each international organization is: to hold elections first, and then pacify the country, or pacify the country first then hold elections. Thus, the process of adaption also proves to be a strong challenge. Many factors must be taken into consideration to have a successful democracy in practice and not only in theory, understanding democracy in a broad sense and not simply from the electoral perspective.
Do you consider that international organizations are essential so that the citizens of a country can fully exercise their rights and freedoms? Why?
Initially, Mr. Bravo began explaining the difference between international organizations being essential or necessary. He claims they are not essential but rather necessary, because in many cases there have been accusations of international organizations working in favor of specific interests and being co-opted by world powers. Nonetheless, specifically for the citizens, with the idea of liberal democracy in mind, non-democratic countries would definitely need more the support of international organizations. Yet here we come to a paradox, because if a country is not democratic, thinking for example of North Korea, it is not going to allow an organization to carry out supervision, both in internal and external matters. Then, yes, the presence would probably become essential, but it is not decisive. On the other hand, these matters should be dealt with carefully because, sometimes, the media places excessive responsibility on international organizations. It is true that they help countries, and provide validation, but, at the end of the day, they are still constrained by the context and environment of each case.
Are international organizations accountable?
All organizations, or at least the most important and most robust have internal instruments, instances of accountability, of transparency; to a certain extent they self-monitor. Nevertheless, for example, security organizations such as NATO, due to their nature it is difficult for there to be proper transparency because it would be a matter of national security for the members and the region. It depends on the organization, there are some that can be more controlled. There are some that are highly questioned, for instance, the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, both which possess control mechanisms, but the question is who determines those mechanisms. Before the West was the main axis for how accountability is and is delivered; it was not questioned because there was no counterpart. China and Russia are now acting as a counterpart and there is a questioning of that order.
What impossibilities can international organizations have that do not allow them to operate as they are expected to do so in theory?
First of all, the nature of each organization is key. Nation-States are the first and focal factor. Anyhow, any international organization also considers at least two other variables, two other types of actors: economic interests represented by the companies that do lobbying and organized civil society; both of which influence decision-making and public opinion, more so in this age of social networks and cyberspace. The word international is now set too short, it would be better to called them world organizations, global organizations or regional organizations but speaking in terms of international continues to think of the Nation-State as the center, constraining its potential.
With new international conflicts developing, how does the role of international organizations change? Are they still relevant?
From a traditional point of view, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict logically has relevance, and it has been proven that international organizations sometimes fall short. Thinking, for example, of the United Nations, NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which to a certain extent could not have prevented the conflict but do have a leading role. On the contrary, if these new conflicts are unknow territory, for example, what happens in the cyberspace, then international organizations are falling behind. Current conditions are shaping up to a hyper-specialization of international organizations. They are becoming increasingly technical, focusing on what needs fixing and working to agree on very specific issues. For these reasons, international organizations are in a process of adaptation. It would seem like it is still slow due to bureaucratic processes, but their relevance is still present.
What is the future of international organizations?
Mr. Bravo answered that there will be a greater presence of regionalization in international organizations that goes hand in hand with specialization. This occurs for example with NATO: in its name it continues to apparently be regional, but it is expanding. Also, the creation of new organizations is happening, like AUKUS, which on the one hand seems to be new, but it is a continuation of political dialogue mechanisms that were already established and that are now becoming more structured. Whilst the power structure is not perceived clearer, a global restructuring of international organizations cannot be mentioned. However, what can be mentioned is a sense of greater conformation, reactivation, and strengthening of the schemes. There is a cohabitation to a certain extent of the old, traditional organizations that come from the second post-war period that have been adapting, with the new problems and the new-old problems that evolved. Especially technology, social networks and the internet have a lot to do with these transformations.
The Noble Nobel
One of the most coveted awards in human history, the Nobel Prize was created by the last will and testament of Alfred Nobel, inventor of the “dynamite”. These are essentially personal awards from his private estate but has since evolved into something much larger. All the Nobel Prizes are awarded in Sweden except for the Peace Prize given in Norway. Alfred Nobel flourished during the Industrial Revolution, when the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway were still together, amassing his fortune making military weapons. Some argue that these prizes were posthumously conceived to improve his reputation.
Nobel Prizes are awarded in the fields of Chemistry, Physics, Medicine, Literature, and the most coveted, the Peace Prize. In his will, Alfred Nobel characterized the Peace Prize to be given “to the person who has done the most or best to advance fellowship among nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and the establishment and promotion of peace congresses”.
More than a century later, has the Nobel Peace Prize lost its luster?
The Norwegian Nobel Committee, a five-member committee appointed by the Parliament of Norway chooses the recipient. Interestingly, despite being appointed by Parliament, the committee is a private body tasked with awarding a private prize. Unless the Committee becomes inclusive, it will lose its moral authority in an increasingly divided world.
Russian journalist, Dmitry Andreyevich Muratov, drew international headlines after auctioning off the Nobel Peace Prize he had won last year for a record $103.5 million to aid Ukrainian refugees.
In doing so, he showed a level of responsibility and moral leadership that has unfortunately been lacking in the institution of the Nobel Prize itself. This auction presents a moment to reflect on the future of the prestigious award.
Since its inception, nearly every winner of the Nobel Prize for Science has been a “white” man – as almost no scientist that were female or of any other ethnicity were deemed worthy enough to win this illustrious award. Not only this, but only four of the 200 winners in the history of the Nobel Prize for Physics have been women. The committee’s nomination and selection processes are reflected by the institution’s lack of diversity, tainting the reputation of a prize intended to celebrate humanity. This matters especially today because moral leadership is needed more than ever.
In these testing times, when the global powers are wrestling against the climate crisis, terrorism, population growth, food insecurity, refugee crisis, religious violence, Islamophobia, racism, and conflicts like the Russia-Ukraine war and its repercussions on world peace, the Nobel committee must demonstrate moral leadership. And it can only do so by redressing its centuries’ old gender and racial disparities against nominees.
The Nobel Prize committee has been on shaky ground in recent times. In matters of war and peace, the stakes are higher. In retrospect, the last two times it selected a head of state were a disaster. In 2009, the committee selected then-President Barrack Obama at the beginning of his presidency. The award was given in the hope that President Obama might change the direction of his country after he had campaigned for the office in part of his opposition to previous heavy-handed military interventions in the Middle East – notably in Iraq. This anti-war sentiment was what the Nobel committee likely honed in on when selecting him for the award.
Yet, President Obama authorized a military surge in Afghanistan and the invasion of Libya. The botched Libya invasion did remove Muammar Gaddafi, but it also helped destabilize the Sahel region, instigating a state of instability and chaos that is still with us today.
The Nobel Committee was on firmer ground when it chose Muratov along with Filipino journalist Maria Ressa “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”
Ressa is considered a brave journalist, but many in the Philippines will say otherwise and even wonder if the award was given erroneously.
Furthermore, in the case of Muratov, it is worth asking if the undisclosed bidder for his Nobel Peace Prize – was, in fact, the Norwegian government. What we know for sure is that Norway recently handed 4 million Euros worth of seized Russian media assets to Muratov.
Cordell Hull, who secured the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945 for his role in establishing the United Nations, was the same person who turned away Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust by redirecting their ships to the infamous concentration camps. On 5 June 1939, he returned a ship carrying 937 passengers. Over a quarter of them ended up dying in the Holocaust.
There have been some glaring omissions as well. At least one is worth noting. Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most significant persons of our time. Even today he is a byword for peace activism. Yet even he failed to win the Nobel Peace Prize, despite being shortlisted five times. In 2006. the former director of the Nobel Institute, Geir Lundestad, said the most significant omission in the prize’s history was never awarding the peace prize to the Indian political activist Mahatma Gandhi. However, the committee’s Euro-centric inclinations kept him from receiving the prize.
The sad reality appears to be that the Nobel Peace Prize committee blurs the lines between being an independent institution guided by clear moral principles and one that is a realpolitik instrument of Norwegian foreign policy. It was only in 2017 that the committee prevented current members of the Norwegian parliament from serving on the committee. However, the membership of the committee is currently selected by Norway’s Parliament and perhaps not surprisingly includes four politicians. Two of whom are former government ministers.
With Russia invading Ukraine, China making its own bold land grab in the South China Sea, disinformation on the rise, and many democracies in OECD countries facing a populist if not putschist threat, clear moral leadership on the international stage is needed more than ever.
The Nobel Prize Committee, in this context should take several reforms designed to make the organization more representative.
Firstly, the organization should clearly establish itself as a civil society organization – not an arm of Norwegian foreign policy. The presence of former or current politicians on the committee should be limited if not removed entirely. More civil society leaders like human rights experts would go a long way here.
Second, the committee lacks diversity considering it is composed of entirely of people from white, Christian backgrounds and, of course, Norwegian. Why aren’t representatives of Norway’s immigrant communities or even the ethnic Sami people a key feature of its famed instrument of soft power?
Thirdly, the committee should not be afraid to revoke the Nobel Prizes given to individuals who later betray its principles.
Again, these are extraordinary times, and the Nobel Committee is an important institution whose peace prize is closely followed globally. With Western institutions under pressure, the Nobel Peace Prize is an entity worth saving. The choice is Norway’s.
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