The Struggle for Power, Profits and Prestige in the International System

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.

David Ceasar Wani
David Ceasar Wani
David Ceasar Wani Suliman is a Doctoral Fellow (Ph.D.) in the school of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University China, Majoring in International Politics. He worked as a Research assistant at Jilin University China; He Achieved Master’s degree in International Relations from Jilin University China, and correspondingly graduated with honors from Cavendish University Uganda with bachelor degree in international relations and diplomatic studies.