Great and Medium Powers in the Age of Unipolarity

Posted in Other | 11-May-05 | Author: Federico Bordonaro

Recent developments in the international relations arena such as the new Sino-Indian cooperation agreements and the Russo-German strategic deals, both from April 2005, call for a theoretical interpretation in the context of the current phase of world affairs. These relationships are often defined as "strategic partnerships." A strategic partnership can be explained as a bilateral relationship with the main function being to facilitate the increase of power (at first in absolute terms) of the two states involved. In this sense, it differs both from a classical security-oriented alliance and from political and economic integration processes such as the European Union.

Strategic partnerships are not necessarily directed against a common rival, contrary to classical alliances. The main reasons for forging these latter alliances have always been security concerns and the seeking of a balance of power. Security was, therefore, the elemental concept in this kind of relationship.

Strategic partnerships also do not involve any transfer of national sovereignty to a supranational authority, for example in political integration attempts such as the European Union. The E.U.'s official goals are ones of common security, free market enhancement, shared sovereignty and the general underpinning of the role of states in the global context. Political integration is therefore aimed at both security and influence enhancement, but national independence is sacrificed in order to implement common monetary, fiscal and defense policies.

Instead, a strategic partnership is based upon the mutual goal of increasing individual power and independence, thus allowing the preservation of national sovereignty.

China, India, Russia and Germany

On April 11, two very significant events took place. The first took place at the Hannover Fair in Germany, where Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on eight different deals regarding cooperation in nano- and bio-technologies, education, and oil and gas transportation from Russia to Germany (via the planned Baltic pipeline). Russia was already Germany's most important non-E.U. commercial partner, but after these agreements, a new level of cooperation between the two countries is on its way to being accomplished.

This is an evident sign of the rise of Germany's new foreign policy, more independent from France than in the past and a proof of Russia's desperate need to counter its own geopolitical decline after years of successful Western penetration into Moscow's former sphere of influence -- culminated with the Ukrainian pro-Western stance of newly elected President Viktor Yuschenko. [See: "An Assessment of the Franco-German Axis and the United States"]

The second major event was the Sino-Indian Agreement for Peace and Prosperity, which established the basis for a peaceful resolution of long-time border tensions between the two Asian giants, and launched a new cooperation in economic and military affairs. The first deal (on the borders) is the logical premise of the strategic partnership. With the U.S. still determined to counter Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific region by carrying out a U.S.-Taiwan-Japan alignment clearly aimed at containing Beijing, Chinese President Hu Jintao rapidly started to look west. A new course in the Sino-Indian relationship would have very important consequences for South Asia's geopolitics, and for global politics as well. India's success in computer science could soon work in favor of China's military ambitions if the two countries appease and stabilize their geopolitical conflict. [See: "Sino-Indian Relations: Perspectives, Prospects and Challenges Ahead"]

The deals between China and India, and Germany and Russia, are not the only deals being formed. China is actually seeking out Iran (for oil and gas) as well as Indonesia, while at the same time trying to expand its economic influence in South America. France has tried to upgrade its relationship with Japan (Chirac was in Tokyo on March 28) proposing enhanced cooperation in high-tech research, ecology and energy, with further developments still to come.

All these bilateral talks, deals and agreements mark an emerging trend in the international system at a time of unipolarity. Unipolarity can be defined as the disproportion between the United States and all other great and medium world powers in terms of military might, technological innovation capability, diplomatic and cultural influence, economic prosperity and ability to provide security. The fall of the Soviet Union led many analysts to talk about a coming multipolarity in the 21st Century, but the 1990s saw the rise of the U.S. as the only global geopolitical superpower. Washington is today the only real regional hegemon because it is not only the premier military and economic world power, but also the only great power whose security is not threatened by neighboring states. Neither Canada, nor Mexico, nor any South American state can be considered as a serious geopolitical threat for the U.S. The same is not true for other potential regional hegemons like Germany, Russia, India or China.

A unipolar system is, of course, subject to change like any other polarity. A transition toward a bipolar or multipolar configuration is possible under certain conditions, so that one or more states accumulate enough power to emerge as "peer competitors" against the only global superpower. However, it is first and foremost important to understand how great and medium powers try to act under unipolarity in order to understand many of today's crises and conflicts and to predict future ones.

The Decisive Role of the Global Superpower

In a unipolar context, the way in which the global superpower acts is decisive. Since states tend to enhance their power continuously to better compete in world politics, the U.S. is likely to seek hegemony. It is far from established, however, whether Washington will prefer a "liberal hegemony" predicated upon multilateralism and shared rules (as it appeared to do in the 1990s), or the consolidation of a unilateral, "imperial hegemonic" turn. Washington's strategy will be crucial for slowing or accelerating other powers' attempts to build a multipolar world because it will change -- in one sense or another -- these states' perceptions of U.S. intentions. After all, hegemony is not merely a decisively superior military might, but also the ability to gain other states' acquiescence to one's leadership.

In order to be perceived as benign, a global leader must let its own goals appear as coincident with other powers' ones. This has proved more difficult than before for Washington at the dawn of the 21st Century, especially because of widespread opposition to Operation Iraqi Freedom and Washington's subsequent occupation and stabilization of Iraq. [See: "Testing the Currents of Multipolarity"]

However, in the present phase of international relations, great and medium powers cannot afford a direct confrontation with the United States, which is why classical balancing alliances are unlikely. Since potential regional hegemons (France, Germany, Russia, India, China, and Japan) are all placed in Europe and Asia, an overtly anti-American and power politics-oriented alliance between two or more of these countries could easily scare neighboring states, thus helping the U.S. to build a counter-alliance.

Moreover, U.S. military expenditure will likely equal all other great powers' combined defense spending by 2007, which suggests the uselessness of such an attempt. Even more important is that the internal nature of the U.S. (liberal democracy) and its geopolitical position of "offshore balancer" helps Washington to be perceived as less threatening than other historical great powers: after all, even if France and Germany fear a diminution of their relative influence in the world because of U.S. hegemony over the "Greater Middle East," they know they will not be militarily invaded and dominated by the United States.

Great and medium powers' strategy to preserve their influence and to seek their interests is therefore a combination of engagement and balancing, whose dominating character (engagement with the U.S. or attempts to balance its power) is highly dependent upon Washington's choices. Strategic partnerships like the Russo-German or the Sino-Indian ones are potentially excellent ways to increase one's capabilities without directly confronting the U.S. while at the same time maintaining a high degree of independence.

The Origins of Political and Economic Integration Attempts

Political integration is nowadays often regarded as the most advanced strategy to build new powerful geopolitical actors. The European Union is the archetypical example of such a model, which is often quoted as a pattern to be replicated by other regions' states (Latin America, Africa, Central Asia, etc.). The E.U.'s history is, nonetheless, often misunderstood in idealistic or abstract terms. In fact, it should be remembered that the European Community was strongly supported by the United States because of the need to fully reintegrate West Germany into the Atlantic Alliance and to counter the Soviet Union's expansion in Europe.

France, Great Britain, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands all found their own reasons to build a united Europe, one of which was to keep the Americans "in." In 1948, Washington pushed the Western European states to "take the first step" (by creating the Western European Union) in building their common defense. This fact is most of the time overlooked, just like, on the other hand, some French Gaullist's ambitions of making a confederated Europe a superpower is often mistaken as a "European will" to rival the United States on a global scale.

Many commentators said during the 1990s, and still say today, that the European Union is soon going to be a world superpower. Fifteen years after the Maastricht Treaty's negotiations, however, a Common Foreign and Security Policy (C.F.S.P.) of the E.U. states is still concretely missing. Although it exists officially and it also has growing military capabilities and institutional assets, C.F.S.P. lacks a common strategic concept -- simply because E.U. member states do not always have clearly defined and shared geopolitical interests. Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, Belgium, and the Netherlands still have their agendas and their relative position to the United States, as the 2003 Iraq intervention undoubtedly displayed.

History can't be "compressed" in a few years, and European history is a history of nations and nation-states. The paradox is that in 2005, with both the Euro and the newborn European political-military institutions in place, precisely the bigger supporters of European integration (France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands) are showing signs of malaise as the diminution of national sovereignty (especially in monetary and industrial policies) hasn't been compensated by the promised benefits of continental unification.

Political and economic integration also appears to be a very specific geopolitical process that can't be thoroughly understood if disconnected by the superpower's policy. Two often compared national political economies such as the German and Japanese political economies are paradigmatic in this sense. Germany successfully obtained its goals of an institutionalized, regional economy, largely because American strategy for post-war Europe allowed it (and supported it), whereas Washington was much more cautious about a possible Asia-Pacific economic integration.

In fact, instead of an East Asian economic integration, Washington favored a Trans-Pacific regional (informal) entity because it feared that Japan could hegemonize an Asian-only organization at American expense. The United States is also actively supporting an all-American economic integration based upon the free market (F.T.A.A./A.L.C.A.), opposing concurrent projects of a common South American market (Mercosur) which could possibly benefit Brazilian or Venezuelan stronger influences in the region. [See: "Washington Loses Control of the O.A.S."]

Washington, in effect, supports political integrations much more than it is usually thought, apart some important exceptions depending on its interests and security concerns, and the success chances of such integrating attempts by regional powers are heavily influenced by American support or hostility.


Strategic partnerships like those previously mentioned are a more and more frequent behavior characterizing great and medium powers since the decade began. The historically unprecedented configuration of the international system, dominated by American military and technological capabilities, pushes regional powers to act differently from what could be expected by just projecting past patterns of behavior into the new era.

If states like China, India or Germany privilege strategic partnerships in this phase, it is because they want to increase their energy and technology acquisition capabilities, thus creating conditions for a rapid accumulation of power. Compared to complex integration processes like the European Union, strategic partnerships do not involve national sovereignty transfers which more often than not damage a state's capabilities, which is why they are preferable under many aspects.

Like all kinds of bilateral relationships, strategic partnerships are not static, but dynamic processes that can be reversed. We shouldn't take for granted, therefore, that Russo-German or Sino-Indian agreements will last forever or grow linearly. Moreover, some states such as Germany appear to choose a complex combination between regional integration policies (the E.U.) and worldwide strategic partnerships (with Russia and possibly other states). But at a time of U.S. unilateral behavior and continuous military power display, we can expect these partnerships to consolidate for the near future.

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