An important feature of the international political system is that it has been a near oligarchy of major powers.
All other powers are consigned to the role of objects of the decisions of the major powers. Though the global political system is organised on the principle of sovereign equality of states, in actual practice, there is a hierarchy of states based on their power capabilities. Power is the strength or capacity of state to exert its influence on other state or states.
The power of a state is generally judged by its military capability, economic strength and its will and capacity to mould international opinion in its favor. While there is no agreement on the relative importance of various elements of power, Joseph S Nye suggests a broad categorisation of the elements of power into Hard and Soft Power resources. Hard power resources are military, economic, technological and demographic resources.
These are the tangible resources which provide the capabilities for coercion and command. Soft power resources, on the other hand, are intangible. They include, norms, leadership role in international institutions, culture, state capacity, strategy, and national leadership. The soft power resources enable the state to inspire consensus (agreement) and to co-opt (persuade others to share the same goals).
Soft power is less coercive in nature. Some soft power resources, such as state capacity, strategic or diplomatic strength and quality of national leadership are important in converting a state’s latent capabilities into actualised power. Major Powers have all the ingredients of power which enables them to determine whether in conflict or cooperation, the nature of international system and its future development.
They have the power to influence all other states in the international system as they have the capacity to project power globally and conduct offensive and defensive operations beyond their regions. Typically, major powers hold global or continental interests and their security goals are beyond territorial defence and include the maintenance of balance of power and order in international system. States which lack most of these resources are Minor Powers, vulnerable to pressures from major powers.
In between the major powers and minor powers are another category of states which are independent centers of power (or system influencing states) which do not have the leverage to influence the course of the international system as a whole, but possess sufficient capabilities to have a considerable degree of foreign policy autonomy and the capacity to resist the application of unwelcome decisions, especially in the realm of security, in their own regions.
Unlike the major powers which have system wide or global influence, these independent centers of power are often dominant or pre-eminent in a certain region. They are mostly referred to, in Martin Wright’s terms, as great regional powers or as Middle Powers in view of their status as lying in between major and minor powers. Another important feature of the international political system is that it is dynamic (under constant change).
This is not only because some of the ingredients of powers are subject to change but, as the realists point out, also because of the constant struggle for power among the major powers. Since the international system came into being in the 16th century Europe, it has witnessed the rise and fall of major powers.
This process occurred largely through major wars that engulfed several countries in many theatres of the globe. The winners with the necessary military and economic attributes were accorded major power status in the post-war settlements, while the vanquished in most instances lost such status altogether.
Thus, by the 18th century, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands lost major power status following their defeat in wars or loss of colonial empires. Austria-Hungary lost the status of a major power after the World War I. Germany and Japan were replaced by China as a major power after World War 11.
The United States, Soviet Union, Britain, France and China, which emerged victorious in that war were accorded major power status and became the five permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations. Strictly speaking, only the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, could be considered as major were during the Cold War period. The other three-Britain, France and China, which never had the global reach of the superpowers, are in essence, second tier major powers.
The global power structure in the post-war years has undergone significant changes. Initially, the Cold War conflict between the two superpowers gave rise to a bipolar power structure. Most nations had little option other than to join or side with one or the other of the superpowers. However, this situation could not continue for long as the United States weakened its position because of prolonged engagement in Vietnam.
The global power structure started heading towards a multi-polar order dominated by the United States, Soviet Union, Europe, Japan and China. However, before such arrangement could consolidate, the Soviet Union disintegrated.
The United States emerged as the sole state deserving of the appellation ‘mono superpower’ as a possessor of systemic capabilities and influence. The other possible contenders for the role remained simply as either incomplete powers (Russia, China, and Japan) or subordinate military allies of the US.