Global Governance
The Cacophony of Powers

The interplay of great, mid-size and small powers plays out against a backdrop of growing geopolitical competition and regional polarisation. Countries around the world increasingly engage one another along partly overlapping paths of cooperation, competition and conflict, and often outside established multilateral regimes and institutions, writes Riccardo Alcaro, Research Coordinator and Head of Global Actors at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome.

In international politics, the key to power is the ability to translate economic, military and technological resources, as well as cultural ties and societal connections, into actual influence beyond national borders. Immaterial factors, such as the competence of policymakers, are central to the effort. This explains why states exhibiting huge resource differentials can nonetheless be grouped together as great powers and countries economically, demographically or militarily small may be more influential than larger and wealthier ones. 

In these terms, the resolve and ability of states to pursue a foreign policy course in full or partial autonomy from other ones captures interstate dynamics with more precision than would be the case if one just applied a criterion based on the size of material resources. Distinguishing countries as independent, partly autonomous and dependent has surely its shortcomings, not least because all interstate relations involve a degree of interdependence. However, it helps us place states along an independence-dependence continuum and better grasp the interplay of powers in a world of emerging, but not emerged yet, multipolarity. 

The most important factor shaping interstate relations today is the relative decline of American power. The trend is commonly attributed to the rise of other states – first and foremost China. Yet it has an arguably more important domestic origin, as the US foreign policy establishment struggles to give meaning, purpose and direction to America’s global pre-eminence. No consensus exists on whether the United States should guarantee the multilateral order, lead coalitions of like-minded states against non-aligned countries, or seek to extract better terms from bilateral interactions driven by narrowly defined national interests. 

Such tribulations, reflected in at times wild foreign policy oscillations, have dented America’s standing and capacity to organise international consensus. Nevertheless, its military and economic resources remain intact. In fact, US domination of financial markets has increased its external influence, as the success of ‘secondary’ sanctions – that is, sanctions with extra-territorial effect – in compelling other countries to follow US desiderata eloquently attests. Declining leadership, in other words, is not the same thing as declining strength, which is why the United States has shown little willingness to re-negotiate its position in areas where its influence is widely felt. This said, the growing gap between leadership and strength increasingly leads other countries – eagerly or reluctantly – to re-position themselves vis-à-vis US power. 

First come the states that see US power as menacing their interests. 

The most important of these are China and Russia. Powered by an ultra-dynamic economy and big strides in technology, China is the only country with a real shot at threatening America’s superiority. Through direct investments in physical and digital infrastructures along land and maritime trade routes, China’s international influence has undoubtedly grown. Thus far, however, Beijing has not truly presented itself as a replacement of US power, but as an alternative model of development that can co-exist with US power within global governance structures.
Two Worlds, Two Playbooks: Why Moscow and Washington Don’t Understand Each Other
John Mearsheimer
In international relations, Washington and Moscow operate according to different playbooks, hence their misunderstanding, which at times leads to diplomatic confrontation, believes John Mearsheimer, a prominent scholar of great power politics from the University of Chicago.

Russia, for its part, has learned to use its military (both nuclear and conventional) as well as intelligence and diplomatic assets to spoil, at times successfully, US plans, including by exploiting US domestic divides through information warfare. Yet Russia remains a relatively small and undiversified economy with no chance to challenge US primacy.
The best it can hope for is to force itself to the table on all issues it has something at stake.

Critical to the success of Russia and China’s ambitions is to push back against US influence in their own neighbourhood. While they have scored some points, the overall result has been that of entrenching competition with the United States and making East Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East systemically more insecure and fragmented. In the struggle, opposition to America and legitimacy of the regimes in power in Beijing and Moscow have become increasingly intertwined. This creates huge barriers on the ability of China and Russia to find enduring agreements with the United States. 

Weak or isolated countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Syria or North Korea, profit from China and especially Russia’s resolve to stave off US influence. Over-reliance on America’s main rivals however reduces the chance for them of alleviating the pressure on both economy and regime through a direct interlocution with Washington – as North Korea has tried to do, so far to no avail. This dynamic also affects mid-size powers pursuing recognition and autonomy in their region. Prominent in this category is Iran, ruled by an avowedly anti-US regime that has nonetheless shown enough pragmatism to contemplate an accommodation with the United States. Another country that fits the profile is Turkey, which even if a formal NATO ally is increasingly at odds with such tenets of US Mideast policy as ostracism towards political Islam, uncritical support for Israel and tactical reliance on the Kurds. These countries see regional arrangements reflecting their interests as compatible with global US primacy, yet US rigidity – outright bellicosity in the case of Iran – compels them to seek alternative arrangements with Russia and China. 

Second are the states that see US power as beneficial. 

Most of America’s allies in Europe and Asia-Pacific appreciate American defence guarantees and support for the multilateral order, which they seek to strengthen as a way to decrease the relevance of power politics and therefore their own dependence on US power. No surprise then that the combination of great power competition and America’s faltering commitment to multilateral regimes and alliances have put them in a difficult spot. They are invariably driven back to America as a counterweight against Russia and China at a time convergence of interests with the United States is decreasing. This has nurtured a desire for ‘strategic autonomy’ among EU members states. Intra-EU consensus on the matter has limits, however, as most EU countries see autonomy as a complement to their asymmetrical relationship with America rather than a path to full independence. EU countries may seek triangulations with other powers (including Russia and China) on issues like climate change or nuclear non-proliferation, but their default preference remains a foreign policy enabled and empowered by transatlantic convergence. They may deviate from this path, but are not ready to abandon it altogether.
Suzerain-Vassals Relations: How Trump Shapes His European Policy
Andrei Korobkov
Last week, Donald Trump demonstrated the stark contrast between the way he talks with Vladimir Putin who, albeit an opponent, is still the head of a great power, and the way he talks with European leaders, seen as vassals. At a meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker on July 25, the US president called a spade a spade once again and sent Europe a clear message that the western alliance is not a union of equals anymore. No matter how the trade war ends for Europe, the rules of the game have changed, said Andrei Korobkov, Professor of political science at the Middle Tennessee State University, in an interview with

Other countries have no qualms in fully embracing their dependence on US power. This class includes both strong states with significant military, technological, financial and energy assets, such as Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and weaker states such as Egypt, Jordan, Ukraine or Georgia. To varying degrees – with Israel towering over all others – these states have learned to leverage their importance to the United States. Skilfully exploiting the openness to foreign lobbying of the US political system, these countries create domestic incentives for parts of Washington’s foreign policy establishment to frame American interests in keeping with their own. The main of such incentives is to present themselves as vectors of US influence in their region of origin. The flip side is that the United States finds itself deeply entrenched in regional rivalries, as these states are often engaged in zero-sum competition with other regional countries. The result is further fragmentation of regional politics and increased interstate competition at both the regional and global level. 

Last come the states, big and small, that see no advantage in taking sides for or against US power. 

Most of them are states with limited resources in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, whose main strategic interest is to avoid becoming overly dependent on others. These countries engage in complex balancing acts between great powers to protect their room for manoeuvre and are generally keen on regional institutions to share risks and extend their foreign policy latitude. A similar policy mix is pursued by countries with considerable economic and demographic assets such as Brazil and South Africa, both of which tend to keep their distance from great power competition and catalyse regional trade and diplomacy, whereby they perform a stabilising function. 
India, Russia and the Indo-Pacific
Nivedita Kapoor, Nandan Unnikrishnan
Since its first mention in an official policy document by Australia in 2013, the idea of Indo-Pacific has steadily gained prominence amongst the polity and commentariat in several countries. The concept, which acknowledges the salience of economic and maritime connectivity of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, has more recently acquired a complex political dimension as well.

India is a special case. Its massive demography and rising economic and military resources allow it to deal with other great powers on an equal basis. However, the unsolved conflict with arch-rival Pakistan and proximity to China constrain its potential for power projection and catalysing regional trade and economic activity. In a way, India is a wild card in world geopolitics, especially as it may review its traditional commitment to non-alignment and seek closer ties to the United States or Europe in the attempt to increase its ability to shape great power interactions. 

In conclusion, the interplay of great, mid-size and small powers plays out against a backdrop of growing geopolitical competition and regional polarisation. Countries around the world increasingly engage one another along partly overlapping paths of cooperation, competition and conflict, and often outside established multilateral regimes and institutions. While one should not discard the lingering tempering effect on interstate conflict of military deterrence (nuclear and conventional) and economic interdependence, a system resting on fragile regions and constantly shifting balances is no recipe for long-term security. A more stable, or at least predictable, system may still emerge, either as the result of allegiance and opposition to US power eventually generating broad coalitions engaged in controlled rivalry, or the creation of regionally-owned governance mechanisms backed (or at least respected) by external powers. Neither outcome is likely, as great powers see concessions as net losses and too often regional powers are unable or unwilling to create endogenous dynamics of aggregation. 

In the 1820s European diplomats romantically spoke of a concert of powers. Two hundred years later, we should content ourselves with a more prosaic, but more honest, description of international politics as the cacophony of powers. 
Global Governance
Multilateralism and the New World Order
Francisco de Santibañes
The fact that the liberal order may be coming to an end does not mean we should not aspire to live in a rules-based system that permits both small and medium-sized countries to promote their interests, writes Francisco de Santibañes, Director General at the Argentine Council for International Relations (CARI). The publication of this article continues online collaboration between Valdai Club as part of its Think Tank project and CARI.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.