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Political scientists use the term great power to describe a nation that can exercise its influence on a global scale . This paper aims to discuss the future distribution of power among countries that have a significant influence on international relations. To accomplish this, it is critical to examine the attributes that enable a state to claim the title of a great power. Furthermore, this essay will demonstrate how the concept of a great power might evolve in the future.
Current circumstances and trends permit a prediction that in 2050 the major global role could be played by the United States, with China a close second, and a third tier that would include the EU and India.
These countries have been selected because they have sufficient military power and/or economic might to shape the geopolitical policies and behavior of other countries. In turn, other historically great powers such as Russia could bandwagon with one of these states. Therefore, it is possible to argue that in 2050 there will be a multi-polar world.
However, one should bear in mind that this prediction can be weakened because there are many factors, some very difficult to predict, that could change the distribution of power.
For example, one might mention the longer term impacts of globalization, the accrual of power by non-state entities (whether corporate, religious, or other), the rise or resurgence of totalitarian regimes, irrational geopolitical decisions, internal demographic and cultural changes within different states, and many other factors which could change the expected course of geopolitical relations. Such complicating factors can undermine or bolster the growth of a nation into a great power.
The distribution of power
The concept of a great power incorporates several characteristics. In the past, scholars have usually highlighted such markers as a nation’s economic resources, and their military capacity, as determinants of great power status.
If these criteria are viewed as most emblematic of great powers, then the United States and China will be more likely to qualify as players at the international level. However, elements of soft power1, an articulated geopolitical agenda, and ability to attract supporters, should probably also be considered as necessary attributes of great powers in the coming decades.
Military capacity, reflected in the proxy measure of military expenditures, can act as a deterrent to potential aggression. It is noteworthy that the current military expenditures of the United States consume more than $600 billion (Thurber 230). These, it is worth remembering, are only the publicly acknowledged expenditures . Thus, currently America outspends every other country with possible ambitions to the status of great power.
There are several aspects of the U.S. military superiority. For example, the country has multiple military bases built at various key locations in Europe, Asia, and the Persian Gulf (Posen 18). Therefore, the country can quickly deploy its forces across the globe. Furthermore, its supply networks enable the country to conduct wars in distant regions if it is necessary.
Moreover, the United States’ orbital surveillance satellite network is critical for gathering intelligence and building up a predictive picture of other nations’ plans. American troops are arguably equipped with the most advanced and sophisticated equipment and weaponry. Thus, technologically at least, American troops are still the best able to outmaneuver the forces of their rivals. (Posen 19).
The US armed forces, now staffed on an entirely volunteer basis, have also made a conscious effort to recruit individuals with good academic qualifications.
These military strengths position the United States to retain the title of great power, while other nations will need to make substantial expenditures of money, time, and other resources, to match the current capabilities of the USA (Posen 19). Given the massive outspending of the USA over any other nations, how, then, can China’s military resources help it to claim the title of superpower in 2050?
Admittedly, the military spending of China is much lower than that of the United States. Currently, it constitutes $ 104 billion. This budget is a 2.6 percent of their annual GDP (Central Intelligence Agency unpaged). However, one should recall that this represents a level of expenditure second only to the USA.
As evidenced by the events of the recent decades, this allocation of resources has been adequate to keep China from being attacked openly. At least part of this history of security is attributable to China’s possession of nuclear weapons (Central Intelligence Agency unpaged). These act as an effective deterrent to military confrontation with other nation states. Furthermore, China’s massive population includes some 385,821,101 people who are available for military service (Central Intelligence Agency).
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Certainly, sheer strength of potential personnel numbers is not an infallible indicator of military effectiveness. Much depends on the qualifications of the recruitment pool, recruiting techniques and assessments, training, technology, and professional commitment of the troops.
However, the overwhelming population reservoir that represents both China’s strength and its liability (in terms of feeding and constructively occupying its people) could shape the outcome of any out-and-out war, by extending the amount of time that the nation could continue to mount a campaign, or resist one.
China, thus, boasts a unique combination of military spending and nearly unlimited troop replacements. These contribute to China’s potential for using actual or threatened military force to settle or enforce disputes, such as the continuing dispute over Taiwan, or others, in its region of the globe (Mearsheimer 160). This population advantage should continue to be a factor in helping China to achieve great power status, especially since the one family-one child policy is under revision2.
These are not the only potential players on the global stage. The EU has military forces with long experience and well-developed institutional frameworks. India is on track to become the fourth largest military in the world by 2020 .
However, it is to be hoped that, by 2050, great powers will avoid the use of military force. The decreasing US acceptance of the justification of significant casualties has been accompanied by increasing use of technologies such as drone strikes.
These have the potential to reduce troop losses, and suggest that this is the trend of the future. While this does not reduce the importance of military capability, it is a potentially important change in emphasis in the way that nation states attempt to impose their geopolitical agenda on neighbors or distant rivals.
In addition to military might, economic development distinguishes countries that can compete as great powers. This characteristic is critical for the long-term sustainability of a country and its ability to affect other countries. For example, the average annual growth rate of Chinese economy has been 10 percent (Yao unpaged).
Furthermore, this country attracts investors from countries all over the globe. Currently, it has a trade surplus with America and many other states (“The US-China power balance”). Additionally, China invests widely in other countries and at a rapidly increasing rate, despite some resistance on the part of some host countries . Therefore, this state has an opportunity to influence the policies of other states with the help of economic development.
Nevertheless, the United States remains positioned to retain substantial advantage in exerting impact on international events arising from deep economic resources and a long-standing support of commerce. For example, the very sustainability of China as a thriving and growing entity strongly depends on the openness of American and European markets.
This openness is not inevitable. These markets depend on explicit policy choices, military backing, the economic vigor of participating nations, and on the flexibility and business friendliness of the United States system.
These elements characterize the EU’s system as well to some extent. Moreover, the generally positive experience that the European Union has acquired in creating an open and functional market out of a large number of culturally disparate nations is instructive. It is likely to prove to be helpful in guiding other regions of the world in creating similar such market alliances.
The solid expertise and history of the EU’s combined militaries, their successful economic market, and their history of peaceful cooperation ever since the EU was established, all contribute to its status. This may accord the EU an impact that is perhaps out of proportion to its actual military spending or the size of EU joint GDP.
Furthermore, America’s GDP constitutes approximately 25 percent of the entire global economy (Lake 560). Additionally, it is still the case that the world’s biggest corporations are headquartered in the United States, no matter what the location of their actual production facilities. Healthy corporate entities will likely remain critical for the economic security of the United States.
Moreover, one should remember that, at present, the average personal income level in China is much lower than in the United States. Nonetheless, both these countries can use their financial resources in order to achieve their geopolitical objectives and consolidate their position as great powers.
While military capacity and economic power can be viewed as tangible resources, intangible resources deserve attention as well. These factors are critical to a nation in attracting and retaining supporters both regionally and globally. In this respect, the EU holds an especially important place as a standard setter. They have established themselves as taking the ‘high road’ with regard to human rights, even more so than the USA on some issues.
In particular, these countries are distinctive because they have the capacity to resolve disputes among other states arising from their established diplomatic reputation (Otunnu 4). For example, tensions between South and North Koreas are often moderated by the presence of China in the region. Similarly, the United States has a long history of facilitating negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
This stands in contrast to the pattern of behavior of Russia, which tends to act as mediator primarily in the case of its close neighbors. The European Union often takes an active role via moral suasion. It should be noted, however, that in many instances, the support of the USA is assumed. The role of the USA as the moral policeman of the world is so firmly rooted that it makes visualizing a world without this nation in the same position.
The influence of reputation may persist if and when the USA limits its activities as the world’s security force. This is an advantage that other nations would have to invest heavily to acquire. However, the EU nations are positioned to exert similar influence through their former colonial relationships. An example might be the role that France played recently in forestalling further violence in Africa.
There are several areas wherein the USA could solidify its central role in international relations. The persistent leadership of the USA in technological innovation is an important asset. It is perhaps ironic that much of this innovation occurs as a result of the efforts of the best and brightest minds from all over the world. There is increasing pressure from international student applicants to acquire US college and graduate school degrees.
Even the reduction of international student opportunities, which occurred after 9/11, has failed, fortunately, to eliminate this valuable reservoir of technological creativity. Such technological leadership is critical for the sustainable development of the USA. It is worth noting that approximately 75 percent of adult immigrants to the USA have completed their post-secondary education (Spring 186).
A cursory peek into any scientific department in the USA is likely to confirm that American institutions of higher education can attract and retain the best researchers from around the world. This represents a brain gain that enriches all areas of science and technology (Spring 186).
In contrast, China has not appeared to be as attractive to immigrants who have well-developed professional skills. The government is trying to amend this with a strong push to encourage foreign students to come to study in China. This effort, however, is late in starting, and perhaps inept.
The advantage of an open and appealing educational system is an advantage critical to the competitiveness of the United States. This is one element of soft power of the United States, which enhances its ability to influence other actors without using coercion.
Furthermore, the United States has a well-developed civil society that explicitly encourages its citizens to exercise their democratic rights. This stands in sharp contrast to China, which, in spite of a recent apparent embrace of moneymaking, remains unquestionably a totalitarian state. Individual rights have few protections under these conditions (Yao). China’s totalitarian government does not properly safeguard the rights of special interests either.
This deficiency weakens China, in comparison to the USA, in its capacity to influence international politics. Even if this great power does not choose to dictate its terms to other international actors, political leaders of other nations may perceive it as a valid candidate for great power status (MacDonald & Parent 44). Finally, it is vital to remember that America has been able to resolve internal conflicts in a non-violent fashion.
In this society, there are seldom social groups in open violent confrontation with one another, and when such confrontations do occur, the authorities take action against the offenders. However, one cannot say the same thing about China, which has experienced social confrontations.
For example, the government of China suppresses trade unions and permits the violation of workers’ rights (Yao unpaged). However, such a policy can eventually become dangerous provided if the economy ceases to be vibrant, and inequality increases (Yao unpaged). The government may become the focus of blame for unjust distribution of wealth. Thus, China runs a risk of civic unrest and conflict.
In contrast, income inequalities in the United States, although they certainly exist, are much less dramatic. This detail should concern Chinese policy-makers. A nation or group that can demonstrate reduced social inequalities, as the EU may able to, thereby acquires additional credibility as a great power.
Income inequality can appear as a proxy measure of a nation’s concern for its own citizens. As such, it endows a nation or group with influence and weight out of proportion to military might or the size of the economy. Thus, if social equity becomes or remains a successful goal, an entity such as the EU, or even India, could compete to create a multi-polar world in 2050.
As a supranational entity, therefore, the EU deserves consideration as a prospective great power. India, as well, given its increasing technological resources, size, and attractive status as a democracy, also warrants consideration as one of major players in a multi-polar system. The EU, however, suffers from a risk attending any alliance: the constituent nations do not always share goals (Smith 670). For example, Germany and France may worry about the economic policies of poorer member countries such as Greece.
Furthermore, there is potential conflict between EU institutions and members’ national governments (Smith 670). Although the EU has tended to align itself with the USA, one or more member state may criticize the United States’ policies. It is possible to visualize a situation wherein the EU would find it difficult to develop a common geopolitical strategy.
Additionally, it is not clear that the EU even has ambitions to be explicitly a great power. Thus far, the EU seems content to focus on internal development and social welfare. This absence of a clear political agenda may be the major barrier preventing the EU from becoming a power that can challenge the USA or China.
Such ambition is actually more visible in the behavior of Russia. Some scholars suggest that Russia may wish to reverse the outcome of the Cold War and regain much or all of its former influence. (Neumann 150). However, corruption, brain drain, and rigid governmental bureaucracy undermine its competiveness (Neumann 150).
Moreover, the economy of this state heavily depends on the export of natural resources. If these deficiencies remain unaddressed, Russia will fail at revisiting its former role as dominant international player. Lacking some of Russia’s problems could prove to be one of China’s real advantages, and has always been one of the USA’s assets.
India, characterized by rising military spending, and blessed with a sizable, ambitious, and well-educated work force, also lacks many of the unpleasant historical political baggage that weighs Russia down. The outcome of the striving between all these important countries will strongly depend on their ability to eliminate their internal weaknesses, formulate a clear agenda, and manage or resolve internal conflicts that can undermine their strengths.
The notion of great power in 2010 and 2050
Given the rapid change in the nature of superpower relations since the end of the Cold War, it is important to recall that the very notion of a great power may evolve drastically between now and 2050. A narrow focus on military and economic factors is probably inadequate (Buzan 60).
Attention to internal development, infrastructure, social equality, education, human rights protection, and other similar issues will characterize successful role models for other nations (Buzan 60). Nations with pretensions to world leadership should derive a salutary lesson from the fall of the former USSR. An over-focus on military capacity and a nearly complete obliviousness to soft power issues made this state catastrophically unattractive to even its own client countries.
In the future, it is likely that states will wisely recognize the need for soft power in order to maintain or establish hegemony without expenditures on force or coercion. For example, a country may have a stronger influence on international relations if it can offer a safe and remunerative environment for entrepreneurs and intellectuals from different parts of the world.
This issue is particularly important in an era of globalization and disappearing barriers to the movement of labor and capital. Reliance on coercion in these circumstances may produce adverse results (Neumann 150). It will take a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of a great power to increase national prestige and ensure the loyalty of allies.
The prospects of war and peace
Although countries will probably continue to invest in military capacity, the presence in an increasing number of countries of nuclear weapons will make outright aggression illogical. The consequences of a strike would be disastrous for both aggressor and target. (However, the threat of nuclear use or misuse by a non-state entity whose agents lack any urge for self-preservation will probably continue to menace the entire world.)
Interdependence is another potential deterrent to major military conflict (Brooks and Wohlforth 129)3. For instance, China has major foreign direct investment from Japan (Kang 69). China is also increasingly making investments abroad . These connections could deter an overt expression of hostility.
External military aggression will necessarily detract from the ongoing task of reducing significant inequalities China could, nevertheless, challenge the status quo (Legro 515). Leaders unfortunately, cannot be counted on to behave rationally at all times (Robin 66)
Additionally, the great powers situation in 2050 will probably include conflicts between less developed countries. Africa is a potential reservoir of violent confrontation, which undermines the development of nations on the continent.
The major powers have been laggard in intervening, but recent events involving the Central African Republic and France provide hope that this attitude can evolve. More advantaged nations such as India and the EU countries could assume a larger, and appropriate, role as peacekeepers in an effort to solidify their international reputations.
Factors that can render a forecast inaccurate
Forecasts regarding geopolitical development are limited by the premise that current political and economic trends will persist indefinitely into the future (Roach 141) Internal factors can impact a country’s chances of becoming a dominant actor. Russia, for example, suffers from crippling corruption and lack of governmental accountability.
This, in addition to infrastructure deficits, may keep it from reacquiring its former status. (Neumann 150). On the other hand, if Russia were to address these issues effectively, global geopolitical development could change direction.
Totalitarian regimes like Russia’s can also pose a threat to global security if they promote an aggressive or chauvinistic agenda, or behave irrationally. (Roach 123). Disturbing examples from history such as Adolf Hitler, and more recent examples such as Kim Jong Un suggest that irrational leaders will use violence even when unnecessary. Such behavior constitutes an unpredictable factor in the evolution of great powers in 2050.
Additionally, the historical and cultural legacies of nations can foster or undermine their chances of achieving great power status. China’s separatist movements, for example, of the Tibetan people, can damage reputation, waste resources, and destabilize a state. Furthermore, such movements tend to be unpredictable. (Spencer 41)
Furthermore, geopolitical development in 2050 may strongly depend on the ability of different states to form alliances with one another. For example, a successful Sino-Russian alliance would increase the influence of China in Eurasia. Russian and US cooperation could counter-balance China effectively, isolating it, and diminishing its global influence. Such alliances, sometimes driven by short-term interests, often reflect poorly designed policies. As such, they are not amenable to sound prediction.
The continuing process of globalization may also change the distribution of power. For example, the movement of labor, capital, and knowledge from American, European, and Japanese companies has been is a powerful driver of China’s growth (Kang 69). Countries that choose to foster this process can benefit themselves as well as the states with which they share human capital.
Finally, natural resources are a significant factor in the development of a nation into a great power. Countries that seriously pursue energy efficiency will better position themselves as the world depletes its non-renewable resources in the run-up to 2050 (Parks and Roberts 134). This policy requires technological innovation, consistent policy commitment4, and economic investment, but could give a nation a boost towards geopolitical supremacy. The United States is inconsistent, China sometimes seems oblivious, EU seems obsessed, and India is still in the midst of damaging their land, water, and air but is increasingly conscious of the need for attention to the problem .
Thus, many independent variables will affect the shape of great power relations in 2050. Many of these factors resist accurate prediction. This suggests that any prediction is likely to be false in the long term.
Overall, this discussion suggests that global geopolitical development should be viewed as a multi-factorial process. Many of the factors do not lend themselves to prediction. However, the current pre-eminent power of the USA, the size and power of China, the historical position of the EU, and the fast rise of India suggest that this assemblage of nations and groups of nations could constitute the great powers of the nest decades.
Consider a world still dominated in many respects by the USA, but with China closely following, and exerting control over its own quadrant of the globe, balanced and moderated by the EU alliance, and pressed from behind by India. With a focus on infrastructure, equality, education, and human rights protection, these entities might manage the world in an orderly fashion. Irrational elements such as totalitarian leaders, religious fanatics, and separatists would keep matters dynamic and thoroughly unpredictable.
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1 As described by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, soft power would include, “diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action and economic reconstruction and development.”
2 The possibility of massive population losses due to biological causes, whether arising from the natural evolution of some microorganism, global warming-induced changes to disease vectors, or bio-terrorism, should be kept in mind, and would change this factor in China’s superpower potential.
3 However, the sad evidence from the past is that even interdependence among the European nations did not prevent the outbreak of World War I (Levy and Thompson 76).
4 In this regard, the USA is actually being as active as possible. For example, tax credit regulations applying to investment in alternative energy installation in homes and businesses can seem baffling and inconsistent. This poses a barrier to implementing helpful energy saving practices and technologies.