Any attempt to trace order — and the origins of great powers and great power politics — deals with underlying factors and processes that transform the status of a “simple power state” to “global power.” While keeping in view the historical evolution of great powers, one may argue that the rise and fall of great powers reside in global economic connectivity, political globalization, and ideational factors. These processes define the ideological trends, interactions, and order in global politics — all are crafted and advanced by imperial, hegemonic powers and challengers. Some may explain the transition in terms of global leadership, with a democratic outlook, with agenda setting and decision-making powers. “Master(s) of the world rise to the supreme status in world politics” is a historical process — a process is located in time and space. Not only do power transitions in global politics reside in material variables but also the normative character of the order. Every hegemonic order has its own ideological orientation and value system. Decline in material and ideational aspects of the global power leads to instability and waning of the empire’s control.
History shows that rising powers have attempted to reproduce and replicate their internal method and structure of commerce, politics, and cultural logic in their area of influence and control. Tested mechanisms at domestic level have been employed to achieve the hegemonic interests in larger territories. Genghis Khan and his Mongol successors emphatically pursued the empire project in 13th century that based on money, power, and social relations. Mongols’ pattern of becoming a hegemon in their regional zone was elusive. Similarly, Chinese imperial authorities maintained their hegemony through a tributary system. (The system based on inner core (central authority) and outer core of states in the hegemonic system). Central authorities ruled through centralized bureaucracy and allowed inner core states to remain autonomous in their local and external affairs. Economy was under the central command with private markets allowed to work. In imperial China, culture was the deciding factor in the placement of states in inner or outer core of the system. It had no fixed boundaries. Cultural superiority and cultural assimilation were at the core of the empire.
Ottomans, too, did not rule differently. Although they ruled through a hub-and-spoke system, Sultan kept firm control on power. Vertical authority prevailed; opposition forces were defeated and eliminated. Istanbul’s socio-economic relations with periphery were based on imperialism. At the cultural front, Ottomans were more accommodating than the Chinese. But the inflexibility and centralization in the politico-economic hierarchy were their hallmarks — the same characteristics that led to the empire’s decline.
Based on sea-power primacy, the European power system was a mixture of strong and weak powers in the 19th century. Virtually all followed a designated path of series of economic activities with extra-territorial outreach, with an objective of reordering the existing order to safeguard their unparalleled power, promotion of values, and material interests in faraway regions. Political coalition, alliances, and colonial projects helped turn the rhetoric into reality.
Pax Britannica emerged as a classic example of global power. Britain shaped the global order and balance of power in Europe. Its rise, focusing on imperialism of capital and free trade, linked treasury with external affairs and military strength and preparedness. Economic globalization, carrying along overseas investments and annexations in the global south, became the driving force. Hence a new liberal, democratic order emerged, with exceptions for non-Europeans, which also wrapped the US in. British and American bilateral relation, for this reason, despite geopolitical differences, survived the hitches of the 19th century.
American position in the British order primarily based on commerce. Foreign investors and investments in America paved the path of economic prosperity; Victorian elites largely shadowed America’s destiny. Although the US maintained its naval presence in Atlantic and Pacific, its integration in British financial system and understanding with the empire saved it blood and treasure. Growing trust between the two and the decline in British power in the early years of 20th century mitigated their competition and hence paved the way for today’s “special relationship”. The cousins’ feuds, leading to WWI, eventually led the old hegemon retiring for the new hegemon. Emerging as the strongest financial power after WWI and WWII, the US replaced Britain. Pax Britannica lost its eminence; Pax Americana filled the vacuum.
With the ascent of the US as the great power, the imperial liberal economic globalization entered into an active political globalization phase. The internal motor of change in power in the post-WWII era based on global institutional leadership and global governance. A brief unipolar moment, arguably, emerged from 1945 to 1949, a new challenger with contending objectives, Soviet Union, soon emerged. Hence a novel pattern of distribution of power, bipolarity, emerged that survived four-and-a -half decades.
Masters of both poles led military alliances, thus providing protection to alliance members. They struggled to maintain alliances forged with small states to keep them in the orbit. Cold war coalitions were not strong, and they failed to sustain, in some cases, for a longer period. The alliances provided spoilers and opportunists in both blocs with the chance to capitalize on the superpower rivalry for their own benefits. The US liberal economic and political agenda focused on the promotion of capitalism and democracy while the Soviets nurtured communist regimes and provided longterm loans to developing and underdeveloped nations. Although they did not risk direct engagements in the battlefield, perceived and actual fears and competition in Europe and the global south rendered the arms race a preferred course.
The cold war ended with the collapse of the Soviet empire. And the US emerged as the only master. Its “term in office” of unimastership cemented in the 1990s. “God, yet again, favored the Americans”: they progressed, with some exceptions, according to the ideals of “free world” and “economic liberalism” in the 1990s.
American confidence was over the hill in making the world a “made in America” enterprise. Political elite, particularly Wilsonians and Hamiltonians, took the US position as a unique opportunity to enact the liberal global order. NATO stretched from Western to Eastern Europe. New members’ fears of Russian assault resulted in their security dependence on the US. International political rivalries took a brief rest, and economic prosperity fostered through market forces. A new age — ushered by low tariffs, investment, cyber revolution, open trade, and services — according to some, rendered old, bad geopolitics a thing of past. The hegemon faced no existential threat. Threats from regional powers could not impact the policymaking process, for the American supremacy was perceived as unchallengeable.
Military dominance was an undisputable objective of post-Cold War US leadership. Official narrative was to ensure the US military primacy while discouraging others to cast off any kind of policy thinking to compete with US. Wilsonians, in the meantime, could not give up the temptation of humanitarian interventions and regime change in weak, chaotic, and orderless societies. Yet they often moved forth without taking into account the pre-requisites of democracy and thus failed to deliver.
Despite a mixed record in 1990s, the globalists in US effectively took control of external policy after the 9/11 attack. American focus shifted to failed states, based on an ethnocentric view of failed states and terrorism. The US-led intervention in Afghanistan, taking place in the backdrop of 9/11, led to the removal of Taliban from power and installed an illiberal democracy in the conflict-ridden society. (The military elite, after 17 years of war in Afghanistan, still describes the war as a stalemate.) The real dent, American model suffered, came in the shape of US intervention in Iraq. Two unnecessarily long wars, along with ambitious nation building and state building projects, and the economic recession in 2008 negatively affected the US position.
While the US suffered the consequences of misplaced beliefs and ambitious agenda, the rise of the rest enabled the emerging economies to narrow the power gap. BRICS nations, especially China, pursued a global policy of strengthening, objecting, and initiating. With Chinese and Indian rise, the focus of great power politics moved from Europe to Asia — it took Asian powers two-and-a-half centuries to assert themselves. Although the Asian powers resisted the hegemony with nationalism, they followed the hegemon’s path in economic liberalism, trade pacts, and multilateral institutions. Without challenging the order at once, they succeeded in objecting the Americanized aspects of the order. Their co-existence with the hegemon so far and progress within the order suffice to indicate that a great power war is unlikely, but not impossible.
We are entering a new age, with a world of many masters. All have the same agenda, to remain connected with each other but compete with each other for a greater economic and military role in the system while avoiding a direct conflict in disputed lands and water. The US preeminence in the global system faces challenges from China and Russia. India is trailing behind in assuming a more assertive role in the system. Chinese economic and military power is pushing hard to share the mastership of the world with the US. At the same time, Sino-Russian alliance has upgraded the Russian position in the hierarchy.
Amid the integration and competition, what remains constant is the order that may become more integrated and democratic in the years to come. HH
The writer is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Defense & Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
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