Order from Chaos

How great power competition has changed

Shivshankar Menon

It is a cliché to say that we are at a moment of transformation in the international situation. Change is inevitable and constant so the cliché always has enough truth to give it legs. But the important question is what kind of change are we seeing, and specifically, how are relations among great powers changing?

A few bits of background are important to the story:

  • The last 25 years have seen a redistribution of economic power among the world’s great powers on a scale and rate that is probably unprecedented in history. This process accelerated after the global financial crisis of 2008. China, which was one-eighth the size of the U.S. economy 25 years ago, but is now roughly the same size in purchasing power terms. And several other countries have also shown consistently high rates of growth—India, for instance, has posted over 6 percent gross domestic product growth for more than 30 years and over 8 percent in the first decade of this century. The other side of this phenomenon is the relative decline of the rest of the West, the United States excluded, whose share in global output has dropped.
  • The shift in economic power has not been painless for anyone. Since 2008, every major power has undergone some form of deep internal economic readjustment: The United States is transitioning to an energy and innovation economy; China is seeking domestic sources of future growth in consumption; India is preoccupied with building infrastructure, urbanization and industrialization; Japan and Western Europe are trying to rediscover sources of economic growth while aging; Russia seeks to adjust to new energy market conditions and an ageing and shrinking population; and so on. 
  • The trend is less evident but similar in politics. In the military and technological domains U.S. predominance continues. But at the same time new technologies have empowered small groups and individuals, and function as force multipliers for non-state actors like terrorists, further eroding the state’s monopoly on violence. The combination of economic crises, the social and political fragility they have induced, and new technologies, has created instability and geopolitical shifts.
  • As a consequence, even very powerful states find it difficult to translate military dominance and battlefield superiority into lasting or effective political outcomes and arrangements. We only have to look around us to see multiple examples—Iraq, Afghanistan Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Ukraine. The result is a series of local wars and prolonged conflicts around the world.

In sum, power is now more evenly distributed in the international system. As a result, there is rising geopolitical competition among great powers. But the nature of the competition is limited by two significant factors: their domestic preoccupations and their dependence on each other for economic growth. Conflict is therefore most acute along the periphery of great powers that are least integrated into the Western-led political order.

Rising geopolitical competition usually happens through proxies rather than direct confrontation Ukraine, North Africa, and the Middle East are examples. The East China Sea is currently the only area of direct confrontation between two major powers. Competition among great powers has extended to the sea lanes that carry the world’s energy and trade and is visible in the naval buildup by all the major powers that we see today—a buildup over the last ten years which is unmatched in scale in history.

At the same time, the prospect of conventional war between major powers remains low—victory in a major war is no longer a meaningful objective for any major power.

The Consequences

We should expect several consequences of the growing geopolitical competition among great powers:

  • Following Edward Luttwak, we will give war a chance. In a series of regional crisis after crises, the great powers neutralize each other and avoid the hard political work needed to solve the crisis. Expect Libya, Syria, and other crises to continue to fester.
  • The great powers’ ability to make systemic changes in the world order will remain in considerable doubt. For all the need to restore geopolitical balance where it has been upset, as in the Middle East, or to create a new open inclusive security architecture in the Asia-Pacific, there is no great power or group of great powers stepping forward to restore or create balance or to negotiate the balance of interests in troubled regions. On international issues, the level of productive cooperation among great powers is at an all-time low as demonstrated by the declining efficacy of the United Nations and other multilateral institutions. On global issues like climate change and trade talks, great powers are pursuing ad-hoc and regional pacts rather than the global solutions that confident major powers sought in the past.
  • Regional powers will have more space to pursue their own ambitions, and take matters into their own hands. The fact that power is more evenly distributed among states, and even within states, means that the major powers’ ability to enforce peace or stabilize conflict is also limited. In cases like Yemen and Afghanistan, the major powers have no alternative but to relying on regional or local powers. Where there is no agreement among the regional powers as in Syria, the major powers are unable to impose their will or even agree on desirable outcomes. 

In sum, great power relations have deteriorated considerably in the last few years. While there are limits to how bad they can become, there are also limits to their ability to produce international outcomes on urgent issues.