UN Security Council Meeting. Photo: White House. Source: Wikimedia
The term “Great Power” was first used to describe the major nations in the Congress of Vienna – Austria, Prussia, Russia, England, and France. The members met periodically to settle disputes and to maintain the balance of power. Later, the Great Powers formed competing alliances among themselves, which were tested and broken during World Wars I and II. The legacy of the Great Powers was enshrined in the permanent members of UN Security Council: the US, UK, France, Russia, and China. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US has been described as the world’s only superpower.
There are three aspects to a country’s power that make it great on the world stage: military prowess, economic strength, and cultural dominance. In some ways this has always been the case: an ancient city-state needed a military to defend itself, an economy to support the military, and a culture to inspire its people and project its values. Ancient Egypt, Babylonia, and Rome were Great Powers.
Great Powers rise because their economic and cultural strength allow them to have a military that can defend their interests. They fall because their military strength encourages them to overreach their resources, and other powers then step in. In the late 20th century, Russia’s far-flung operations – in Eastern Europe, in Afghanistan, in Africa, in Latin America – were more than its centrally-planned economy could handle.
Can China be great on the world stage? They have an economy that can maintain a large military, but they have few global commitments that require them to exert their military outside their own borders. They’re the world’s second largest economic and military power, and – so far – they’ve had the good sense to avoid foreign adventures and entangling alliances. They haven’t ventured abroad seeking monsters to destroy.
St. George & the Dragon. Source: Verona Library
No nation is ever born great. But if its leaders seek to achieve greatness on the world stage, they need to be careful. Great power can be greatly tempting.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
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