The Coming Great Powers Competition

By Henriksen, Thomas H. | World Affairs, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

The Coming Great Powers Competition


Henriksen, Thomas H., World Affairs


Our new international order is beginning to look like late nineteenth-century world politics. A hundred years ago, the great powers were locked in economic and political competition. Driven by economic gain, security, or power, they pursued tangible, not ideological, ends. They often maneuvered to counterbalance a rival's ambitions through alliances or armaments. National interests counted for far more than governmental affinities. Hence, democracies and autocracies were at times pitted against their own while cooperating with their opposites in pursuit of their goals.

The United States, Britain, France, and Germany competed overseas for markets and resources. Russia and the Austro-Hungarian empire spread over land to secure borders, acquire territory, or expand spheres of influence. Their interests collided in frontier zones such as the dying Ottoman empire in southeastern Europe or in Asia and Africa. Clashes occurred in the Pacific, Central Asia, and the Balkans. The present seems to remember the past, because great-power rivalries are re-emerging. The cast of characters is somewhat altered, but the parts played by the powerful actors are not that historically unfamiliar.

THE RETURN OF HISTORY

To be sure, the modern global state system has different features than its nineteenth-century precursor. Telecommunications, electronic capital transfers, free trade agreements, weapons of mass destruction, and international organizations based on collective security - all seemingly separate our era from a century ago. Yet, often overlooked in this new world order is that capital flows existed in abundance before World War I. More important, it is national policies that determine whether funds flow in or out of a state. The nation state still counts in our era of global markets.

Like the last decade of the twentieth century, the world of the 1890s witnessed a multipolar international order, relations regulated by power, accelerating world trade, perplexing economic connections, free international capital flows, strong national passions, regional arms races, and small-scale conflicts fought largely on the periphery for power, wealth, or ethno-nationalist ends.

Communism has been discredited in the intervening one-hundred-year period. But older and far stronger forces are at work. Recent events demonstrate clearly that, whatever the status of free markets and democracy, nationalism is far from obsolete. Nationalism stirs passions similar to those it aroused a hundred years ago. The Balkans are not the only example of this phenomenon. The tropical paradise of Sri Lanka is blood-soaked in ethnic violence. Ecuador and Peru fight over borders as do Egypt and the Sudan. The anti-immigrant feelings sweeping many Western countries, including the United States, are impelled by nationalistic as well as economic anxieties. Citizens fear a drop in their living standards brought on by destitute refugees seeking government handouts. But they also object to the dilution of their culture by immigrants who speak another language.

Our world has been disconnected from nineteenth-century international politics by a series of exceptional and unanticipated events - two world wars, Marxist revolutions, totalitarian regimes, and a protracted East-West ideological standoff. These anomalies have obscured from us the familiarity of what is a more natural international order of multiple competing states rather than two giant blocs frozen in confrontation. The solidarity of the Cold War alliances is evaporating. We have returned to a world of many power centers.

As a result, relations among states have become less predictable. We will need to sometimes cooperate with and sometimes confront other great and lesser powers that pursue their own national interests. The international scene is returning to a chess match in which each individual piece - pawn, rook, or queen - has acquired a purpose of its own. Bloc politics are in retreat. …

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