A meaning of the term Great Power(s) (GP) in global politics from the beginning of the 16th century onward refers to the most power and therefore top influential states within the system of the international relations (IR). In other words, the GP are those and only those states who are modelling global politics like Portugal, Spain, Sweden, France, the United Kingdom, united Germany, the USA, the USSR, Russia or China. During the time of the Cold War (1949−1989) there were superpowers as the American and the Soviet administrations refered to their own countries and even a hyperpower state – the USA, after the Cold War as it is called in the academic literature. A focal characteristic of any GP is to promulgate its own national (state’s) interest within a global (up to the 20th century European) scope by applying a „forward“ policy.
A term global politics (or world politics) is related to the IR which are of the worldwide nature or to the politics of one or more actors who are having global impact, influence and importance. Therefore, global politics can be undestood as political relations between all kinds of actors in the politics, either nonstate actors or sovereign states, that are of global interest. In the broadest sense, global politics is a synonym for global political system that is „global universe of actors such as nation-states, international organizations, and thansnational corporations and the sum of their relationships and interactions“.
Originally, in the 18th century, the term GP was related to any European state that was, in essence, a sovereign or independent. In practice, it meant, only those states that were able to independently defend themselves from the aggression launched by another state or group of states. Nevertheless, after the WWII, the term GP is applied to the countries that are regarded to be of the most powerful position within the global system of IR. Those countries are only countries whose foreign policy is „forward“ policy and therefore the states like Brasil, Germany or Japan, who have significant economic might, are not considered today to be the members of the GP bloc for the only reason as they lack both political will and the military potential for the GP status.
One of the fundamental characteristics and historical features of any member state of the GP club was, is and will be to behave on the international arena according to its own adopted geopolitical concept(s) and aim(s). In other words, the leading modern and postmodern nation-states are „geopolitically“ acting in the global politics that makes a crucial diference between them and all other states. According to the realist viewpoint, global or world politics is nothing else than a struggle for power and supremacy between the states on different levels as the regional, continental, intercontinental or global (universal). Therefore, the governments of the states are forced to remain informed upon the efforts and politics of other states, or eventually other political actors, for the sake, if necessary, to acquire extra power (weapons, etc.) which are supposed to protect their own national security (Iran) or even survival on the political map of the world (North Korea) by potential agressor (the USA). Competing for supremacy and protecting the national security, the national states will usually opt for the policy of balancing one another’s power by different means like creating or joining military-political blocs or increasing their own military capacity. Subsequently, global politics is nothing else but just eternal struggle for power and supremacy in order to protect self-proclaimed national interest and security of the major states or the GP. As the major states regard the issue of power distribution to be fundamental in international relations and as they act in accordance to the relative power that they have, the factors of internal influence to states, like type of political government or economic order, have no strong impact on foreign policy and international relations. In other words, it is of „genetic nature“ of the GP to struggle for supremacy and hegemony regardless on their inner construction and features. It is the same „natural law“ either for democracies or totalitarian types of government or liberal (free-market) and command (centralized) ecomomies.
Power differs very much from one state to another likewise of the same state from historic perspective. Generally, the most powerful states enjoy and the most influential impact on international affairs either regional or global and control the majority of the power resources in the world. In practice, only several states have any real inluence on global IR while the other states can have an influence just beyond their immidiate locality. These two categories of states are named as the GP and the Middle Powers (MP) in the international system of intra-state relations. A status of the GP can be formally given and to some supranational structures like in the 19th century to the Concert of Europe or in the 20th century to the UNO, the NATO or the Warsaw Pact.
Nevertheless, the fundametal division of the world states according to their impact on global affairs is just into two basic categories:
- The category of the GP (several top-powerful states).
- The category of non-GP (MP and low- or non-influential states).
A GP state is such state that is considered to be a member of the most powerful and influential group of states in a hiarerchical order of the world state-system. Today, this term is related to the state that is regarded to be among the most powerfull states in the global political system.
The most problematic issue in categorization of the states within the world state-system is applied criteria. Nevertheless, the criteria which define one state to be or not to be a great power is usually, at least from the academic point of view, of the following basic ten-point conditions:
- A GP state is such state that is on the top-rank level of military power, having the real capacity to protect and maintain its own security and to influence the politics of other states or other actors in international relaions.
- A GP state is a state that can be defeated militarily only by another member of GP club or by alliance of some of the states coming from this club.
- A GP state is from the economic perspective a poweful state. This condition is a necessary but, however, in some cases (like today Japan or the USA at the time of its isolationist period of foreign policy) is not and sufficient condition for the GP status. This is a quantitative condition for the status of a GP. The other quantitative conditions are certain level of GDP, GNP or GDI or the size of its armed forces. The economic conditions can be and of qualitative nature like a high level of industrialization or the capability to make and to use nuclear weapons.
- A GP state has rather global, but not merely regional or continental, spheres of influence and interest. It means that a GP is such state that possesses, excercises as well as defends its own whatever interest throughout the globe.
- A GP state has to be at the front rank in regard to its military power and therefore it has to enjoy both certain privilages and duties dealing with global peace and international security.
- What is probably the most important, a GP state adopt and apply a „forward“ foreign policy having rather actual but not only potential impact on international affairs and other states or group of them. It practically means that a GP state can not adopt a foreign policy of isolationism.
- The members of the GP club tend to share a global outlook that is founded on their own national interests far from their homes.
- The GP have strongest military forces and strongest economies to support their GP status.
- The GP cannot easily lost its status in IR even after heavy military defeat due to its size, manpower and long-term economic potentials.
- The GP form alliances with smaller and weaker client (quisling) states.
A GP status to some state can be and formally recognized by the international community as it was the case by the League of Nations in the interwar time or by the United Nations Organization (UNO) after the WWII up today (five veto-rights permanent member states of the Security Council – China, Russia, France, the USA and the United Kingdom). A GP status of these five „extraordinary“ members of the UNSC is guaranteed by their practice of unanimity. In other words, a concept of the GP unanimity holds that on all resolutions and/or proposals before the UNSC, a veto by any one of these five (privileged) states can be used that practically means that one GP state can block further work of the UNSC on certain issue. Undoubtedly, one of the critical features of any GP state is its power projection that is a considerable influence, by force or not, beyond state’s borders, i.e. abroad, that less powerful countries could not match (for instance, the NATO military aggression against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999 conducted in fact by the USA).
The GP states are inter-connected within a Great-Power System that is the set of special relationships between and among this privilaged club of the post powerful global actors in IR. Those special relations are cunducted by their own rules and patterns of interaction as the GP have very extraordinary way of behaving and treating each other. This special way is, however, not applied to other states or other actors in global politics and system of IR.
Historically, a time of the GP started in the 18th century when five European strongest states (the United Kingdom, France, Prussia, the Habsburg Monarchy and Russia) were competing against one another. Until the WWI the GP club was exclusively reserved for the European states while after 1918 two non-European states joined this club – the USA and Japan. China became after the Cold War strongly incorporated into the concert of global GP. The existence of a GP system requires that the international system of foreign affairs has to be of a multipolar nature that actually means to be composed at least by three major actors in international politics. A GP state can not be dependent on other state for security issue and it has to be militarily and economically stronger than other countries who are not members of a GP system of states. In fact, a security issue of those other states depends on one or more GP states. In addition, those other states are also usually depended politically, financially and economically on one or more GP states. The security calculations of a GP state can be threatened only by other GP member state(s) who can challenge it politically and/or militarilly. It is generally understood that to play a role of a GP, one state needs a large territory and population followed by well organized army and military sytem that is not possible without a strong, functionable and above all a successful economy.
A historical experience shows clearly that to possess only one out of all necessary GP attributes means that the state cannot maintain its influence on the international arena for some very longer period of time. That is now exactly, for instance, the case of decreasing international influence and domestic power by the USA. Sweden lost its status of a major European power in the 18th century mainly due to its small number of population or Holland in the 17th century primarilly due to its smaller territory in comparison to neighboring France followed by English supremacy in oversea trade. Contrary, a state which is possessing all of the necessary factors of GP is in a real position to successfully exercise its own political and other influences on the others for a longer period of time. The process of passing from regional isolation to the status of European GP can be well seen on the example of the Russian Empire in the 18th century. The country was at the beginning of the century isolated and underdeveloped but due to a general progress during the whole century Russia was finally in 1792 by the Jassi Peace Treaty with the Ottoman Sultanate and in 1795 by the Third division of Poland-Lithuania recognized by the other European GP as a member of their club. As a consequence, Russia was in the following period from 1798 to 1815 directly involved in the games of European GP regarding the confrontation of the French Revolution and revolutionary armies of Napoléon Bonaparte.
Nevertheless, as the 18th century was progressing, Russia was becoming gradually more stronger and influential in the international relations due to three crucial factors: a size of the land, its huge population and reach natural resources. All of these factors directly participated to the process of creation of the mighty Russian military land-force which became in 1815 strongest in continental Europe. In this year the Russian army entered Paris by crossing the whole Europe and winning battles from Leipzig (1813) to Waterloo (1815).
Contrary to the Russian case, the United Kingdom at the end of the same century became a global GP mainly due to its powerful navy that was backed by its strong economy which was very much founded on direct exploitation of the British oversea colonies. In the next century, the Brits succeeded to establish an extensive oversea empire and to became a major player in the world politics at the time of Queen Victoria but very much due to their geopolitical position as an „island nation“ whose security and colonial expansion was well protected by a powerful Royal Navy that was practically playing the role of protection wall around the United Kingdom.
Several theories of the Cold War argue, like the so-called „Freezer Theory“ for instance, that during that historical period of time both domestic and international conflicts were the products of the superpower competition in global politics. However, when the competition ended in 1989, the local and/or regional histories absorbed these conflicts where they became left transforming themselves into the territorial disputes, conflicts and open wars between the regional powers for the sake to settle historical accounts. Probably the best examples are the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh, destruction of ex-Yugoslavia, the conflicts over South Ossethia and Abkhazia or the Ukrainian crisis. All of those conflicts from the Adriatic to the Caucasus have been at the same time both the destabilizing factors of and challinge for the European integration and continental security. For the realists, post-Cold War conflicts in a new power context is simply returning back of the international relations to the normal geopolitical reality of global politics as inescapable power policy. International system once again after the Cold War became the GP state system based on the „Westphalian Order“ as the states of the GP bloc are still the key factors and actors in both their own domestic areas and international politics as it was the case from 1648 to 1945.
The primary organizing principle of IR and global politics once again became after 1989 the „sacrosanct“ principle of a state sovereignty that is only valid for the GP but not for the ordinary states („small fishes“) like for Serbia in 1999 or Libya in 2011. State-centric model of the international politics that is currently on global politics’ agenda is known in theory as „Billiard Ball Model“ which suggests that states, at least those having a rank of the GP, are as billiard (snooker) balls impermeable and self-contained actors. The model tells that the GP influence each other through external pressure either by diplomacy or direct military action. The survival is the prime concern of any state but struggling for power on global scene is the concern of only those states which are considered to be the GP. The „Billiard Ball Model“ of global politics has two fundamental implications:
- Clear difference between domestic and international politics.
- Conflict and cooperation in global politics is primarilly determine by the distribution of economic, political and military power among states.
The crucial characteristics of contemporary GP state are:
- To maintain order and carryng out regulations within its own borders only by itself without interference from outside (ex. Russia and the Chechen rebels in the 1990s) that is a focal feature of a real sovereignty status.