International politics is about relations of forces between states and how the distribution of capabilities shapes their relative position in the system. States are dragged into an ongoing struggle for the acquisition of scant resources in a strategic environment where no authority holds a legitimate monopoly on the use of brute force. Since each state must rely on individual means to ensure its own security, international politics displays an inherently competitive character, which is modeled by the interplay between relative strengths and rational calculations based on sheer interest.
Albeit blunt, this description still provides a compelling analytical framework within which we may understand international relations. Yet, too often scholars (especially those on the liberal side) tend to brush it off as an archaic and obsolete concept harking back to the nineteenth century.
In his “Distinguished Lecture” at SAIS-DC, Professor Andrew Moravcsik genuinely advocated this liberal outlook on international relations realm. Further, he discredited all ideas still fond of the definition of state power in terms of relative military might; the idea that states compete among themselves to fulfill their security imperatives; the belief that political-military power trumps economic power; and the view that great power status is a function of a state’s actual military power.
Professor Moravcsik put forward an iconoclastic hypothesis whereby the European Union is doomed to become the next twenty-first-century superpower, thus knocking China off its pedestal as the favorite candidate. The basic assumption underlying this quite provocative claim is that we need to revamp what have been considered so far as the traditional determinants of state power: conventional and nuclear weapons, size of territory, character of borders, geographical features, population size, raw materials endowments, technological and economic progress, financial might, social cohesiveness, political stability and national character.
Indeed, by measuring power based on these indicators, China must be identified as the next superpower: China has a vast territory, is densely populated, and, above all, is growing. In aggregate GDP measures, China is going to be a prominent economic power.
On the contrary, Professor Moravcsik contended, Europe will overtake China as the next superpower on the world scene. China is in the bottom 10% in terms of military spending as a percentage of its GDP compared to the rest of the world. European states have more advanced weaponry and higher military expenditures in terms of GDP. Second, China is alone. Its only ally is North Korea, which, to paraphrase Professor Moravcsik, is certainly not the ally that everybody would like to have. Third, according to some estimation, China is becoming the largest exporter in the world. However, this evidence varies based on how exports are calculated. Indeed, the volume of Chinese exports fades before the impressive size of EU’s aggregate internal and foreign trade. Fourth, as for ideological and institutional influence, the European Union is the only game in town, as attested by its successful process of enlargement post-WWII.
One could argue that power is not liable to objective and dispassionate measurements. Scholars have yet to come up with a universal definition (if there is one) of what is the “optimal” combination of resources that a state must possess in order to be deemed as a “strong” versus a “weak” state. However, the failure to pinpoint the wide array of capabilities that may account for the determinants of national power does not entail minimizing military resources as a trivial component in a state’s strategic assets. Power politics, I would argue, is still about military power and, however pervasive the economic discourse may be, when it comes to identifying the major states in the international system, economic power is barely used as the ultimate criterion.
This evidence is attested by the Chinese and European cases. Since the 1990s, China has fiercely pursued a process of modernizing its military forces in response to the structural changes that occurred in its regional strategic environment following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Along with military modernization and build-up, China’s strategic vision has undergone a significant transformation as a result of the widened range of its defensive goals in the region. China’s outlays on its military sector perform poorly relative to the rest of the world, with an slowing increase in 2012. However, this is partly a result of weaker economic growth in the wake of 2008 global financial crisis, which, along with austerity measures, has even more heavily hit Western and Central Europe. Likewise, Professor Moravcsik’s argument utterly sidesteps the heated debate on the EU process of military integration. The idea that the integration of security and defense systems at the European level is likely to represent the most effective strategy to push Europe out of its geopolitical impasse is increasingly gaining the plaudits of large sectors of the European public opinion, strategic companies, and political circles.
Honestly, the idea that the EU could be seen as the next superpower even though it lacks a structured foreign policy, political integration, a clear source of legitimization, and effective leadership seems basically untenable. Needless to say, political leadership is of paramount importance in statecraft, in that it is the key to convert national resources into actual power through which a state can impact international affairs. Great power status is not only a function of a state’s tangible resources, but also, and crucially, of the political capacity of mobilizing them. In this regard, while China stands out as a respectable middle-power, Europe still has long way to go.
As recent military events in the Middle East show, states still highly prize military capabilities as a means to influence patterns of stability and change in the international arena. After all, compared to the time of great armies, when the status of great power was gained, the current one is not so different, especially if we look at extra-European areas. As long as the international system retains its competitive essence, we must yield to the evidence that a great power does not die in its bed.