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How to compare regional powers: analytical concepts and research topics



Although the concept of regional power is frequently used in International Relations (IR) literature, there is no consensus regarding the defining characteristics of a regional power. The article discusses different theoretical approaches that address the topic of power hierarchies in international politics and make reference to the concept of regional power. Marking differences as well as common ground with the more traditional concept of ‘middle powers’, the article outlines an analytical concept of regional powers adequate for contemporary IR research. The analytical dimensions of the framework may be employed to differentiate regional powers from other states and to compare regional powers with regard to their power status or relative power. Furthermore, the article investigates the possible repercussions of the rise of regional powers for international politics and discusses the probable importance and functions of regional governance structures for regional powers.



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1 Dominic Wilson and Roopa Purushothaman, ‘Dreaming With BRICs: The Path to 2050’, Goldman Sachs, Global Economics Paper No. 99, London (2003).

2 Sachs, Goldman, BRICs and Beyond (London 2007) . This study also includes the ‘Next-11’: Mexico, Nigeria, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. See also, Deutsche Bank Research, ‘Globale Wachstumszentren 2020. Formel-G für 34 Volkswirtschaften’ Aktuelle Themen No. 313, Frankfurt (2005).

3 The ‘BRIC plus’ include Brazil, Russia, India, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Philippines, South Africa, Thailand and Turkey; Shaw, Timothy M., Cooper, Andrew F., and Antkiewicz, Agata, ‘Global and/or Regional Development at the Start of the 21st Century? China, India and (South) Africa’, Third World Quarterly, 28:7 (2007), pp. 12551270 .

4 Andrew F. Cooper, Agata Antkiewicz, and Timothy M. Shaw, ‘Economic Size Trumps All Else? Lessons from BRICSAM’, CIGI Working Paper No. 12, Waterloo (December 2006); Manmohan Agarwal, ‘The BRICSAM Countries and Changing World Economic Power: Scenarios to 2050’, CIGI Working Paper No. 39, Waterloo (October 2008).

5 Huntington, Samuel, ‘The Lonely Superpower’, Foreign Affairs, 78:2 (1999), pp. 3549 .

6 Germain, Randall, ‘Financial order and world politics: crisis, change and continuity’, International Affairs, 85:4 (2009), pp. 669687 .

7 Cooper, Andrew F. and Antkiewicz, Agata, Emerging Powers in Global Governance. Lessons from the Heiligendamm Process (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008) .

8 Goh, Evelyn, ‘Great Powers and Hierarchical Order in Southeast Asia’, International Security, 32 (2007/2008), pp. 113157 ; for a critical view on East Asian regionalism, see Ravenhill, John, ‘East Asian regionalism: Much Ado about Nothing?’, Review of International Studies, 35:S1 (2009), pp. 215235 .

9 Tussie, Diana, ‘Latin America: contrasting motivations for regional projects’, Review of International Studies, 35:S1 (2009), pp. 169188 ; Carlos Malamud, ‘Four Latin American Summits and Brazil's Leadership’, Real Instituto Elcano, Working Paper No. 3, Madrid (2009).

10 Katzenstein, Peter J., A World of Regions: Asia and Europe in the American Imperium (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005) .

11 Acharya, Amitav, ‘The Emerging Regional Architecture of World Politics’, World Politics, 59:4 (July 2007), pp. 629652 .

12 Hurrell, Andrew, ‘One world? Many worlds? The place of regions in the study of international society’, International Affairs, 83:1 (2007), pp. 127146 .

13 See the special issue of International Affairs, 82:1 (2006) on regional and emerging powers.

14 The internet encyclopaedia Wikipedia presents the most all-embracing list of regional powers. The list includes India, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria, Israel, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, France, United Kingdom Germany, Russia. Pastor, Robert. A. (ed.), A Century's Journey. How the Great Powers Shape the World (New York: Basic Books, 1999), p. 25 . includes among the regional powers: Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan. China is ranked as a great power.

15 More than ten years ago Barry Buzan remarked: ‘The concept of region is widely used and seldom very clearly defined.’ Buzan, Barry, ‘The Asia-Pacific: what sort region in what sort of world?’, in Brook, Christopher and McGrew, Anthony (eds), Asia-Pacific in the New World Order (London: Routledge 1998), p. 68 . The same applies for much of the current debate on regions in international politics. For a summary of the current research with regard to the study of regions and future research topics see Fawn, Rick, ‘Regions” and their study: wherefrom, what for and whereto?’, Review of International Studies, 35:S1 (2009), pp. 534 .

16 Lake's study, David, ‘Regional hierarchy: authority and local international order’, Review of International Studies, 35:S1 (2009), pp. 3558 focuses on the influence (relational authority) of the US in different world regions; perhaps some of his indicators may be adapted to the analysis of the influence of regional powers within their regions.

17 Hurrell, ‘One world’.

18 Nel, Philip and Stephen, Matthew, ‘Agents of Change? The Foreign Economic Policies of the IBSA States’, in Flemes, Daniel (ed.), Regional Leadership in the Global System: Ideas, Interests and Strategies of Regional Powers (Aldershot: Ashgate 2010), pp. 7190 .

19 Baldwin, David A., ‘Power and International Relations’, in Carlsnaes, Walter, Risse, Thomas, and Simmons, Beth A. (eds), Handbook of International Relations (London: Sage 2002), pp. 177191 .

20 ‘Power is the ability to effect the outcomes you want, and if necessary, to change the behavior of others to make this happen.’ Nye, Joseph S., The Paradox of American Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 4 .

21 Lake, David A., ‘Escape from the State of Nature. Authority and Hierarchy in World Politics’, International Security, 32:1 (2007), pp. 4779 ; Lake, ‘Regional hierarchy’.

22 Barnett, Michael and Duvall, Raymond, ‘Power in International Politics’, International Organization, 59:1 (2005), pp. 3975 .

23 Chua, Amy, Day of Empire. How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance – and Why They Fall (New York: Doubleday, 2007) .

24 For a summary of different indicators of US dominance see Ikenberry, G. John, Mastanduno, Michael and Wohlforth, William C., ‘Unipolarity, State Behavior, and Systemic Consequences’, World Politics, 61:1 (2009), pp. 127 .

25 See the title of Foreign Affairs, 87:3 (May/June 2008); Cox, Michael, ‘Is the US in Decline-again?’, International Affairs, 83:4 (2007), pp. 643653 ; Zakaria, Fareed, The Post-American World (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008) ; for an opposite or balanced point of view, see Brooks, Stephen G. and Wohlforth, William, ‘Reshaping the World Order’, Foreign Affairs, 88:2 (2009), pp. 4963 ; Layne, Cristopher, ‘The Waning of US Hegemony – Myth or Reality?’, International Security, 34:1 (2009), pp. 147172 ; Germain, ‘Financial order’.

26 Wight, Martin, Power Politics, ed. Bull, Hedley et al. (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1978), p. 63 .

27 ‘A middle power is a power with such military strength, resources and strategic position that in peacetime the great powers bid for its support, and in wartime, while it has no hope of winning a war against a great power, it can hope to inflict costs on a great power out of proportion to what the great power can hope to gain by attacking it.’ Wight, ‘Power Politics’, p. 65. Other authors emphasise size (population) and economic power (GDP) as long-term preconditions for middle-power status. See, Kelly, Paul, ‘Punching Above Our Weight’, Policy, 20:2 (2004), pp. 2934 .

28 Organski, A. F. K., World Politics (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958) ; Kugler, Jacek and Organski, A. F. K., ‘The Power Transition: A Retrospective and Prospective Evaluation’, in: Midlarski, Manus I. (ed.), Handbook of War Studies (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989), pp. 171194 ; Tammen, Ronald L. et al. , Power Transitions Strategies for the 21st Century (New York: Chatham House Publishers, 2000) .

29 Lemke, Douglas, Regions of War and Peace (Cambridge/New York: CUP, 2002) .

30 Huntington, ‘Lonely Superpower’, p. 36, also conceives of a multi-level hierarchy. On top is the US as the single superpower. At a second level are the ‘major regional powers’ – the German-French condominium in Europe, Russia in Eurasia, China and potentially Japan in East Asia, India in South Asia, Iran in Southwest Asia, Brazil in Latin America, South Africa and Nigeria in Africa – and a third level is composed of secondary regional powers.

31 Lemke's definition of a region is very restrictive, based on the power projection capabilities of states, and results in a great number of small regions.

32 Buzan, Barry and Wæver, Ole, Regions and Powers. The Structure of International Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) ; Buzan, Barry, The US and the Great Powers. World politics in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004) .

33 Buzan and Wæver, ‘Regions’.

34 Kugler, Jacek and Tammen, Ronald L., ‘Regional challenge: China's Rise to Power’, in Rolfe, Jim (ed.), The Asia-Pacific: A Region in Transition (Honolulu: Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, 2004), pp. 3353 ; Overholt, William H., Asia, America, and the Transformation of Geopolitics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) ; Ikenberry, G. John, ‘The Rise of China and the Future of the West’, Foreign Affairs, 87:1 (2008), pp. 2327 .

35 Wohlfort, William C., ‘The Stability of a Unipolar World’, International Security, 24:1 (1999), p. 30 .

36 Paul, T. V., Wirtz, James J., and Fortmann, Michel, Balance of Power. Theory and Practice in the 21st Century (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004) . With regard to the topic of soft balancing: Pape, Robert A., ‘Soft Balancing against the US’, International Security, 30:1 (2005), pp. 745 ; Paul, T. V., ‘Soft Balancing in the Age of US Primacy’, International Security, 30:1 (2005), pp. 4671 .

37 Mearsheimer, John J., The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York/London: Norton, 2001) ; Mearsheimer, John J., ‘Better to Be Godzilla than Bambi; Showing the US the Door; It's Not a Pretty Picture’, Foreign Policy, 146 (January/February 2005), pp. 4748 .

38 Lemke, ‘Regions’, p. 22.

39 Kugler and Organski, ‘Power Transition’.

40 Power is a combination of the population (number), the economic productivity (GDP per capita) and the effectiveness of the political system (political capacity) to mobilise human and material resources.

41 Kugler, Jacek, ‘The Asian Ascent: Opportunity for Peace or Precondition for War?’, International Studies Perspectives,7:1 (2006), p. 40 .

42 Womack, Brantly, ‘Teoría de la asimetría y poderes regionales: los casos de India, Brasil y Sudáfrica’, in Tokatlian, Juan Gabriel (ed.), India, Brasil y Sudafrica: el impacto de las nuevas potencias regionales (Buenos Aires: Libros del Zorzal, 2007), pp. 1534 .

43 An exception is Schirm, Stefan, ‘Führungsindikatoren und Erklärungsvariablen für die neue internationale Politik Brasiliens’, Lateinamerika Analysen, 11 (2005), pp. 110111 ; Schirm, Stefan A., ‘Leaders in Need of Followers: Emerging Powers in Global Governance’, European Journal of International Relations (2009) .

44 This may be a reflection of the lack of consensus with regard to the concept of power. See, Berenskoetter, Felix and Williams, M. J. (eds), Power in World Politics (London: Routledge, 2007) .

45 Neumann, Iver B. (ed.), Regional Great Powers in International Politics (Basingstoke: St. Martin's Press, 1992) .

46 Osterud, Oyvind, ‘Regional Great Powers’, in Neumann, Iver B. (ed.), Regional Great Powers in International Politics (Basingstoke: St. Martin's Press, 1992), p. 12 .

47 Cooper, Andrew F. (ed.), Niche Diplomacy. Middle Powers after the Cold War (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997) ; Westhuizen, Jan van der, ‘South Africa's emergence as a middle power’, Third World Quarterly, 19:3 (1998), pp. 435456 ; Andrew Hurrell, ‘Some Reflections on the Role of Intermediate Powers in International Institutions’, in Hurrell, Andrew et al. , ‘Paths to Power: Foreign Policy Strategies of Intermediate States’, Latin American Program. Woodrow Wilson International Center, Working Paper No. 244, Washington, DC (2000) pp. 34 ; Schoeman, Maxi, ‘South Africa as an Emerging Middle Power: 1994–2003’, in Daniel, John, Habib, Adam and Southall, Roger (eds), State of the Nation: South Africa 2003–2004 (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2003), pp. 349367 ; Hurrell, Andrew, ‘Hegemony, liberalism and global order: what space for would-be great powers?’, International Affairs, 82:1 (2006), pp. 119 .

48 Schoeman, ‘South Africa’; David Dewitt and Ryerson Christie, ‘Los poderes medios y la seguridad regional’, in Tokatlian, ‘India, Brasil y Sudafrica’, pp. 55–96.

49 On the topic of leadership, see Nye, Joseph S., The Powers to Lead: Soft, Hard, and Smart (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) .

50 Schoeman, ‘South Africa’, p. 353.

51 Stairs, Denis, ‘Of medium powers and middling roles’, in Booth, Ken (ed.), Statecraft and Security. The Cold War and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) pp. 270286 ; Cooper, Andrew F., ‘The Evolution of Multilateralism in an Intermediate State: The Re-orientation of Canadian Strategy in the Economic and Security Arenas’, in Hurrell, Andrew et al. , ‘Paths to Power: Foreign Policy Strategies of Intermediate States’, Latin American Program. Woodrow Wilson International Center, Working Paper No. 244, Washington, DC (2000) ; Hurrell, ‘Some Reflections’.

52 With regard to Southeast Asia see, Goh, ‘Great Powers’.

53 Hurrell, ‘Some Reflections’, pp. 3–4.

54 Hurrell, ‘Hegemony’, p. 11.

55 According to Keohane's, Robert O. ‘Lilliputians’ Dilemmas: Small States in International Politics’, International Organizations, 23:2 (1969), p. 296 , a middle power is ‘a state whose leaders consider that it cannot act alone effectively, but may be able to have a systemic impact in a small group or through an international institution’.

56 Huntington, ‘Lonely Superpower’.

57 Especially as we can identify a trend since the 1990s towards stronger interregional networks of middle powers. See Cooper, ‘Niche diplomacy’, pp. 17–9.

58 Nye, ‘Powers to lead’.

59 Hurrell, ‘Some Reflections’, p. 3.

60 Schirm, ‘Führungsindikatoren’; Schirm, ‘Leaders’.

61 See Lemke, Douglas, ‘Dimensions of Hard Power: Regional Leadership and Material Capabilities’, in Flemes, Daniel (ed.), Regional Leadership in the Global System: Ideas, Interests and Strategies of Regional Powers (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010), pp. 3150 .

62 Goh, ‘Great Powers’.

63 Hurrell, Andrew, ‘Hegemony and Regional Governance in the Americas’, in Fawcett, Louise and Serrano, Monica (eds), Regionalism and Governance in the Americas. Continental Drift (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005), pp. 185208 .

64 Santis, Hugh De, ‘The Dragon and the Tigers. China and Asian Regionalism’, World Policy Journal, 22:2 (2000), pp. 2336 ; Ikenberrry, G. John, ‘Power and liberal order: America's post war world order in transition’, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, 5:2 (2005), pp. 133152 .

65 Hurrell, , ‘Hegemony and Regional Governance’, pp. 196197 ; Hurrell, Andrew, On Global Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 7374 .

66 Pedersen, Thomas, ‘Cooperative Hegemony. Power, Ideas and Institutions in Regional Integration’, Review of International Studies, 28:4 (2002), pp. 677696 .

67 In addition to formal institutions, dominant powers can use transnational regulatory networks as an instrument to prevail with their interests. ‘Such networks allow powerful states to shape and influence the process of integration without the need for formal inter-state bargaining. For powerful states the choice is often not between institutions and no institutions, but rather which institutions offer the best trade-off between effectiveness on the one hand and the maximization of the control and self-insulation on the other.’ Hurrell, , ‘Hegemony and Regional Governance’, p. 202 .

68 For a discussion of the same topic from a different perspective see Mares, David R., ‘Middle Powers under Regional Hegemony: To Challenge or Acquiesce in Hegemonic Enforcement’, International Studies Quarterly, 32:4 (1988), pp. 453471 .

69 Cooper, Andrew F., Higgott, Richard and Nossal, Kim Richard (eds), Relocating Middle Powers: Australia and Canada in a Changing World Order (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1993), p. 16 .

70 Haass, Richard, The Age of Nonpolarity, Foreign Affairs, 87:3 (May/June 2008), pp. 4456 .

71 Aaron L. Friedberg coined the concept of ‘multi-multipolarity’ to capture the power diffusion both at the global and the regional level. See Friedberg, Aaron L., ‘Ripe for Rivalry: Prospects for Peace in a Multipolar Asia’, International Security, 18:3 (1993–1994), pp. 533 .

72 Lake, ‘Escape’; Lake, ‘Regional hierarchy’.

73 Walt, Stephen M., Taming American Power (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005) ; Ikenberry, G. J., Liberal Order & Imperial Ambition (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006) .

74 Acharya, ‘Emerging Regional Architecture’, p. 630.

75 Lemke, ‘Dimensions of Hard Power’.

76 See Kindleberger, Charles, The World in Depression, 1929–1939 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press 1974) ; Keohane, Robert, ‘The Theory of Hegemonic Stability and Changes in International Economic Regimes’, in Holsti, Ole, Siverson, Randolph, and George, Alexander (eds), Change in the International System (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1980), pp. 131162 ; Snidal, Duncan, ‘The Limits of Hegemonic Stability Theory’, International Organization, 39:4 (1985), pp. 579614 .

77 Pedersen, ‘Cooperative Hegemony’.

78 See Flemes, Daniel and Wojczewski, Thorsten, ‘Contested Leadership in International Relations Power Politics in South America, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa’, GIGA Working Paper No. 121, Hamburg (February 2010) .

79 Lake, ‘Escape’; Lake, ‘Regional hierarchy’.

80 Acharya, ‘Emerging Regional Architecture’, p. 651.

81 See Adler, Emanuel and Greve, Patricia, ‘When security community meets balance of power: overlapping regional mechanisms of security governance’, Review of International Studies, 35:S1 (2009), pp. 5984 ; Tussie, ‘Latin America’.

82 See Goh, ‘Great Powers’.

83 Aggarwal, Vinod K. and Koo, Min Gyo (eds), Asia's New Institutional Architecture. Evolving Structures for Managing Trade, Financial, and Security Relations (Berlin / Heidelberg: Springer, 2008) .

84 Nel and Stephen, ‘Agents of Change?’

85 Cooper and Antkiewicz, ‘Emerging Powers’; Germain, ‘Financial order’; Subacchi, Paola, ‘New power centres and new power brokers: are they shaping a new economic order?’, International Affairs, 84:3 (2008), pp. 485498 ; Paola Subacchi and Eric Helleiner, ‘From London to L'Aquila. Building a Bridge between the G20 and the G8’, Chatham/CIGI Briefing paper, Waterloo (June 2009).

86 See Philip Nel and Matthew Stephen, ‘Agents of Change’.


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