Status concerns are just as central to identifying great powers

Status concerns are just as central to identifying great powers as assessing capabilities. Even more so than capability assessments, status evaluations are cognitive in nature. Great powers are not only demarcated by what they could do; great powers are also marked by what they believe they and others should be doing. These dual beliefs are the essence of great power status: the great power’s sense of its own prestige and its own importance.

The prestige of great powers relates to how much influence the great power has (or at least perceives itself to have) with respect to exploiting the cluster of institutions that help govern how states interact with each other, such as security institutions (e.

g., NATO, United Nations), regional institutions (e.g., ASEAN, the European Union), economic institutions (e.g., IMF, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the WTO), and hybrid organizations that blend features of several categories (e.g., the Economic Community of West African States [ECOWAS] and its military arm, ECOMAG).

Perceptions of its ability to control and manipulate these institutions matters to a great power because these institutions collectively embody and shape the rules of which state(s) will govern the system, as well as which ideas and values will predominate. The rules prescribe acceptable kinds of behavior and proscribe unacceptable ones in complex interdependent systems. The rules shape expectations in almost every area of global governance, from trade between countries to disease surveillance to coordinated responses to climate change or force structure inter-operability within alliances.

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Great powers design these rules and institutions and, more critically, can empower actors and agents both to enforce and to decide permissible exceptions to these rules.

The importance of great powers relates to how much control over agenda-setting the great power (perceives it) has with respect to interventionist responses to transnational and multi-lateral crises.

Agenda-setting in matters of international concern relates to great power status in two ways:

1) Agenda-setting authority grants the power to define what counts as a matter of international concern—that is, which issues receive global attention for appropriate intervention or enforcement. For example, consider three international challenges in the past 30 years, of which two were named as “crises” while the third was ignored. The Congolese crises of the late 1990s, in which over 6 million non-combatants died as a result of Rwanda’s foreign-sponsored regime changes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was not labeled a crisis. Official responses to any of the aspects of the Congo crisis—mass killing, mass displacement, external involvement in a domestic conflict—was muted. In contrast, North Korea’s nuclearization and Syria’s Arab Spring crises, both have spurred a litany of great power involvement.

2) Agenda-setting is a prerequisite for both decision-making and policy-making; through their agenda-setting authority, great powers can expand or circumscribe the range of political options and settlements possible in the intervention to an identified crisis. To return to the examples above, the United States has made it clear, using its agenda-setting authority, that denuclearization is, and from its perspective ought to be, the chief goal of multi-lateral diplomacy concerning North Korea. While other countries (who are not great powers) may have other security concerns such as the ballistic missile threat and humanitarian concerns about the refugee flows, denuclearization dominates the agenda. Similarly, the United States has prevented acceptance of a nuclear state as a viable political outcome, just as China has largely pushed multi-lateral kinetic responses of nuclearization off the multi-lateral agenda; essentially, there will be no Desert Storm equivalent on the Korean peninsula. In Syria, the international response of the uprising and its aftermath are more paralyzed, as the United States and Russia disagree about whether regime change (the removal of President Bashar al-Assad) should be an aim of intervention. In contrast, there has been coordinating joint action in the areas where the great powers agreed, such as defeating ISIS.

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Status concerns are just as central to identifying great powers. (2019, Nov 24). Retrieved from

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