Definitions and criteria

Generally defined: A great power is a nation or state that, through its great economic, political and military strength, is able to exert and project power and influence not only over its own region of the world, but beyond to others worldwide.

According neorealism, the international political system is anarchic, where the structure is defined by the distribution of power. Waltz and Monteiro identify several key aspects of material capabilities forming a state power:

  • size of territory including waterways, access to oceans
  • size, structure and quality of population,
  • natural and other resources,
  • economic robustness,
  • industrial competence and capacity
  • military strength,
  • political stability and strength of democratic institutions

When the state possesses ample capabilities in all these areas – economy, politics and military – it can be considered as a great power and therefore no state can be a great power if its position in any of those elements of power is vastly outmatched by the most powerful state. The great-power status is therefore based on relative power considerations.

The number of great powers determines the structure of the international system. Because military power is the ultima ratio of international politics, great powers must possess military capabilities on a par with the most powerful state(s) in the system. The states can decide to convert economic power into military capabilities in order to transform the polarity of the system.

Traditional definition is based on defensive military capabilities: a great power is a state that has a plausible chance of avoiding defeat in an all-out defensive war against the most powerful state in the system. In the nuclear world, the better concept is “avoiding defeat” than “achieving victory”.

The offensive definition of great power: in addition to defensive capability, a great power must possess the ability to engage unaided in sustained politico-military operation in at least one other relevant region of the globe beyond its own on a level similar to the most powerful state in the system. (Posen 2003). This definition is especially important when considering the recent events and processes during 2014-2016 on the international scene.

Monteiro states that in the unipolarity the sole great power faces no other state capable of opposing its preferences in regions beyond their own. Putting this argument around, as soon as such a competitor emerges, unipolarity has ended. This statement can be assessed as a crucial point when evaluating empirical evidences like Russia’s intervention in Syria in autumn 2015.

According to Monteiro, in the unipolar world, states other than the sole great power can be divided into two categories: major and minor powers. Major powers possess a good chance of avoiding defeat in an all-out defensive war against any potential aggressor and can plausibly deter any state in the system. In Monteiro’s definition this category covers such nuclear states like China, France, Israel, India, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and the United Kingdom. The remaining states, without sufficient deterrence, are minor powers. However, this kind of categorization is controversial and not generally accepted, many others are available and their usefulness is questionable.

After the Cold War, the US became a unipole because the US military forces became unrivaled. As Thomas Mowle and David Sacko wrote (2007), “American military spending is nearly 50% of the world total. It is the only country that can deploy a significant portion of its military power to far-flung regions of the world.  Its military power extends to every dimension: land, sea, air, space and cyberspace” (see Posen 2003, Command of Commons) Also, Monteiro argues that unipolarity highlights the concentration of military power in one state, the sole great power.

It is important to further specify the role of different military capabilities: conventional and nuclear weapons. Nuclear war between nuclear states is unwinnable and poses serious risks for states survival, according to present understanding and knowledge of armed capabilities.

Monteiro assumes that in fact the nuclear weapons may even extend the durability of unipolarity. This in turn, gives great incentives for the unipole to deter the spread of nuclear weapons to recalcitrant states. On the other hand, if the sole power contains the economic growth of the major power putting the long-term survival of the latter at risk, war might prove a rational option, even between nuclear powers. This consideration is relevant in the US-North Korea crisis.

Some of the latest development topics in the military technology have been

  • Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) in general,
  • the concept of prompt non-nuclear global strike capability,
  • low-threshold tactical nukes and new generation ICBMs
  • hypersonic weapons,
  • ASAT- and EW-technology and
  • stratified air defense systems (A2/AD anti-access, area denial)

All these concepts and their factual development work are again reshaping military doctrines and strategies among all great and major powers. These issues are examined in the Military drivers.

These systemic power concentration points and polarity formulations have been under intensive mathematical and statistical modeling and formulation work since David J. Singer’s initiating project “Correlates of War” 1963. Numerous think tanks and analytical centers calculate and publish various rankings regarding the polarity of international system.

Measuring the power concentration (the systemic concentration of power formula) and national capabilities (composite index of national capabilities, CINC-index) are the two famous concepts, invented by David J. Singer.