International Relations Rising Powers in World Politics
by
Sandra Destradi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0193

Introduction

The topics of power shifts and the rise and fall of great powers have been at the core of the discipline of International Relations since its inception. However, with the end of the Cold War, the increasing economic success and political visibility of countries like China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, and the concomitant perceived decline of the United States, in recent years this topic has come back to center stage in International Relations. New multilateral formats, such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit meetings, as well as new institutions, such as the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, reveal the activism of rising powers in contemporary world politics. While agreement is not universal on which countries should be considered as “rising” or “emerging” powers, most studies include China, India, Brazil, and South Africa in this category—even though Brazil’s economic and political crisis calls into question the durability of such classifications. On other emerging economies, such as Turkey, Indonesia, Mexico, or Nigeria, there is less agreement in the literature, while Russia is frequently considered a declining power. Against the backdrop of the increasing international activities of rising powers, large sections of the literature that deal with these countries focus on the potential impact of rising powers on the existing world order and on the institutional architecture of international politics, which was substantially shaped by the West after World War II. While some authors are alarmistic about the challenges that rising powers pose to the current world order, several studies find that rising powers do not aim to subvert an international order that has led to their success; rather, they seek to reform it and to be recognized as great powers in the existing global order. Given their sheer size in terms of territory and population, rising powers are essential players in all fields of global governance, from climate change mitigation to global trade governance, crisis management, or sustainable development. However, their norms and preferences are frequently different from those of established powers. For example, on issues such as climate change, rising powers place a clear priority on domestic economic development and refuse binding commitments on emissions reductions. Besides their role in global politics, rising powers are also important players within their respective regions—China in East Asia, Brazil in South America, India in South Asia, South Africa in southern Africa. As “regional powers,” these countries substantially shape politics within their regions, be it by promoting regional governance or by generating resistance among smaller regional states.

Journals

Research on rising powers can be found in different kinds of journals. Since the topic of power shifts has long been at the core of the discipline of International Relations (IR), articles related to the rise of new powers are published in general IR and security studies journals such as International Security. Moreover, the increasing political relevance of the rise of China and other emerging countries for the United States and the “West” in general has automatically led to an increased visibility of the topic of rising powers across journals in the field of International Relations (e.g., International Affairs, Review of International Studies). Among the more policy-oriented journals, the Washington Quarterly has a declared special interest in the rise of China and India; journals focused on security and strategic affairs, for example Survival, have also included articles on rising powers. Finally, some journals have an explicit focus on the non-Western world and are therefore typical publication outlets for work on rising powers. Among others, Third World Quarterly and Global Society have featured special issues on this topic (see Special Issues and Anthologies).

Special Issues and Anthologies

Some of the most innovative research on rising powers has been published in a range of special issues and special sections in academic journals as well as in a few anthologies. While earlier works like the edited volumes Alexandroff and Cooper 2010 or Lennon and Kozlowski 2008 address the more general question of the impact of rising powers on international institutions and global order or the policies of single rising powers, later collections of articles deal with more specific aspects of the rise of new powers. These include efforts to explain the policies of these countries in specific issue areas (Cooper and Flemes 2013, Gray and Murphy 2013, Mansfield 2014), their negotiating behavior (Narlikar 2013), and the reactions among their potential followers (Flemes and Lobell 2015). Going beyond traditional measurements of power capabilities, some more sophisticated operationalization efforts were made, for example, in the special issue de Lombaerde 2014. Moreover, some special issues focus on the regional context in which rising powers are embedded, thereby conceptualizing them as “regional powers” (Nel, et al. 2012; Nel and Nolte 2010 [see also Regional Powers]).

  • Alexandroff, Alan S., and Andrew F. Cooper, eds. Rising States, Rising Institutions: Challenges for Global Governance. Waterloo, ON: Centre for International Governance, 2010.

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    Comprehensive edited volume. It starts from the assumption that the way in which rising powers will relate to international institutions will have a substantial impact on the world order of the 21st century. The chapters assess the current international structure, the approach of rising powers to international institutions, and institutions themselves (especially G-20 and BRICS).

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  • Cooper, Andrew F., and Daniel Flemes, eds. Special Issue: Foreign Policy Strategies of Emerging Powers in a Multipolar World. Third World Quarterly 34.6 (2013).

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    This special issue is structured along issue areas, with several contributions focusing, for example, on nuclear or cyber-space policies of rising powers. Moreover, it includes some general contributions on the strategies of rising powers in global governance and different institutional forums.

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  • de Lombaerde, Philippe, ed. Special Issue: Measuring and Modeling Regional Power and Leadership. Journal of Policy Modeling 36.S1 (2014).

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    Collection of articles that move beyond purely conceptual debates on rising powers and their policies at the regional level by addressing, among other things, the operationalization of power and leadership and by studying the relationship between regionalization and globalization for the BRICS countries.

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  • Flemes, Daniel, and Steven E. Lobell, eds. Special Issue: Contested Leadership in International Relations. International Politics 52.2 (2015).

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    This collection of articles focuses on how other countries react to the rise of “new” powers in different regions.

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  • Gray, Kevin, and Craig N. Murphy, eds. Special Issue: Rising Powers and the Future of Global Governance. Third World Quarterly 34.2 (2013).

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    Collection of papers that looks at the domestic foundations of the policies of rising powers in different fields of global governance.

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  • Lennon, Alexander T. J., and Amanda Kozlowski, eds. Global Powers in the 21st Century: Strategies and Relations. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2008.

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    Collections of essays originally published in The Washington Quarterly. Good overview of the policies of India and China as well as Russia, Europe, and Japan.

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  • Mansfield, Edward D., ed. “Rising Powers in the Global Economy.” International Studies Review 16.3 (2014): 437–466.

    DOI: 10.1111/misr.12148Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This “forum” discusses different aspects of the approach of rising powers to the global economy, with a particular focus on the BRICS states.

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  • Narlikar, Amrita, ed. Special Issue: Negotiating the Rise of New Powers. International Affairs 89.3 (2013).

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    This collection of papers is structured along an analytical framework based on bargaining theory. Some of the papers focus on the negotiation strategies of single rising powers (Brazil, India, China), others address the interplay with established powers as well as the interactions with actors such as multinational corporations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

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  • Nel, Philip, Dirk Nabers, and Melanie Hanif, eds. Special Issue: Regional Powers and Global Redistribution. Global Society 26.3 (2012).

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    This special issue uses the notion of global redistribution to study the aspirations of rising powers for a more equitable distribution of wealth, power, and prestige between established powers and the Global South.

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  • Nel, Philip, and Detlef Nolte, eds. Special Issue: Regional Powers in a Changing Global Order. Review of International Studies 36.4 (2010).

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    One of the first collections of papers that addresses rising powers in their regional context, conceptualizing them as “regional powers” and discussing the various forms of leadership and hegemony that these countries exercise within their regions.

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Power Shifts and the Return of Great Power Politics

The study of the rise of new powers in the international system is related to the notion of power shifts, a topic that has been at the very core of the discipline of International Relations since its inception and has been a central element in realist theorizing. Besides historical studies on the rise and fall of great powers like Kennedy 1987, a classic work, approaches such as power transition theory (Organski 1968) and long cycle theory (Modelski 1987) have dealt with the systemic consequences of the rise of new powers. Moreover, the study of rising powers touches upon the issue of polarity in the international system, one of the key variables in structural realism. Most authors agree that the “unipolar moment” of US predominance that followed the end of the Cold War is over. However, disagreement is widespread on whether the rise of new powers has already led to the emergence of multipolarity or, according to Huntington 1999, of uni-multipolarity or perhaps, according to Buzan 2011 and Kupchan 2012, to a new world order without superpowers. Offensive realists, in works such as Mearsheimer 2014, by contrast, predict a return to great power politics: the rise of new powers, and particularly of China, is assumed to be dangerous for international peace because rising powers will automatically strive for regional hegemony and generate security competition.

Contemporary Rising Powers

Since the early 2000s, a new strand in the International Relations literature has emerged, which specifically focuses on the rise of new powers in the Global South. A study by the Goldman Sachs investment bank (Wilson and Purushothaman 2003) first used the acronym BRICs and generated a new interest in the economic and political rise of countries such as China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. Research on contemporary rising powers builds upon the more general, predominantly realist, literature on rising powers (see Power Shifts and the Return of Great Power Politics), but the research agenda and the epistemologic foundations of research have been substantially broadened. The literature on contemporary rising powers therefore looks beyond structural shifts in the international system. To mention some directions the literature has taken, several authors focus on the economic emergence of rising powers (see Economic and Financial Governance), Stephen 2012 and Cooper 2010 address the role of these powers in multilateral institutions, Narlikar 2010 studies their negotiating behavior, Plagemann 2015 as well as Nau and Ollapally 2012 are interested in their norms and worldviews, and several authors focus on their quest for status and recognition (see Rising Powers and their Quest for Status) and their approach to global governance (for a more detailed discussion of various fields of global governance, see the section Rising Powers and Global Governance).

  • Cooper, Andrew F. “The G20 as an Improvised Crisis Committee and/or a Contested ‘Steering Committee’ for the World.” International Affairs 86.3 (2010): 741–757.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2346.2010.00909.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The article focuses on the G20 as an important new institution in global governance that includes both established and rising powers. It also takes a critical stance by highlighting that the G20 remains a club of powerful countries, in which rising powers do not necessarily act as representatives of the interests of the broader Global South.

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  • Narlikar, Amrita. New Powers: How to Become One and How to Manage Them. London: Hurst, 2010.

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    In this monograph Narlikar analyzes the negotiating behavior of India, China, and Brazil. By systematically testing hypotheses on the drivers of rising powers’ negotiating behavior, the author provides a comparative assessment of the actual policies of these countries (as opposed to the focus on their intentions and on the impact of their rise, which have been predominant in the literature).

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  • Nau, Henry R., and Deepa M. Ollapally, eds. Worldviews of Aspiring Powers: Domestic Foreign Policy Debates in China, India, Iran, Japan, and Russia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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    A useful edited volume on the normative underpinnings and historical roots of the policies of rising powers—even though the selection of countries analyzed unfortunately does not include Brazil and South Africa.

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  • Plagemann, Johannes. Cosmopolitanism in a Multipolar World: Soft Sovereignty in Democratic Regional Powers. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137488220Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This monograph looks at the approaches to sovereignty of India, Brazil, and South Africa. While it is usually assumed that these countries staunchly defend the notion of state sovereignty, the author argues that the concept of “soft sovereignty” better captures the policies and practices of these countries.

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  • Stephen, Matthew D. “Rising Regional Powers and International Institutions: The Foreign Policy Orientations of India, Brazil and South Africa.” Global Society 26.3 (2012): 289–309.

    DOI: 10.1080/13600826.2012.682277Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The article argues that rising powers have been coopted into existing international institutions, but they are, at the same time, trying to reform those institutions from within to make them reflect the increased weight and distinctive normative orientations of rising powers.

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  • Wilson, Dominic, and Roopa Purushothaman. “Dreaming with BRICs: The Path to 2050.” Global Economics Paper No. 99. New York: Goldman Sachs, 2003.

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    An analysis of the economic development and potential of Brazil, Russia, India, and China. This paper was influential in shaping the debate on rising powers as emerging economies. The acronym “BRICs” was later converted into political reality by the governments of the respective countries (plus, later, South Africa), which institutionalized summit meetings in the BRIC(S) format.

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Rising Powers and Global Governance

Within the literature on rising powers, several studies focus on the role of these countries in different fields of global governance. A range of general studies addresses the broader approach of rising powers to global governance. Based on the notion that “with power comes responsibility,” established powers have called for rising powers to contribute to the provision of global public goods in a range of issue areas. Among the studies that analyze the responses of rising powers to such calls, authors in works such as Kahler 2013 and Jentleson 2012 highlight that rising powers are not interested in subverting the existing international order—rather, they seek to reform it from within—and that these reform efforts are grounded in different normative conceptions about justice and responsibility. Other authors argue that, to the contrary, rising powers are conflicted states that find it difficult to pursue a coherent policy line (Schweller 2011) and are not necessarily able to generate support among smaller states of the Global South (Schirm 2010). The approach of rising powers to global governance is addressed in greater detail for selected issue areas (see Security, Economic and Financial Governance, Climate Change, and Development: “New” Donors).

  • Jentleson, Bruce W. “The John Holmes Memorial Lecture: Global Governance in a Copernican World.” Global Governance 18.2 (2012): 133–148.

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    This brilliant article traces some of the broad trends in global governance that are related to the rise of “new” powers: the contestation of liberal institutionalism, the continued centrality of the nation-state, and a focus on the notions of historical justice and common but differentiated responsibilities.

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  • Kahler, Miles. “Rising Powers and Global Governance: Negotiating Change in a Resilient Status Quo.” International Affairs 89.3 (2013): 711–729.

    DOI: 10.1111/1468-2346.12041Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The article argues that the rise of new powers will not imply a revolution in global governance since these countries tend to be rather conservative, risk-averse, and unwilling to openly assume global leadership roles. They will therefore not challenge existing institutions; rather, they will seek greater influence in them.

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  • Schirm, Stefan A. “Leaders in Need of Followers: Emerging Powers in Global Governance.” European Journal of International Relations 16.2 (2010): 197–221.

    DOI: 10.1177/1354066109342922Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This article connects the literature on rising powers in global governance with that on “regional powers” (see Regional Powers). It shows that emerging powers frequently face resistance from within their regions to their aspirations at the global level.

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  • Schweller, Randall. “Emerging Powers in an Age of Disorder.” Global Governance 17.3 (2011): 285–297.

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    The article discusses the dilemmas that rising powers face when they are confronted with expectations about becoming responsible stakeholders by contributing to global governance. It argues that rising powers are “conflicted states” that, in different situations, act as either spoilers, supporters of the international order, or shirkers.

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Security

Surprisingly little literature is available that systematically addresses the role of rising powers in key security regimes such as the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction or peacekeeping in internal conflicts. One exception is Onderco 2015, which studies the approach of India, Brazil, and South Africa to the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. Other studies, such as Tjønneland 2014, focus on rising powers and security in single regions such as Africa. Thakur 2013 and Kenkel 2012 address the approach of rising powers to the principle of the responsibility to protect, which these countries contest given their attachment to the norms of sovereignty and nonintervention.

Economic and Financial Governance

The recent literature on the role of rising powers in the global economic and financial governance focuses especially on the responses of these countries to the global financial crisis of 2008–2009 (Wise, et al. 2015). While some authors, in works such as Armijo and Katada 2014, highlight that rising powers have demanded an increasing say in existing institutions, others, in works such as Betz 2014, focus on their efforts to develop alternative forums, while still others, in works such as Schirm 2013, highlight that sometimes alliances emerge between rising and established powers.

  • Armijo, Leslie Elliott, and Saori N. Katada, eds. The Financial Statecraft of Emerging Powers: Shield and Sword in Asia and Latin America. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

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    This edited volume studies how rising powers have been using financial statecraft and argues that, since the financial crisis of 2008–2009, countries such as China, India, and Brazil have been increasingly assertive, for example, by putting pressure on established powers to expand quotas in the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

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  • Betz, Joachim. “Emerging Powers and Global Financial Governance.” Strategic Analysis 38.3 (2014): 293–306.

    DOI: 10.1080/09700161.2014.895234Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This article critically discusses, among other topics, the alternative initiatives for financial governance that have been developed by rising powers after the global financial crisis of 2008–2009.

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  • Schirm, Stefan A. “Global Politics Are Domestic Politics: A Societal Approach to Divergence in the G20.” Review of International Studies 39.3 (2013): 685–706.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0260210512000216Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This article shows that, on key issues of global economic governance, a clear formation of “fronts” of established versus rising powers is not necessarily evident. Quite to the contrary, the governments of industrialized and emerging economies form pragmatic issue-specific alliances based on societal interests and ideas.

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  • Wise, Carol, Leslie Elliott Armijo, and Saori N. Katada, eds. Unexpected Outcomes: How Emerging Economies Survived the Global Financial Crisis. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2015.

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    This edited volume looks at responses to the global financial crisis of 2008–2009 on the part of emerging markets (besides China, India, and Brazil, the contributions also study Argentina, Chile, Korea, Mexico, and Peru). Overall, the authors argue that emerging markets were successful because they proved flexible in combining state and market approaches in responding to the crisis.

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Climate Change

The literature on rising powers and climate change focuses, on the one hand, on the approach of these countries to international climate negotiations in general (Hurrell and Sengupta 2012) and on their actual negotiating behavior, with a particular focus on the 15th Conference of the Parties that took place in Copenhagen in 2009, where the rising powers played an important role and cooperated under the acronym “BASIC” (Hallding, et al. 2013; Bodansky 2010). On the other hand, Never 2012, Never and Betz 2014, and Cole and Liverman 2011 show that, despite their resistance to binding international agreements on climate change, rising powers have realized the importance of this topic and have developed their own domestic policies aimed at climate change mitigation.

Development: “New” Donors

A section in the literature on rising powers in global governance focuses on the issue area of development, and particularly on rising powers as donor countries of foreign aid (Chin and Quadir 2012). Among existing analyses, a particular focus is found on the study of China’s activities as a donor, especially in Africa (Alden 2007). However, some studies also deal with the policies of other rising powers: Mullen 2014 analyzes India, Dauvergne and Farias 2012 provide an assessment of Brazil as a donor, and Sidiropoulos 2011 focuses on South Africa. Weiss and Erthal Abdenur 2014 addresses the broader issue of the role of rising powers in the UN development system and South-South cooperation. Mawdsley 2012 argues that a more comprehensive approach to (re)emerging donors is needed in order to understand the impact of rising powers on more general patterns of aid and development.

Rising Powers and their Quest for Status

Rising powers should not simply be characterized as countries that display growing power resources and capabilities, but also as states that aspire to a greater role in world politics (see Schirm 2010, cited under Rising Powers and Global Governance). The quest for status is a central feature of the policies of rising powers, which has recently gained increased attention in the literature. Works that address the topic of status in world politics in general terms include the edited volumes Paul, et al. 2014 and Volgy, et al. 2011. With a specific reference to rising powers, Nel 2010 argues that these countries strive for international “recognition.” Case studies, for example, Stolte 2015 on Brazil, discuss how status concerns drive the policies of rising powers at the regional and global levels.

  • Nel, Philip. “Redistribution and Recognition: What Emerging Regional Powers Want.” Review of International Studies 36.4 (2010): 951–974.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0260210510001385Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This article focuses on the drivers of the quest by rising powers for change in international politics and argues that, besides redistribution, these countries are driven by a desire for “recognition.” The latter involves the creation of a more inclusive multilateralism and respect toward their developmental needs.

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  • Paul, T. V., Deborah Welch Larson, and William C. Wohlforth, eds. Status in World Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

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    This extremely useful edited volume is structured along different facets of status seeking such as status signaling, status dilemmas, or status accommodation. These conceptual and theoretical issues are illustrated through case studies, thereby generating an inspiring combination of theoretical and empirical insights.

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  • Stolte, Christina. Brazil’s Africa Strategy: Role Conception and the Drive for International Status. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137499578Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This analysis addresses Brazil’s ambitions as a rising power by focusing on its quest for status recognition in international affairs and by arguing that a proactive Africa policy is used to achieve such status.

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  • Volgy, Thomas J., Renato Corbetta, Keith A. Grant, and Ryan G. Baird, eds. Major Powers and the Quest for Status in International Politics: Global and Regional Perspectives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

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    This edited volume discusses the issues of status and status inconsistencies such as “overachievement” and “underachievement” for a range of established and rising powers. It also includes a discussion of the aspirations of regional powers for great power status, thereby addressing the generally underexplored link between the regional and the global dimensions in the policies of rising powers.

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Regional Powers

This strand of the literature focuses on rising powers in a regional context. The central idea is that, while rising at the global level, countries such as Brazil, China, India, or South Africa are the dominant countries within their respective regions and have a substantial impact on governance at the regional level of analysis (Flemes 2010). Regional powers are usually conceptualized as countries that are predominant within a region in terms of material power capabilities and/or ideational factors (Nolte 2010). Several works in this research strand focus on the different ways in which regional powers try to convert their power capabilities into actual influence, with a particular focus on the notions of leadership and hegemony (Destradi 2010, Prys 2010). Stewart-Ingersoll and Frazier 2012 combines a focus on regional powers with regional security complex theory (an approach originally developed in Buzan and Wæver 2003) to systematically address the impact of regional powers on regional security orders. Lake 2010 argues that regional hierarchies depend on the legitimacy accorded to dominant states, and that a clear hierarchy with a single dominant state will lead to more peaceful regional orders. Alternative approaches call for explanations for the variation in the actual impact of regional powers on regional governance and open the field to interpretive analyses (Lopez-Lucia 2015).

China

Among rising powers, China is the country that has generated the greatest amount of scholarly attention. A lively debate on the implications of China’s rise has emerged, especially among US-based scholars. On the one hand, Mearsheimer 2010 and other works propagating the notion of a “China threat” argue that China will not rise peacefully. On the other hand, several scholars have called into question the China-threat discourse: Schweller and Pu 2011 highlights that China is pursuing more subtle strategies in order to challenge US hegemony, Johnston 2013 shows that China’s “assertiveness” is nothing new and often overestimated, while Shambaugh 2013 and Steinfeld 2010 argue that China’s economic model and global policies are actually less successful than is usually assumed. Beyond this debate, a vast literature exists on different aspects of China’s power (on soft power, for example, see Kurlantzick 2007) and global outreach to different world regions (Dittmer and George 2010, Breslin 2014).

India

The literature on India’s rise includes broad overviews of the country’s politics and foreign policy such as the classics Cohen 2001, Mohan 2003, and Mitra 2011. Ganguly 2010 provides a more systematic and theory-driven analysis of India’s relations with major powers and regional countries, and Narlikar and Narlikar 2014 traces the origins of India’s approach to international negotiations. Ganguly 2001 and Destradi 2012 focus on India’s difficult regional neighborhood, which is sometimes understood to hamper India’s rise.

Brazil

The literature on Brazil as a rising power focuses, on the one hand, on the regional dimensions of Brazil’s rise: Burges 2008, Malamud 2011, Spektor 2010, and Wehner 2015 address different aspects of Brazil’s approach to South America and highlight the difficulties that Brazil has been facing in generating followership among South American countries. On the other hand, the literature explores Brazil’s rise in global terms and the foundations of its foreign policy (Vigevani and Cepaluni 2007). Additionally, sections of the literature address the history and domestic foundations of Brazil’s rise (Reid 2014, Soares de Lima and Hirst 2006), while more recent work, such as Gardini 2015, calls into question the usefulness of conceptualizing Brazil as a rising power at all.

South Africa

Post-apartheid South Africa is probably the least studied among rising powers. More than in other cases, the literature tends to focus on the regional dimension of South Africa’s foreign relations (Alden and Le Pere 2009, Alden and Soko 2005, Prys 2009, Vale 2003), while only a few studies address the global level of analysis as well. Schoeman 2003 conceptualizes South Africa as an “emerging middle power.” Other sections of the literature, for example, Habib 2009, Lodge 2003, and Barber 2004, address the impact of South Africa’s democratic transition on its foreign policy and its international rise.

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