Are great powers the product of tough neighbourhoods?

Paul Raven @ 25-08-2010

Richard Gowan of Global Dashboard points us to the blog of one Dhruva Jaishankar, who’s wondering whether the ability for states to project power is a function of the stability of their political surroundings. Turns out there are historical examples to the contrary: Europe, Japan and China, for instance.

Exhibit C. China. The growth of China is a remarkable story, but once again it has come despite—not because of—its political relationships with its neighbours. Certainly, China has not had a significant conflict since 1979 and it has settled many of its land boundary disputes. However, it continues to have uneasy relations with almost all its neighbours, including a sizeable dispute with its largest regional competitor, India. It also has one of the most unstable states in the world—North Korea—immediately bordering it. And the military presence of the world’s preeminent power in its region severely limits its actions. None of this, however, has stopped China’s rapid rise.

If you’re thinking “yeah, so what?”, then consider the fairly universal expectation that there’s more political and economic disorder coming down the pipeline, thanks to things like climate change, resource shortages and disruptive technologies. As such, predicting the next generation of global players is not a clear-cut game; nation-states we currently overlook for an assortment of reasons may jockey to the fore, while the pre-race favourites fall at early fences.

For example, what happens if a nation-state strengthens itself economically and politically by taking on all the jobs that the citizens of more fortunate states object to? Call it YIMBYism [via BoingBoing]: let the big boys outsource their problem jobs to you, and alongside the money you get political leverage (and a whole raft of vested interests in maintaining and/or manipulating the status quo to boot).

This works for corporations, too; think of all the mercenary outfits like Blackwater who’ve been taking on the dirty work in democracy- and stability-exporting (ho-ho-ho) conflicts around the world. Comparatively small change for a big nation’s military budget, but big money for a small post-national organisation, who – as a bonus, or perhaps as they intended all along, depending on the ambition and longsightedness of their founders – also get access to the broken and corrupt power systems in the areas where they’re employed.

I think it’d be interesting to look at this on a more local scale as well – zooming in to the level of states and counties, say, or even further in to urban neighbourhoods. How does power and advantage shift in a city like Sao Paolo, for instance, with its rapidly shifting map of interstitial favelas?

Yet another subject to add to the list of “stuff I’d love a small research grant to cover”…