In the first installment in this series, we profiled the “real G-7”–the countries whose global sway dominates international politics. But the great powers play aren’t alone; they play their often Machiavellian games amongst a host of allies, rising powers, and antagonists—and often it is how these vital secondary players perform that affects the day to day outcome of geopolitics.
Today we look at the second tier of the world’s power rankings. These powers don’t rule the world, but they help shape it in important ways. One thing many of them do is form alliances that boost and to some degree channel the power of the top tier countries. The power of these alliances is very real; America’s unique network of alliances with other countries is both a sign and a cause of its preeminent power. The United States continues to defy predictions of its imminent decline and fall in part because American power is constantly getting boosts from the network, even as second tier countries like Britain or Israel benefit from an American alliance that gives them influence and access that they might otherwise lack.
So here, in descending order of power, are the world’s regional powers, aspiring global powers, or fading stars. These eight countries couldn’t invade the United States or bully China economically. But they still help shape the world we live in—and sometimes, if they play a canny game, form the right partnerships, and make the right move at the right time, they can even pull off the occasional win over a great power. Or so they hope.
Of all the second tier powers, Iran is making the most determined push to elbow its way to the global high table. Essentially, Iran wants Saudi Arabia’s role. It wants enough power in the Persian Gulf that Tehran will replace Riyadh as the power that determines the OPEC oil price. It also wants to take Saudi Arabia’s place as the leading Islamic power—and it wants to be the strongest regional power east of Europe and west of India. Success would make Iran one of the global greats, and the Iranians have been willing to pay a high price and run great risks to try to bootstrap themselves up to the world’s Premier League.
Iran has both handicaps and advantages in its quest. Its biggest handicaps are its Shia religion and non-Arab ethnicity; many Sunni Arabs consider Shi’ism a dangerous heresy and distrust Persians. Among its advantages: it has a much larger population and a much more advanced political and economic structure than most of the Arab states it wants to dominate. Additionally, while its Shi’a faith hurts Iran with many Arabs, there are significant Shi’a Arab populations in Iraq, in Syria (Assad and his Alawi kinfolk side with the Shi’a), Bahrain (where a Sunni dynasty rules over a restive Shi’a majority), Lebanon (where the Shi’a support Iran’s ally Hezbollah), and Saudi Arabia itself, where many of the people who live in the oil rich Eastern Province are Shi’a. Combine the hard power of its Iran’s push for great power status with its soft power appeal to Shi’a co-religionists, and you have a formidable force that can realistically aspire to dominate one of the most strategic regions in the world.
Iran also benefits from its hostility to Israel and the United States. Both countries are wildly unpopular across most of the Middle East, and Iran can point to Saudi Arabia’s longtime alliance with U.S. as well as Riyadh’s (muted and conditional) support for coexistence with Israel to show that Iran, not the Saudi Arabia, is the true leader of Islamic resistance to the West. This soft power helps offset Iran’s religious and ethnic disadvantages in the region; fear of losing that advantage is one reason that Iran, even as it gingerly negotiates with the U.S. and others over the nuclear issue, continues to scoff at the idea of a true rapprochement with the United States.
At the moment, Iran has yet another advantage: the widespread belief shared by many of its adversaries that President Obama is willing to offer Saudi Arabia’s current job to Iran. Rightly or wrongly, suspicious Sunni Arab analysts and policymakers all across the region believe that the United States, beginning with the overthrow of (Sunni) Saddam Hussein under Bush and continuing under Obama with its refusal to push for regime change against (Shi’a) Assad in Syria, is out to weaken and divide the Sunni Arab world and to install Iran as America’s regional proxy.
How all this shakes out in 2o15 and beyond is anybody’s guess. But Saudi Arabia and Iran, each with proxies and clients, are engaged in the ugliest, bloodiest and most bitter showdown in the world today. The prize is great power status; Iran believes that if it can replace Saudi Arabia as the prime regional power, its larger population and more advanced economy (potentially with nuclear weapons as well) will make it a much more formidable global force than the Saudi kingdom could ever hope to be.
Britain is not the superpower that it once was, but many Brits would like to think it retains a place at the global high table. It doesn’t; a combination of deep military cuts and diplomatic ineptitude mean that the UK, like its ancient rival France, no longer ranks among the seven great powers.
Even so, one square mile of pure power still remains: the financial district centered in the historic City of London. Britain’s position as the center of global finance does not just mean there are jobs in the UK’s capital; it means that many foreign investors—particularly from countries where legal protections are weak. as in Russia, or where local talent lacks the skills and experience of British money managers as in the Middle East—leave their money under British management. This enables the City and therefore the UK to have a much greater global reach than Britain’s own wealth and power could ever give it. From the sands of Arabia to the mines of Australia to finance ministries in debtor countries around the world, the City plays a more significant role in decision making than many understand. The UK is not quite as post-imperial as it sometimes looks.
Britain’s own economy is also an asset, growing at a faster rate than that of the U.S., Japan, or its major European competitors. Britain also retains immense cultural clout, and we are not just talking about the Bard and the Beatles. Almost the whole world passionately follows soccer, a British game codified and popularized by men who could have walked right out of the door of Downton Abbey. UK Premier League teams, such as Manchester United, have fans all over the world, not to mention foreign oligarchs lining up to buy them.
Britain’s superb intelligence services and Special Forces help keep Britain great. Beyond that, the still vibrant special relationship with the U.S. matters, with diplomats and intelligence staffers in both countries working hand in glove on some extremely sensitive issues.
So why doesn’t Britain have a place among the seven great powers of our time? Blame military cutbacks. For all the quality of its elite unites, the British military would struggle to repeat its Falkland Islands success of 1982, much less its role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But Britain’s military cutbacks, damaging as they are, aren’t nearly as crippling as its diplomatic collapse. For hundreds of years British diplomacy shaped European political realities; in the 21st century Albion’s once brilliantly perfidious diplomats have lost their guile. Even as the Franco-German entente withers, Britain’s leaders seem unable to build a natural, even obvious, coalition with the countries of Eastern and Northern Europe for EU reform, and the once sure-footed British have been unable to develop a European strategy for the last twenty years.
Decline is a choice for the UK today, not a fate. Its population and economy are both growing at rates that would bring it closer to Germany in the long run, and its entrepreneurial spirit, great universities, and long record of stable government are qualities that others can only envy.
Yet the Brits seem more interested in picking their society apart than in renewing its dynamism. The Scottish drive to secede, the fumbling approach to the EU, the failure to develop a working immigration policy: none of these seem like the hallmarks of a rising state. Britain is one of a handful of countries that seem bent on throwing away opportunities that others would kill for. But it has recovered its footing in the past; its friends must hope that this ever-less-Scept’red Isle changes course.
Britain and France are rivals, but these days they seem united in decline, and France, as much as Britain, is now punching well below its potential. France has the 5th largest economy in the world. It has nukes, an advanced army, an aircraft carrier, and a veto on the UN Security Council. What it doesn’t have is a plan.
Specifically, it doesn’t have a plan for dealing with Germany’s rise. France originally hoped that the euro would lock a united Germany into a monetary union that would favor France. Things didn’t work out that way; Germany has adapted to the euro and today it is France that is constrained and hemmed in by the currency it once saw as its greatest achievement.
The euro requires deep structural reforms that French society does not want to make, but France has been unable to force Germany to turn the euro into the kind of loose monetary system that would make it easier for France to continue with business as usual. Neither Nicholas Sarkozy nor Francois Hollande has been able to make Angela Merkel budge on the question of Europe’s monetary destiny; never has France’s power and prestige in the EU been at such a low ebb.
Geography has always been Turkey’s best friend. At the intersection of Europe and the Middle East, Turkey controls some of the world’s most vital trade routes, including Russia’s link to the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Geography boosts Turkish power in another way; it sits at the center of a region of enormous importance, surrounded by crisis ridden states.
Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Greece, Lebanon, Iran, Georgia: every one of these countries faces huge problems, and every one of them matters to the outside world. Turkey has its domestic troubles, including a long running war against the PKK Kurdish rebels that it has not yet been able to end, but by contrast with its neighbors, Turkey is an oasis of stability and progress.
That gives Turkey clout. America comes calling because the U.S. needs Turkey’s bases, craves its diplomatic cooperation, and will want its military help if anything is ever to be done to bring the war in Syria to an end without leaving ISIS in control. The EU and Russia both want Turkish trade and Turkish cooperation; Iran sees Turkey as a potential weak link in the alliances around it.
Turkey has had its share of setbacks. Erdogan’s Muslim Brotherhood allies have taken one hit after another. The Saudis are doing their best to pry the Qataris out of Turkey’s embrace. But none of that affects the foundations of Turkey’s continuing power. Between Germany and India, only Iran is a match for Turkey’s combination of a strong state, a technologically sophisticated economy, and a large, educated and hardworking population. Rivalry between the Ottoman Turks and the Persian Empire shaped the Middle East for four hundred years; while President Erdogan as so far signally failed to put Turkey back on the path to regional power, the geographical, economic and demographic facts on the ground ensure that any power with vital interests in the Middle East needs to consult with the Turks.
Inch for inch and pound for pound, no country in the world matches Israel’s impact on international politics. Israeli prime ministers can make or break an American president’s day, bomb nuclear reactors in Syria, put the Iranian nuclear program front and center for the whole international community—and still drive the world to distraction by authorizing a housing developer to build an apartment complex on a barren hillside near Jerusalem. The Israeli intelligence services, including Shin Bet and Mossad, are among the most effective in the world, and the expeditionary and special forces elements of its military among the most experienced. Above all, Israel maintains the strongest, most technically advanced conventional military forces in the Middle East.
While doing all of the above, Israel has built one of the most dynamic high tech industrial complexes in the world, discovered huge energy fields in its territorial waters, and brought its largest Arab neighbors into an uneasy but serious coalition against Israel’s three most serious regional enemies: Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Conventional media coverage of Israel’s diplomatic efforts consistently accentuates the negative, but a clear-eyed look at the Jewish state’s situation reveals a more complicated picture. Israeli-Indian relations have never been closer, and their defense cooperation will deepen as their trade links grow. Black Africa is increasingly Christian, and many of those Christians are Christian Zionists who see themselves in a war against jihadi terror. Vladimir Putin wants to stay close to Jerusalem. The Egyptian army hates Hamas at least as much as the Israelis do. Jordan needs Israel more than ever. The ascendant Kurds and the Jews have long had warm relations.
Iran remains a major security threat, Israel’s relations with the EU continue to deteriorate and the Obama administration cannot stand the Netanyahu government. But Israel has been in hot water since it proclaimed its independence back in 1947; during all that time it has been beset with challenges and threats and, so far, its power has continued to grow.
In 2014, Latin America was an oasis of calm in a troubled world. That is in large part due to the power of Brazil, a country whose quiet regional leadership matters more than many think.
Brazil dominates South America almost as completely as the United States dominates the northern half of the New World. Brazil’s GDP is bigger than that of every other nation in South America combined. Its population is four times that of the next largest country; it is larger in area than the continental United States. Of the ten most populous cities in South America, six are Brazilian. And though Brazil has not been to war with a neighbor in over 140 years (a diplomatic achievement in itself), none of its neighbors would want to cross it militarily.
Brazil’s power is best described as a moderating power: Brazil’s steady focus on peaceful economic growth keeps Latin America relatively calm. It steadfastly refuses to choose either the loco-left politics of the unhinged Bolivarians found in countries like Venezuela or a slavish obedience to every economic fad that sweeps the Washington policy elite. High levels of pro-American feeling in public opinion combine with a left-leaning political system (the Workers’ Party has won the last four presidential elections in a row) to produce a government that Caracas, Havana and Washington can all work with and more or less trust.
Not everyone in Brazil thinks this is enough. Many Brazilians (especially many of those working in the highly professional and widely admired Foreign Ministry) want to see Brazil take its place in the elite ranks of the great powers. A permanent seat on the Security Council, a larger role in Africa, a voice in the Middle East: Brazilian nationalists think big. And its regional accomplishments fall short of the standards some set: to the frustration of many Brazilians. Mercosul, the Latin American trade bloc, has never evolved into something like the European Union. Nobody was more disappointed than the Brazilians when the BRIC hype faded away.
Being a moderating power in a quiet region is not the most glamorous of global vocations, but Brazil is secure, popular, and free to work out its own destiny on its own terms. In a wild and dangerous world, that is nothing to sneeze at.
Australia is one of the world’s rising powers. Economic diversification, technological development, and population growth are making Australia stronger even as the evolution of a new Asian power system makes Australia more important.
Australia had a banner year in 2014. Australia’s Prime Minister had triumphant visits to each of Asia’s Big Three: in China, India and Japan he got the red carpet treatment. That wasn’t all. Australia built ties with the Indian Navy, agreed to export uranium to India, and arranged to purchase up to twelve high-tech submarines from the Japanese. It deepened its defense ties with Japan in other ways too, inking arrangements to share sensitive military technology and a trilateral defense agreement with Tokyo and Washington. The diplomatic successes went beyond defense links; 2014 Australian economic diplomacy secured free trade agreements with South Korea, Japan, and China. The last one meant that up to 95% of all Australian exports will now come into China duty-free.
Beyond Asia, Australia continues to build one of the world’s closest relationships with the United States and the military, trade, intelligence, cultural, and diplomatic ties between the two countries are about as close as these things ever get.
Australia’s population is still only 23 m, and even though that number is projected to jump by 63% to 37.6M by 2050, Australia isn’t going to be a superpower anytime soon. But Australia’s voice matters more today than it ever has in the past, and its influence seems fated to continue to grow.
Think of Canada as a cross between Australia and Brazil. Like Australia, it is a rising power that is rich in resources, closely tied to the United States and gaining skilled new residents through an influx of highly qualified immigrants. Also like Australia, it is a country that finds itself moving from the fringes to the center of important geopolitical issues. Like Brazil, it is a moderating power whose strong influence often operates behind the scenes.
If the rise of China and the resulting tensions in Asia have helped propel Australia into the midst of world politics, it is Russia that is bringing Canada into a more engaged stance. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent shock waves across Canada, where Ukrainian immigrants are one of the country’s largest and most vocal ethnic groups. Canada has consistently been one of Ukraine’s strongest supporters, with prominent Canadian politicians competing to show their support for the embattled republic. Meanwhile, Russia’s growing activism across the Arctic is driving many Canadians to take another look at both their diplomatic and military situation.
At the same time, the steady rise in Canada’s importance as an oil producer is making it a more important factor in world politics. Canada’s unconventional reserves are even larger than the U.S. resources already shaking the global geopolitical order. Canada’s growing heft in world energy production will bolster America’s new role and could ultimately make North America the world’s swing oil producer.
But while Canada has a large and growing oil sector, the crash will affect it less than one might expect. Canada is not Saudi Arabia with ice hockey: it has a diversified economy, and the oil crash is likely to help manufacturing in Ontario as much as it hurts Alberta. Canada also has three world-class economic hubs in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver—assets that will help it ride out the crash.
Like Brazil, Canada has a foreign policy that sometimes looks boring. But as in Brazil’s case, that is a consequence of success, not of failure. Canada has maintained a close and confidential relationship with the United States for decades, but it has also hammered out a distinct international role. Nobody doubts that Canada and the United States ultimately stand side by side, but Canada is widely seen as a more approachable and flexible power than the titan to its south. Over time, as more of Canadian trade shifts to the Pacific, it is likely that Canadian and Australian policy will begin to develop in tandem. That will likely increase the influence of these two far flung offshoots of the old British Empire—both on the wider world around them and on the United States.