Originally Published 2004-10-07 10:11:39 Published on Oct 07, 2004
The distribution of military and economic power in the world today resembles an irregular pyramid. The face of the pyramid depicting the military dimension of power rests on a narrow base, while that representing its economic dimension is much wider. Economic power is more broadly diffused among the major states than is the case with military power.
Beyond Challenge - The balance of power has ceased to operate for the first time
The distribution of military and economic power in the world today resembles an irregular pyramid. The face of the pyramid depicting the military dimension of power rests on a narrow base, while that representing its economic dimension is much wider. Economic power is more broadly diffused among the major states than is the case with military power. The American superpower, of course, sits at the top of the power pyramid but it enjoys a huge margin of superiority over the other major powers only in military terms.

When we look at the military dimension of power, we see a unipolar world. The American nuclear armoury and its delivery systems are far superior to those of any other state in numbers and sophistication. Washington has a unique power projection capacity. An indication of the extent of its military superiority is provided by the fact that defence expenditure of the United States of America in 2003 exceeded the combined total of the next 15 major spenders! And in order to maintain its technological lead, the US spent more on military research and development in 2003 than the combined total of the next six largest spenders.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, no other country is an equal or even a near equal of the US in military terms. America today is immune to challenge by any rival power. Even these statements fail to capture the full extent of US military superiority. The margin of American superiority today is so large that no conceivable combination of other powers can offset, or counter-balance, the US in the military domain. This is the distinctive feature of current international relations.

What this means is that the balance of power mechanism has ceased to operate for the first time in many centuries. Few empires in history have achieved such an unchallengeable position, even in a regional context. In Indian history, only the Mauryan empire briefly attained such predominance. The destruction of the Persian empire by Alexander the Great resulted in a regional power vacuum between the Indus and the Oxus, into which the Mauryas were able to expand from their Gangetic base. The Mughal empire did not enjoy such predominance because it had to contend with its powerful western neighbour, Safavid Persia.

To find a parallel in the Western world, we have to go back to the heydays of the Roman empire, between the conquest of Carthage in 146 BC and the internal division of the empire in the 3rd century AD. For several centuries after the fall of imperial Rome, European states sought to restrain the ambitions of the most powerful by forming balancing alliances and coalitions. Thus, France formed alliances with England and Turkey to check the expansion of the Habsburg empire in the 16th century. When Louis XIV of France took over the role of the Habsburgs in the following century, he found himself opposed by England and the Netherlands. Likewise, the ambitions of Napoleonic France were thwarted by a combination of England, Russia and Prussia. In the 12th century, German expansionism was defeated by a combination of Britain, France and the US in 1918, and again, in 1945, by an alliance of Britain, the USSR and the US. After World War II, a global balance of power operated between the Western and Eastern blocs. This balance collapsed after the demise of the Soviet Union.

In terms of military power, America today leads other countries by a margin unprecedented in the last two millennia. However, when we look at the economic dimension of power, the picture that emerges is very different. The European Union has an economy of comparable size and importance. In 2001, the 15 countries of the European Union had a GDP totalling 11.3 trillion euros, compared to 8.9 trillion for the US. They accounted for 19.4 per cent of the global trade in goods, just a shade below the US share of 20 per cent. In respect of the trade in services, the share of the European Union stood at almost 25 per cent of the global total, well ahead of the US share of 21 per cent. The EU saw a major expansion in May 2004, with the entry of 10 new members from central Europe and the Mediterranean.

This will further enhance its profile in the global economy. Thus, the European Union can rival the US in terms of GDP, trade and investment flows, and levels of technological advancement. Japan has a smaller population and its GDP is also correspondingly smaller, but it does not lag behind the US and EU in respect of technology. China is fast emerging as a great economic power. In short, the global distribution of economic power is not as lop-sided as the distribution of political power. The US has an equal in the EU, and Japan does not lag too far behind.

The asymmetry in the distribution of military and economic power, respectively, has important consequences for the functioning of global political and economic institutions. The principal multilateral political forum, the UN security council, has always had an indifferent record of effectiveness. It was paralysed by the East-West conflict throughout the Cold War years. Proposals favoured by the West were regularly vetoed by the Soviet Union, and vice versa. In the post-Cold War world, the US, as the sole military superpower, often finds it more convenient to simply ignore or bypass the security council and take recourse to unilateral military measures.

In sharp contrast to the security council, multilateral economic organizations, like the World Trade Organisation, are able to function effectively. This is partly due to the fact that, in the commercial domain, there is a greater degree of commonality of interests than in the political arena, and partly because no country is so powerful in the economic arena as to be immune to retaliatory measures by other parties if it were to flout the rules of the trading regime. There is little scope for unilateralism in trade matters. WTO dispute settlement tribunals have often decided against the US or the EU, and the latter have accepted these decisions.

It could be claimed, from a certain perspective, that the sharp asymmetry between the military and economic distribution of power reflects the unfinished nature of the EU. The EU functions like a federal state in the area of commercial policy, but plays only a broad coordinating role so far in questions of foreign and security policy.

Progress in the latter area has been slow and halting since there are sharp differences over the extent to which countries are prepared to pool political sovereignty. It is difficult to say if and when the EU will emerge as a single federal state or whether it will always remain a "Europe of the nations". If it were to become a single political unit, the EU would undoubtedly become a superpower in every respect. In any case, the resurgence of Russia and the rise of China, India and other states will eventually bring to a close an era dominated by a single superpower.

The author is a retired diplomat and is currently a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.