Normative Dimensions to Status Attribution

One of the original intents of this project was to delink the notion of major power status from material capabilities and the desire by states to act like major powers. This exercise has proved useful in that it has generated salient questions and hypotheses about how status is defined not only by researchers but also by the states themselves. However, as status is inherently a social concept, we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge status’s normative dimension. Consistent with the dynamics of community and in-group attribution, one of the most interesting themes emerging from the individual case study chapters concerns how states collectively participate in the definition of which attributes and policies determine access to the regional or global major power club.

And here we find a fascinating disconnect between self-attribution concerns and those created by community and in-group attribution. Consider the cases of China and Russia. As the relevant chapters attest, self-attribution is surrounded by doubt (at least by Chinese and Russian policy makers) that these powers can maintain their status without meeting the normative standards widely accepted in the post—Cold War era. To wit, most major powers are democratic states, with free market economies, and broad respect for global norms of human rights. Neither of these states possess these attributes, ones that are broadly accepted today (at least rhetorically) by both the community of states and major powers such as the United States, France, the UK, Germany, and Japan. Moreover, policy makers within both of these countries seem to defend vigorously the idea that they do not need to meet these normative standards (Russia), or that these normative standards are more relative than universal (China). In addition to refusing to meet these standards, neither China nor Russia is being hailed by a substantial portion of the global community as providing alternative normative models to the dominant mode that has emerged since 1989. Yet, both are overachieving status-inconsistent major powers, meaning that they receive more status than their capabilities and willingness to structure international affairs would suggest.

Equally important is the fact that this disconnect is not unique to the post—Cold War era. The Soviet Union moved from an underachiever to an overachiever during the Cold War, even though its domestic institutions and economy—not to mention its persistent efforts to minimize the salience of Cold War international institutions—were inconsistent with the broad norms espoused by the global leader and its allies.

So, how important is the idea that a major power, in order to gain and hold status, demonstrate not only strong capabilities and a willingness to structure international affairs independent of other major powers, but also offer a normative model for other states to accept and possibly emulate? Clearly, we have no clear-cut answer. What is perplexing is that such normative concerns occupy the thinking of major power policy makers in countries that are out of the normative mainstream, yet their status has not appeared to have suffered as a result.

It is plausible that to some extent the conferral of major power status is far more instrumental for states outside of the normative mainstream than it is for states inside it. Should the Chinese economy slump, or should Russia fail to move beyond its present status as an basic materials producing state, or should either or both states experience substantial domestic instability in the near future, it is plausible that their status in international politics would decline substantially. It is possible that swimming in the normative mainstream allows other major powers to buttresses short-term fluctuations in their major power capabilities, and perhaps even in their willingness to structure international affairs.

Although neither necessary nor sufficient for achieving major power status, adherence to the international community’s normative standards may facilitate the attribution of major power status, while being out of the normative mainstream may magnify the gap between capabilities and status for states whose membership in the major power club is in doubt. That adhering to, or rejecting the normative status quo of the in-group could act as catalyst for changing status attribution suggests potentially fascinating avenues of future research. For instance, could China and Russia maintain high status as overachievers without substantially increasing their military and economic capabilities if they acquiesced to these norms? Would such normative acceptance by China offset its cautious acceptance of a stronger global leadership role, allowing it to continue to receive high status? One could imagine—as Keohane and Nye (1984) argued that a declining hegemon can extend its time at the top of the hierarchy through the creation of institutional structures and normative arrangements—that an overachieving major power could maintain its status by integrating itself into the prevailing normative architecture. Alternatively, to what extent do conflicts about normative standards become sufficiently salient to lead a state such as China, endowed with major power status and an upward trajectory on its capabilities, to find enough soft power from its status to assume the role of a revisionist major power?

Thus, we are loath to suggest that it is mostly capability and potential willingness to structure world order that matters and not other normative dimensions of being a major power. States tend to look at major powers as models for both domestic reforms and foreign policy trends, and the ability of major powers to blaze the path in certain areas of domestic or foreign policy may determine whether their status is conferred in the first place or renewed. Clearly more systematic research is needed to explore the complex interplay between the acceptance of global norms (or the modeling of alternative norms) and the more traditional factors involving opportunity and willingness to act as a major power that are salient for in-group and community attribution processes.

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