“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” As in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, we could remind analysts and political scientists that there are more categories of players in the international systems than suggested by the presently available labels. It is a commonplace, for instance, to contend that the world is becoming multipolar, and the main reason for this transformation is the rise of “emerging powers”. It is because of these new players that the world is thought to be experiencing a massive and global “shift of power”. This is undoubtedly true when we consider aggregated economic indicators; however, this may be less evident if the distribution of wealth (GDP pro-capita) is taken into consideration.
More fundamentally, the label “emerging power” completely lacks historical depth. When applied to China or India, and more in general to non-OECD countries, it is easy to understand that there was a time in history (early Middle Ages) when the balance of power (economically, but also militarily) was much more favorable to the latter. So, it would be more appropriate to refer to them as “re-emerging powers”. However, the task of labeling is always a slippery slope. Russia is the case in question. Is Russia a “re-emerging” country and on what account? Demographically, for instance, Russia has been declining for decades. Moreover, the definition doesn’t consider the profound transformation that took place in the transition from the Soviet “Empire” to the contemporary Russian State (still multinational, but more in line with the Russian state-formation in modern times).
The expression “emerging powers” also has a peculiar connotation in the narrative of “global order”. It seems to suggest that world politics are re-arranging themselves according to the political international equivalent of the “invisible hand” of the classic economic thought. Far from true. On the contrary, the new players inevitably bring with them a potential “disorder”, since they often are revisionist powers, not satisfied with the role distribution in the system of global governance. However, this situation doesn’t necessarily lead to what has been called the “age of entropy”, or a condition of increasing chaotic dynamics due to randomness and unpredictability.
All in all, the category of emerging power seems completely inadequate to understand the role of the new players. First of all, it doesn’t acknowledge the stage presence of the “non-westphalian” actors’ world politics , which are non-governmental in nature. These new players sometimes exert deep influence on the political choices of national governments. Second, the functions performed by the “emerging power” vary according to the attitude taken vis-à-vis the existing structure of the international system. Recent study (Cf. Randall Schweller, Emerging Powers in an Age of Disorder, “Global Governance” 17(2011), 285-297)demonstrates that, in Western minds, there are at least three different roles played by the emerging powers: spoilers, supporters, or shirkers.
Spoilers are not to be understood as radical revisionist powers, since there is no real interest for the new players to upset completely the existing international architecture. The preoccupation of the spoiler is trying to match the distribution of power with the distribution of prestige. In practical terms, this implies a demand to reform international organisations in order to reflect the new structure of power. A good example in this category is that of Brazilian foreign policy. But prestige always comes with a price, and it brings higher responsibility on the shoulders of the revisionists. Consequently, “pure” spoilers appear in the international arena less frequently that one could imagine.
The second possible role of the emerging powers is that of “supporters”. One potential example is India. In this case, the main assumption is that new players are eager to back the international (western) liberal order. From the Western point of view, this conviction takes the form of a plea to the new actors to play as “responsible stakeholders”. But newcomers do not necessarily fully endorse the priorities of the pre-existing international institution; sometimes, they aim to change world decision-making bodies from within. In this case, taking responsibility is not seen by the emerging powers as an unconditional duty, independent from the structure of global governance.
Third, the emerging powers are sometimes considered to be “shirkers” regarding the international order. The idea of “free-rider” is one element of this attitude; however, its consequences go well beyond enjoying someone else’s effort to create and maintain stability. Shirkers are often reluctant to take direct responsibility because they indirectly question the legitimacy of the existing international system, not in terms of the internal structure of the institutions, but because they challenge the agenda-setting and the decision-making process in world politics. This may be the case of China, at least in the eyes of several western countries, including the US. The net result of this attitude is not stalemate, but a progressive retrenchment of the “hegemons” from their global commitments. So, this attitude equates to an implicit medium and long-term strategy.
Those above being described as three theoretical models embracing the role of the emerging powers, it is necessary to understand that rising nations are not “unitary actors” as in the assumption of the neo-realist theory. Rather, they should be considered, like any other state, plural entities, or, more precisely, “conflicted states with multiple identities” (Randall Schweller, cit.). In other worlds, according to the circumstances, all three roles – spoilers, supporters and shirkers – can be played in turn by the rising powers. As a conclusion, we may say that categories are useful, but we should always bear in mind that there are “more things in heaven and earth”.