Great Power Competition = Risky Status-Seeking

Why do we call some states, great powers? What does it really mean to have power?

Big states like Brazil have lots of land. Does big acreage make them a great power? Rich states like Japan have a giant economy. Does wealth make them a great power?

Crowded states like Bangladesh have teeming populations -- but do overflowing societies, even in the hundreds of millions, equate to great power?

What is "great power" in our world?

Great power is a socially awarded status -- and it is awarded by other societies, through public expressions of deference and respect. Thus great power is a form of external rank -- a superficial award in the informal pecking order of nations.

Because great power status is accorded by other nations, and not self-awarded, it can be achieved only through actions whose significance is universally acknowledged. In our world these actions are the elaborate ceremonial we call war.

Throughout history, people have tended to ascribe "great power" to states that stage successful operatic military productions -- full of action and drama -- for a world audience. The opera of war, with its passion and glory, showcases great power qualities like courage, tenacity, privation, and sacrifice. But it is not enough just to successfully pull off such grand ceremony.

Great power's prize is awarded only to societies that successfully dominate in war.

In Greco-Roman antiquity -- from the Latin, dominus, or master -- dominance meant simply, "mastery." To be master is a great feeling, but the real value of dominance is that it represents fiat-evidence of great power.

But it is not enough to possess such evidence: The evidence of mastery must also be shown to the world -- so that the world can fully acknowledge great power, and so fully and freely award its status. This, then, is the realm of great power ceremonial.

Victory on the battlefield may mark a culmination in war, but war itself is but the vehicle for the celebration of dominance. Real dominance cannot be truly achieved until it is presented in full view of the world. This is the investiture of great power, and it is enacted through the symbols and rituals of a grand national ceremony.

This is why Romans worked so hard on the ceremony of the triumph -- which became literally the centerpiece for legitimizing Roman Rulership. The triumph was designed to present the evidence of mastery -- in the flesh -- like Caesar parading in person the noble Vercingetorix through Rome in a cage. Or the surrender of Japan on the deck of a mighty American battlewagon, its big guns elevating to the sky, as 1000 allied war planes thundered overhead.

Ritual and symbolic acts of prostration and submission -- no matter how raw, or how civilized -- form the distilled essence of great power. In the pursuit of great power status, war is the vehicle that leads to victory; victory demarcates dominance; dominance is displayed to all; and the coronet of great power is publicly bestowed.

Using lethal force and forcing submission -- as humanity's most extravagant performance art -- is as central to great power status seeking as it was 3500 years ago (see Ramesses' stele from the battle of Kadesh).

Nothing has changed. A superb military does not a great power make, nor does a high-power, razzle-dazzle Big Top parade. You could call America's "Great White Fleet" a Victorian world concert tour, showboating on a global stage -- but it did not give us great power. Hitler's Nurnberg rallies grabbed world eyeballs, but not the prize -- likewise, 70th anniversary military parades in Moscow and Beijing.

So even today, great power status still must be earned. As longstanding great powers, the United States, Russia, and China, who received their laurels in World War II and the Korean War, cannot afford to rest on them. Great power is a fleeting status, and must periodically be renewed -- especially when challenged.

All three big three powers are up for renewal -- yet they want to recharge their status without a big war, each for different reasons:

· The United States has been "@war" for fifteen years, only to lose all hope of dominating its enemies. The problem: How to reclaim lost status without further diminishing it, where your former best tool works against you?

  • · Russia wants to reclaim great power standing and respect without risking a big war that might undermine its shaky ranking. A weak economy and a war-averse society pushes military power to marginal spaces it can control.

  • · China wants to move up in the great power rankings, and establish local mastery over the US in the South China Sea -- without fighting for it. So island building could turn into blowback: Not as triumph, but as cassus belli.

    Hence, the need to recharge great power status without war and too much blood is a strategic conundrum for all three big powers. All three have declared themselves to be in competition over great power ranking. All three have tied their state regimes' domestic political support to the successful assertion of renewed power status. All three claim loud domestic political support for military braggadocio, but none for reclaiming status the old-fashioned way, through big war. All three have initiated gambit military operations to boost great power status, focusing on ritual and symbolic activity: The Chinese with their magic "islands," and their Seapower; Russia through various imperial interventions with "Little Green Men;" America with earnest and lethal, yet still aloof naval and air power.

    The conundrum is this: The means they have chosen to recharge great power status are insufficient to achieve that goal. Yet at the same time, extravagant military display could lead to provocations that force a showdown, forcing escalation to the big war no one wants:

    · Russia uses lethal military power as an operatic showcase, more about ceremonial than operational effectiveness. Check out Russian's elaborate cinema from their recent Caspian cruise missile strike on Syria. Notice how the latest Russian video game flyover of the concrete and human rubble of Aleppo is tuned to a very particular audience -- those addicted to franchises like Medal of Honor, Destiny, and Call of Duty. But very real US aid to rebels could yet turn this entire Russian opera into a desperate defeat.

  • · China's magic islands are not sufficiently defended to challenge US Navy Freedom of Navigation operations (FONOP). So China looks weak in the eyes of its people. But if the reefs are militarized then the PLAN will be under enormous pressure to confront aggressive American actions. Either seizing the South China Sea leads to actual sovereignty, or US FONOPS will reduce ownership to undefended claims. The former outcome asserts Chinese mastery over America, while the latter asserts US dominance over China.

  • · The United States is in the grip of great power anxiety: It is afraid it is losing its world status. Look at the media reaction to Putin's move into Syria: "Putin is winning the Ukraine cease fire"; "Why Putin is winning the new cold war"; "Putin is winning"; "How Putin will win in Syria"; "Putin is winning the Ukrainian war on three fronts"; "Why Putin is winning the new cold war"; and then, "James Clapper, Carl von Clausewitz, Vladimir Putin and why Russia is winning."

    Today's great power status-seeking is troubling because all three powers have set up symbolic military encounter zones that offer one party a "win" only if the other party backs down: a zero-sum game.

    Going further, professional military constituencies in Russia, China, and America all suffer from strategic complacency. In Russia they believe they can bring NATO (or the Arabian states) to heel by threatening nuclear escalation, if necessary. In China, the PLAN believes it can defeat the US Navy with its smart and spooky ship-killing missiles; while in Washington, the US Navy believes it can defeat the PLAN with the smart and spooky network magic of Air Sea Battle. Rather than "war is not an option" -- war is, eerily, "very much on the table." Or as RADM (ret.) Yang Yi protests: "We must not submit ourselves to humiliation."

    Moreover, the three great powers are complacent about actually triggering a war. Nuclear weapons are seen as a security blanket against escalation, and the three great powers have not fought a real war against other big powers for 65-70 years. This is collective complacency, and it emboldens confrontation and risk.

    Can a big war really break out again over status and bragging rights? But these states have already, dangerously tied great power status -- or any challenge to it -- to national identity. Existential things like "destiny" and "honor" can now be threatened.

    Hence, Putin's lethal demonstrations in Syria and Ukraine, in the hearts of most Russians, are about reclaiming a glorious identity lost in the 1991. For Russians, the struggle is not for status per se, but rather the state of being great again, which (perhaps in patriotic daydreams only), is worth fighting for.

    Hence, China's magic islands are about taking back China's rightful mastery in Asia -- cleansing the stain of a "century of humiliation." The United States declares it is defending international order, but Chinese people will have none of this. USS Lassen's FONOP unleashed an explosion of nationalist chest thumping on the Chinese Twitterverse, with cries of "Stop boasting and fight!"

    Hence, Trump's "make America great again" is the clarion for a more aggressive reassertion of American military dominance. Our nation will cease to be great if it ceases to be dominant. This sentiment is buoyed even by mainstream media, in Steve Kroft's viral 60 Minutes moment, when he unloaded on President Obama: "He's challenging your leadership, Mr. President, He's challenging your leadership." Leadership has become America's codeword for "mastery."

    The three aggressive (or perhaps just restless) great powers today -- Russia, China, and the United States -- have made their very identities inseparable from status-seeking strategies. These combine a quest for mastery with extravagant military theater -- that could spin out-of-control at any time.

    Do not worry: It will not happen tomorrow. Right now the powers are conferring and adjudicating, just like their Victorian ancestors -- and just like them, they sing the litany that great power competition cannot possibly bring big war to this enlightened age. They forgot the loan shark's iron equation: When the time comes, you pay-up in full or take the ugly consequences of default.

    This iron equation virtually guarantees another great war.