Wesley B. O'Dell
The notion that Great Powers fulfill a leadership role in international politics is old, influential, and contested. As the actors in the international system with the greatest capacity for taking action, Great Powers are assumed to think both further ahead and in broader, more systemic terms than other states; they then use their preeminent positions to organize others to promote public goods, reaping benefits along the way thanks to their direction of events. At the core of this understanding is the assumption that Great Power actions are, or ought to be, inspired by something more than simple self-interest and the pursuit of short-term gains. As an organic creation of international practice, Great Power leadership was traditionally the domain of historians and international legists; early students of the topic utilized inductive reasoning to derive general precepts of Great Power sociology from the landmark settlements of the 18th and 19th centuries. The framing of Great Powers as a leadership caste originated in the struggle against Louis XIV, was given tentative institutional form through settlements such as the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), and deepened considerably in both institutionalization and sophistication in the 19th century Concert of Europe. The return of France to full Great Power status, the Congress (1878) and Conference (1884) of Berlin, and the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901) all demonstrated the willingness and ability of the Powers to cooperate in the management of international change. In the early 20th century, the leadership of the Great Powers was both challenged as an unjust agent of catastrophe as well as increasingly formalized through recognition in new international institutions such as the League of Nations and the United Nations. Theorists of international relations began to formulate theories based on Great Power management at the time of the discipline’s beginnings in the early 20th century. Realists and liberals frequently utilize Great Power concepts to explain processes of equilibrium, hegemonic competition, and institution building, while approaches influenced by constructivism focus on the role of ideas, statuses, and roles in the formulation of Great Power identities and policies. The doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a 21st-century manifestation of the application of Great Power leadership to international problems; though hailed by some as the future of Great Power management, it provokes controversy among both theorists and practitioners. Similarly, extensive scholarly attention has been devoted to the management and accommodation of “rising powers.” These are states that appear likely to obtain the status of Great Power, and there is extensive debate over their orientation toward and potential management of international order. Finally, the position of Russia and China within this literature has provoked deep reflection on the nature of Great Power, the responsibilities of rising and established powers, and the place of Great Power management amidst the globalized challenges of the 21st century.