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Emerging Powers in Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

Emerging powers are usually referred to as states whose increasing material capacities and status-seeking strategies may potentially have an impact on the international system and also affect the dominant position of the hegemonic powers therein. The rising of new powers is a recurrent phenomenon in international relations. When talking about emerging powers, scholars associate the words with the so-called BRICS states: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. The emergence of BRICS, and especially of China, poses the question of whether the rising process is a peaceful one. Realism, institutionalism, and constructivism have all dealt with the possible systemic impacts of the BRICS states. BRICS nations seem to be reformist rather than disruptive, meaning that they are pushing for the better representation of their self-perceived new status in multilateral institutions rather than challenging the current system per se. In terms of foreign policy, BRICS states interact with well-established powers such as the United States and European ones—herein they display balancing or bandwagoning strategies, as they do also toward each other. Moreover, well-established powers either accommodate or contest the rising process and status claims of these emerging powers. However, BRICS states are also regional powers. Regional peers contest the rising processes of BRICS and particularly claims to global powerhood.

While BRICS can be seen as striving for the reform of multilateral institutions, the traditional view of BRICS as a homogenous force, comprising countries with similar interests, is sometimes misleading. Even though BRICS states have their own institution with a new bank, they also pursue different interests within traditional institutions. Therefore, the existing literature on BRICS is tilted toward systemic and institutional concerns. Although works taking into consideration the interplay between the domestic and international levels in foreign policy analysis do exist, they are not necessarily related to emerging processes and rarely go beyond foreign economic policy issues. People, leaders, and governmental institutions are decision makers or are part of the decision-making process in foreign policy, and thus they form perceptions and act according to how the rising process of the state is unfolding. An integration of the systemic, state, and personal levels captures the essence of the foreign policies of BRICS states in the context of rising and can take into consideration the ups and downs and stalemates of rising-process trajectories in international politics.

Keywords: emerging powers, BRICS states, regional powers, foreign policy strategies, leadership-followership nexus, multilateral institutions, governance, system, state, and people as levels of analysis


When mentioning the words emerging powers, analysts, policymakers, and scholars who make up the fields of international relations and foreign policy analysis (FPA) associate them almost intuitively with the so-called BRICS group—that is, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. BRIC—and later BRICS—is an acronym that was first coined by O’Neill (2001) from Goldman Sachs to analyze the states newly growing economically and thereby possibly destined to dominate the global economic system in the years to come. The BRIC group (rather than BRICS) has the potential to eventually surpass economically the traditional industrialized states, which have hitherto fixed the pillars of the economic system and international order. However, the BRICS states are not only about economic growth and the attraction of financial markets, as these same countries indeed took onboard the acronym for their own benefit and formed the BRICS club of emerging states so as to gain more power, status, and influence in world affairs (Stuenkel, 2015).

In other words, the rise of the BRICS states both in their respective regions and globally has also increased the scholarly attention paid to the potential consequences of their economic and political growth for the international system as a whole. This is so especially for the case of China, as its emergence may come with high costs for the United States as the world’s superpower. Yet the remaining countries of the BRICS grouping and their rising processes still drive scholars to analyses of what kind of regional orders are now emerging, what form existing multilateral institutions may take or are taking, and what new institutions may emerge, as well as whether emerging powers have transited from being norm takers to norm makers. All these described processes have to do with notions of hierarchies, status, order, and revisionism, as well as with the foreign policy strategies that the BRICS states put in place.

Thus, the purpose here is to assess and analyze the current research agenda on emerging powers within the subfield of FPA and thereafter to outline future avenues of research. The argument is that a research agenda that looks at emerging powers has a valid and natural concern with the systemic implications thereof, one that takes form through the study of the specific strategies of emerging powers—which oscillate between bandwagoning and balancing. This systemic concern also takes shape in studies dealing with whether or not the United States actually accommodates emerging powers’ rise to global status. When it comes to institutions, the main focus is on how BRICS states individually or as a group are reshaping, if at all, the multilateral system. The notion of regional order is also present in the study of BRICS states and the question of why sometimes they either have or alternatively lack regional followers. Thus, a high percentage of the literature deals with the system and the state as levels of analysis—in which the latter actor tends to be black-boxed. Most of the literature on new emerging powers tends to neglect the interplay of the first and second levels of analysis in FPA—that is, people and state. This is not to say there are no works at all on the first level of analysis or on the interplay of the domestic and international (as an emergent literature on economic governance and trade issues with regard to BRICS shows), but these are still in the minority. Research on emerging powers is tilted rather toward the systemic consequences of their rising.

First, an assessment is made of the different and most dominant theoretical approaches in the study of emerging powers. Second, the focus shifts to the issues of peace and threat perceptions in the literature on emerging powers. Third, an analysis is made of the foreign policy strategies of emerging powers. Fourth, the existing research on emerging powers and regional and international institutions is presented and examined through different issue areas. Fifth, under-researched topics regarding emerging powers are reviewed, to help outline a future research agenda, such as the interplay of the first and second levels of analysis—as mentioned, people and state. In all sections only the general trends in terms of topics of research regarding BRICS are analyzed, and, when appropriate, the respective BRICS state is identified and scrutinized. In this sense, the most representative literature on emerging powers over the past ten years is covered—and thus the analytical focus is only on those works that deal with the process of emergence in a direct way. Finally, the conclusion outlines how there is a constant need to study emerging powers as part of the subfield of FPA—be this either in the form specifically of BRICS or of any new category of rising states that may emerge in the future.

Approaches to the Study of Emerging Powers

A key topic in the discipline of international relations, one that has also significantly influenced foreign policy analysis, is the eventual consequences of new risers emerging within the international system. The concern over power shifts in the international system has brought scholars to elaborate different theories, mainly materially based ones, about the presence of emerging states in the world. Power-transition theory and long-cycle theory are among the main approaches dealing with the systemic implications unfolding when the international system witnesses new rising powers (Modelski, 1987; Organski, 1968).

Bipolarity during the cold war was characteristic of the international system from 1945 to 1990; meanwhile, the 1990s was the unipolar moment for the United States (Huntington, 1999). Authors have started to discuss multipolarity issues, as much as calling the emergent world order “multiregional”—and Brazil, Russian, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS states) “would-be great powers” (see Acharya, 2014; Hurrell, 2006). Buzan (2011) argues that a new order will emerge but that it will be one with many powers and without one superpower. Kupchan (2012) analyzes how the newly emerging world will be constituted by different power centers on the basis that it will be neither multipolar nor bipolar. Rather, the system will be much more complex and one in which the United States will remain in a powerful position and will not be substituted by a new hegemon. Acharya (2014) argues that new regional powers will tend to enhance interdependence, which is in line with normative views of the United States. However, the newly emerging order will be a decentered one. A decentered world order will provide emerging regional states with the necessary scope to develop their own understandings of their respective regional orders. Conversely, Mearsheimer (2014) alerts us to the dangers that new risers, especially China, pose for the international system, as the rising of new states to the world stage is rarely a peacefully occurring phenomenon.

This literature follows in the majority of cases a realist understanding of the world and thus prioritizes structural concerns over those about the type of international system that is likely to emerge within a grouping of new emerging powers. Systemic approaches set the agenda on emerging powers research and the study of the foreign policy strategies that rising powers pursue to become regional hegemons and global powers and to achieve a particular status position within the international system. However, the concern about systemic consequences is also present in institutionalist and constructivist approaches; the new liberal approach is different in this regard, although it still has the ultimate goal of dealing with the type of domestic contributions of emerging powers to the global (economic) order. For institutionalism, the focus is on whether emerging powers will reshape or alter the current institutional architecture of world politics at the expense of the positions of well-established powers—or whether, alternatively, new risers are reforming or will reform from within the existing international institutions and systems of governance (see Cooper, 2016).

Neoliberal approaches seek, instead, to unpack the different constellations of domestic forces at stake in the foreign policy of a state (see Moravcsik, 1997). For instance, Mahrenbach (2013) researches the domestic factors that shape India’s and Brazil’s trade strategy vis-à-vis the World Trade Organization. These two emerging powers have implemented strategies of substitution of the World Trade Organization, by creating new institutions and deepening regional ones that follow their own domestic interests and ideas. Schirm (2013) elucidates why an expected alliance of the BRIC vis-à-vis industrialized states did not take shape within the G20. Instead, emerging powers and industrialized states diverge from one another depending on the issues that are at stake. Thus, he concludes that domestic ideas and domestic actors matter to an understanding of the sources of such divergences in monetary policy, exchange rates, and postcrises stimulus plans when emerging powers act to keep, change, or reform the current system of global economic governance.

Constructivist accounts—be they identity-, norm-, or role-driven—tend to concentrate on how and why it is likely that BRICS nations, especially China, are or are not a threat to the system, as they have specific identities or have enacted specific roles—such as those of rival or responsible great powers (see, for example, Harnisch, Bersick, & Gottwald, 2015; Mielniczuk, 2013). If China is a responsible great power, then it is more likely that it will be a peaceful riser and thus likely not to have an impact on the international system that would be detrimental to its own development—despite its wanting to reform certain multilateral institutions (see Breslin, 2010; Liping, 2001; Steinfeld, 2010). Even norm-oriented studies tend to show how BRICS, or at least some of these states, are becoming norm entrepreneurs. China, for example, is in a process of becoming a norm maker in order to reflect its principles and core interests (see Alden & Large, 2015) and also its great power status (Hirono & Lanteigne, 2011).

Brazil is becoming another norm maker, as demonstrated by its innovation within the norm “responsibility to protect” in the form of adding new interpretations and practices. This generated the new norm “responsibility while protecting,” which has generated interest in the international community (see Stuenkel, 2016a). Yet emerging powers also experience clashes and tensions over the norms that guide their behavior—as they come to assume greater responsibility in world affairs in the process of rising to global powerhood (Kenkel & Cunliffe, 2016). Likewise, Plagemann (2015) studies the approaches of India, Brazil, and South Africa (IBSA) to sovereignty and demystifies the common assumption that these states staunchly defend a traditional notion of sovereignty—when what better describes these states’ practices is, in fact, the concept of “soft sovereignty.” Nau and Ollapally (2012) also show that in order to understand the foreign policies of aspiring powers such as China, India, Iran, Japan, and Russia—and with the exclusion of Brazil and South Africa as case studies—it is important to comprehend how the normative and historical roots and evolutions of these countries constitute and shape the worldviews underpinning these actors’ foreign policies.

Peace or Threat

Generally, the debate among scholars is about whether the new emerging powers can be peacefully accommodated within the current order, including their own regions, or whether they are contrariwise likely to disrupt the international system (see Paul, 2016). Historical experiences focus on Britain and Germany and the recurrent dilemma of whether well-established powers should either contain or accommodate risers. Historical approaches combined with current cases of rising in foreign policy analysis are predominant in the neoclassical realist view (e.g., Claar & Ripsman, 2016; see also Williams, Lobell, & Jesse, 2012). Whether China is rising peacefully or whether it is a challenge to the hegemonic position of the United States has dominated the debate on emerging powers. Journals such as International Security and International Affairs have led the debate on issues of power balance, containment, and a peaceful or disruptive rise with regard to China and the United States, and vice versa (see e.g., Breslin, 2013; Brooks & Wohlforth, 2015/2016; Etzioni, 2011; Foot, 2006; Glaser, 2015; Johnston, 2013; Silove, 2016).

The concern about China’s threat has also influenced idea- and identity-driven scholarship on the importance of the historical past in China and the Chinese view(s) of the world driving its foreign policy. Studies show that China is likely to experience a peaceful development that will accommodate itself by reforming institutions rather than radically changing them (Miller, 2016). Identity is a key factor in understanding China’s foreign policy and its new role as a responsible great power (Shih & Huang, 2015). Yet its transition to great power also shows residues from its early stages as an international actor. China also uses strategic narratives about being a state from the Global South and in a developmental process. Specialists on China have also studied the Chinese notion of a harmonious worldview in regional and international affairs. This worldview does not guarantee the absence of conflict in China’s rising process (Guo & Blanchard, 2008; Ning, 2013; Shih & Yin, 2013; Womack, 2010). Yet studies following a role theoretic approach tend to show that China has enacted a role of responsible great power as part of its foreign policy repertoire so as to manage great powers’ expectations and distrust (see Harnisch, Bersick, & Gottwald, 2015). However China’s harmonious worldview and its new role have been built relationally, as these are the expectations of regional neighbors as well. Most important, the United States has been the key agent in altercasting China as a peaceful riser and attributing to it the role of responsible great power. China has thus been socialized into how to be and become a great power (on China’s socialization, see He & Feng , 2013; Johnston, 2007; Thies, 2015).

Russia, meanwhile, has been trying to reassert its influence as a great power in the international system, which makes scholars question whether it is an emerging power at all or rather a declining one that is acting as if it were a great power—precisely so as to hang on to its dwindling status position in the international system. Status, security, and geopolitical concerns are key drivers of its regional and international foreign policy, as the Syrian and Ukrainian cases show (Jonson, 2004; Lo, 2003; Monaghan, 2013). India experiences regional contestation from Pakistan (Ganguly, 2001), but at the same time it is also seen by the United States as an actor that can balance and constrain China’s rise. Conversely, India sees the relationship with the United States as being able to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Soviet Union, to gain international presence, and to constrain but not impede China’s rise (see Kapur, 2010; see also Ganguly, 2010; Malone, Mohan, & Raghavan, 2015; Nayar & Paul, 2003). Brazil pursues a strategy of consensual hegemony that lacks regional followers in South America (Burges, 2008, 2011; Malamud, 2011; Soares de Lima & Hirst, 2006), while South Africa has been questioned for its approach to conflict management in its region—especially regarding Zimbabwe and its quiet diplomacy (Adelmann, 2004; Prys, 2012). These latter two powers face the uncertain question of deciding whether they need their respective regions to achieve global powerhood.

Moreover, the India, Brazil, and South Africa (IBSA) forum was established for the purpose of cooperating on different issues, as these countries are the most similar emerging powers. The IBSA states recognize that China and Russia are in a different status category. IBSA also distinguishes democratic from nondemocratic emerging powers. IBSA is also about convergence and discursive framing (Alden & Vieira, 2005; Costa Vaz, 2006; Stuenkel, 2015). However, IBSA generates some tensions as a result of the chosen foreign policy strategies of each of its constituent members, ones that furthermore make having a unified strategy vis-à-vis positioning themselves in the global order more difficult to achieve (Husar, 2016). Individually and not as a forum, IBSA states have been involved in conflict management and democracy promotion efforts within their respective regions. For instance, India has involved itself reluctantly in conflict management with bad results—like, for example, in the case of Sri Lanka (Destradi, 2012b). However, India has also been involved in promoting democracy, as the Nepal case suggests (Destradi, 2012a). Brazil and South Africa contribute to regional coordination by leading regional groups like the South American Union and African Union—both of which have taken the lead in conflict management situations in their respective regions (Gardini, 2016; Prys, 2012; Wehner, 2015). Playing the roles of leaders of their regions and providers of regional goods when crises emerge are part of IBSA’s foreign policy strategies, albeit with rather mixed outcomes so far. It is also part of their foreign policy strategies to show leadership within regional groups.

Therefore, neither Brazil nor South Africa poses a security challenge to the international system. On the contrary, they, in fact, contribute via cooperative regional mechanisms to the management of their regions. India has become a source of an indirect security concern for China, as the former is seen by the United States as an actor that could constrain China’s rise, while India itself tries to keep an autonomous foreign policy and also gain more international recognition through a closer relation with the United States. Consequently, China has tried to reaffirm that being a peaceful riser is a key driver of its foreign policy. Policymakers in the United States, meanwhile, are divided on whether China is even a threat at all or what kind of threat China is for the U.S. hegemonic position. Likewise Russia, in trying to reassert its status as great power, has displayed a security-driven foreign policy agenda that represents a challenge for both Europe and the United States as well as the Euro-Asian region. Russia has revived the security-driven game of great power politics in its region.


Emerging powers research also tends to focus on the foreign policy strategies that Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) pursue. The balance of power theory usually dominates in emerging powers research at the regional and international levels. Whether or not BRICS are perceived as a threat is likely to generate balancing or bandwagoning behavior from well-established powers vis-à-vis the risers and vice versa.

Balancing is also a pattern of behavior present in the relations existing among emerging powers themselves. Not only is the BRICS forum about cooperation between emerging powers, but it also has a balancing component to it. India indirectly soft balances China when it seeks cooperation and legitimation from the United States, while Russia also strives to soft balance China and to not lose preponderance in the Eurasian region. If India balances China via a partnership established with the United States, this involves India’s bandwagoning with the United States too (cf. Skak, 2013). Between the two poles of balancing and bandwagoning many different possibilities exist, such as soft-balancing patterns and related tactics (Flemes & Wehner, 2015). Institutional balancing is also a useful means for emerging powers to soft balance the global hegemon and likewise for regional peers to balance regional powers (see He, 2015). These cited works rely on the more general theories of soft balancing (Pape, 2005; Paul, 2005).

The BRICS states are regional powers too. Such a power is one, itself located in the given region, whose material capacities and ideational factors are dominant vis-à-vis the other regional states (Nolte, 2010). (BRic states as regional powers have tried to delimit their regional spheres of influence. All BRICS states speak about their region, where they belong, and the discursive and narrative practices used to delimit their regions (Adler, 1997; Buzan & Wæver, 2003). BRICS as regional powers are key actors when it comes to the type of security regime that emerges in the socially constructed regions (see Stewart-Ingersoll & Frazier, 2012). As social constructs, the notion of what actually constitutes the region of regional powers can also be contested via the narratives expounded by the foreign policy elites or decision makers of regional competitors.

Brazil is a clear example of developing and establishing a new concept of the region. Brazil under then President Luiz Lula da Silva started to be more emphatic about the notion of South America as its sphere of influence. It also implied the downgrading of the notion of Latin America in its rhetoric, with the purpose of excluding regional and hegemonic competitors such as Mexico and the United States. Although the notion of a region is articulated rhetorically and discursively, the speech of foreign policy leaders also shows the material limitations of the power projection of regional powers. Brazil lacks, in this way, the material capacity to compete in Central America with Mexico and the United States (Malamud, 2011; Spektor, 2010; Wehner, 2015).

Further, South Africa started to define discursively its regional powerhood and present itself as part of the southern Africa region in a proactive way after the end of apartheid. Then President Thabo Mbeki started talking about an African renaissance by articulating an Africanist narrative, so as to differentiate the new South Africa from the one existing under the apartheid regime. At the same time, this new narrative also helped South Africa to position itself as having a unique status within the region (see Alden & Schoeman, 2013). Yet the existence of South Africa as a regional power that delimits and influences its nearby region clashes with other regional actors’ expectations, as they see the South African regional–international nexus as problematic. In fact, some regional peers have viewed South Africa as merely the puppet of the West, while India—given its tensions with Pakistan—has been characterized as a power detached from its region (Prys, 2012). India’s notion of the region and regional position remain indeterminate (see Cohen, 2015).

China also has its own perspective on its sphere of action. China has tried to become more present in Southeast Asia. While the Southeast Asian nations contest China’s growing presence there, they have also tried to accommodate and constrain China’s regional footing through regional institutions such as the ASEAN plus Three forum and the ASEAN–China bilateral dialogues (Lai, 2010). Russia’s conception of its region and sphere of influence has been contested by neighbors gravitating instead toward NATO membership and EU participation. In the Russian case, narratives of great power and of its region have been accompanied by the use of hard means—such as the occupation of parts of Ukraine (Freire & Kanet, 2012).

The conceptualization of what the respective regions are for the BRICS states also has another side to it. Regional powers sometimes lack regional followers. In other words, the research question is to assess whether and question to what extent regional powers are also regional leaders and in which issue areas—since leadership is understood in relational terms. It is not enough that one calls oneself a leader if there are no followers to complete the role relationship (see Wehner, 2015). Schirm (2010) has shown how regional peers resist following regional leaders, specifically through the study of dyadic relationships such as those of Germany–Italy and Brazil–Argentina. He advances the connection regional–international, as what expected regional followers resist the most is the rising powers’ aspirations at the global level. These global aspirations are not only about reforming multilateral institutions; they are also about status-seeking strategies, to the end of being recognized as having the position of major or even great power (see Volgy, Corbetta, Grant, & Baird, 2011).

Regional leadership has also been studied for the different regional powers. In addition, the concept of regional contestation has been used to explain and analyze how and by what means expected regional followers contest the regional claims for leadership coming from emerging powers within their region and also internationally in different multilateral negotiations—such as the G20 and the reform of the United Nations Security Council (see Ebert, Flemes, & Strüver, 2014; Flemes & Wehner, 2015). If regional contestation is present and furthermore important to the full granting of regional leadership, then the expectations of other regional actors and roles that they attribute to the regional rising powers need to be studied too (Wehner, 2015). Recently, the agenda on regional contestation has explored the interplay of international and domestic factors as an explanation for the lack of followership of regional peers vis-à-vis BRICS. Here, the theoretical approaches are diverse—spanning from those of neoclassical realists to role theory works as well as to idea-driven ones (see Blarel & Ebert, 2015; Ebert, Flemes, & Strüver, 2014; Flemes & Wehner, 2015; He, 2015; Malamud, 2011; Wehner, 2015; Lobell, Jesse, & Williams, 2015). Although most of this literature focuses on how regional powers deal with secondary powers’ contestation within the existing regional hierarchies, the neglect of small powers needs still to be tackled—as they are potential constrainers of regional powers’ rising processes.

Although trade and bilateral strategic relationships are the main focus of studies on the growing presence of emerging powers in other regions of the world, such as China in Africa and Latin America, there are also studies arguing that, while trade is key, taking a broader approach is still necessary. For instance, Brazil has developed plans to gain a presence in regions like Africa for status-seeking reasons, not just for ones of economic gain (Stolte, 2015). China’s turn to Africa is about not only trade but also foreign policy principles and, moreover, that country’s normative view of the world (Alden, Large, & Soares de Oliveira, 2008; Dittmer, Lowell, & George, 2010). India, too, has a strategy with regard to Africa (see Xavier, 2015), while it is also developing bonds with other emerging regions with whom it did not have much of a relationship before. This approach to new regions also takes place through the BRICS summits (Menon, 2015; Sahni, 2015; Virk, 2015). India is, for example, slowly developing an interest in and approach to Latin America (see Heine, 2009).

Russia has also gained (or regained) a presence in different world regions and has sought to establish bilateral approaches in dealing with different partners and competitors. The relationship of Russia to Central Asia is security driven and takes place within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization along with China, in order to develop both conceptions and practices of security cooperation. This organization seeks to take responsibility for regional security challenges and in that way keep extra-regional powers out of the region (see Aris, 2014). Yet energy is a new dimension in the relationship with China (see Jonson, 2004; Kanet, 2010; Kuhrt, 2007). Russian foreign policy priorities are also located in the Euro-Asian region, especially in the idea of developing a Euro-Asian Economic Union (see Monaghan, 2013).

Thus, the chosen foreign policy strategies of BRICS are to be seen within the context of their aspirations to higher status positions—although these can be creatively pursued without being necessarily disruptive of the international system (see Clunan, 2014; Volgy, Corbetta, Rhamey, & Grant, 2014; Welch, Larson, & Shevchenko, 2014). Well-established powers and the same BRICS use strategies of accommodation vis-à-vis regional expectations and, in the case of the United States, to manage rising powers. Internationally, the BRICS states’ behaviors oscillate between soft balancing and bandwagoning the United States as a global power alongside competing against one another. Regionally, BRICS seek to gain recognition from regional peers, but contestation via soft-balancing mechanisms is what, in fact, predominates in the foreign policy strategies of the expected followers of regional leaders.

Institutions, Governance, and Issue Areas

Emerging powers also pursue their foreign policies within international institutions. In foreign policy analysis, institutions are not an inert set of practices and rules. States rather unfold their own strategies within international and regional institutions, so as to realize goals and achieve their interests. Thus, international institutions are arenas of foreign policy for emerging states—which is especially true if regional organizations are to be used by rising powers as a springboard for global powerhood or if multilateral institutions become subject to reforms so as to better represent the self-perceived higher status of emerging powers at the global level.

Scholars working on emerging powers seek to elucidate how new risers relate to institutions and the existing architecture of global governance. Early works on rising powers addressed the impact of individual rising powers’ policies in global institutions in a comparative way. Hurrell (2006) argues that rising powers are trying to reform the system rather than transform it. Alexandroff and Cooper (2010) and the contributors to their edited volume start from the premise that rising powers will influence and shape the new century’s global order. This work presents the case of China as an example of such a state that is influencing international institutions, and it also unpacks the ways in which Brazil and India relate to the multilateral system. Most of the works in this volume assess the strategies and standings of these new risers within the G20 and the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa forum. In the same direction, Stephen (2012) shows how India, Brazil, and South Africa have been integrated into the system of international institutions. Rising powers aspire to reform the different multilateral institutions so that the latter also reflect their own normative orientations and not just those from the United States and Europe. However emerging powers do not always move toward and pursue convergent interests within multilateral institutions (Schirm, 2013). Sometimes they coordinate positions and build coalitions with well-established powers, while at other times the built coalition can be a south–south one—it depends entirely on the issue area that is being negotiated.

The way in which new emerging powers from the Global South relate to the current global system of governance and its institutions is through a process of constant negotiation. Narlikar (2013) brings together reckoned scholars on the issue to analyze the negotiation strategies of Brazil, China, and India as well as the process of negotiation, in a relational way, with well-established powers, multinationals, and NGOs. Previously, Narlikar (2010) also analyzed the different negotiation strategies of Brazil, India, and China by looking at their diplomatic commonalities and differences. How they relate to well-established powers and the question of whether emerging powers are reformers or seek to radically transform the system emerged again, but in this work this question is answered with regard to the negotiation strategies of emerging powers within multilateral institutions. These works on negotiation start to interrelate and integrate the domestic and international levels of analysis. Gray and Murphy (2013), as guest editors of Third World Quarterly, unpack the usually neglected domestic dimensions and drivers of emerging powers’ policies and strategies in global governance areas such as global debt governance, economic governance, and security governance.

Some Issues of Governance and Emerging Powers’ Foreign Policies

Economy and Trade

The global economic crises of 2008–2009 showed how rising powers responded to and dealt better with the impact of these crises compared with the United States and the European Union. Wise, Armijo, and Katada (2015) analyze the responses of emerging economies to the financial crises; three emerging powers are studied: Brazil, India, and China. The relative success of emerging markets in dealing with the financial crises is due to a mixture of state- and market-driven policies being adopted so as to offset the negative ensuing effects. Armijo and Katada (2014) research how emerging powers use their statecraft—understood as the intentional use by governments of the financial and monetary conditions and capabilities for the realization of foreign policy goals—to increase their weight within the global economic system. This edited volume shows how emerging powers are shaping the economic system bilaterally—that is, through state-to-state interactions—and using their financial statecraft to influence smaller neighbors and to gain more leverage within financial multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (Armijo & Katada, 2014).

Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS states) have also launched new regional and multilateral institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS-led New Development Bank. The latter has been shown to be part of the natural evolution of BRICS from being an acronym coined by a financial entity, going through a forum, to eventually having a more institutionalized outlook. Stuenkel (2016b) shows how BRICS are also seeking leadership gains—in order to cement their respective positions and reduce the privileged position of the United States within the traditional financial institutions. While BRICS have launched new institutions (Stuenkel, 2015), they still also participate in and contribute to the development of global financial and trade governance within traditional organizations such as the IMF, World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. They do it through the three discernible strategies that rising powers pursue in trade (and climate change) policy issues: cooperation, voluntary action, and selective engagement (Destradi & Jakobeit, 2015). With regard to the foreign economic strategy of BRICS, Donno and Rudra (2014) conclude that these emerging powers, and especially China, have both domestic and international political and economic concerns that lead them to give priority to the eventual formation of south–south preferential trade agreements.


Most studies on emerging powers prioritize single case studies in analyzing the foreign security policies of emerging states. An exception is the work of Chun (2013), which while it is not theoretically sound does look at the foreign security strategies of BRICS with regard to well-established powers—and to each other—to see whether BRICS can and will each become superpowers. Onderco (2015), who also goes down the comparative route, outlines the different views and approaches of India, Brazil, and South Africa with regard to the nonproliferation regime in general and the nuclear program of Iran in particular. Others touch upon the role of emerging powers in regional security organizations in an indirect way, as the central focus of their respective works is on the security conceptions and practices that regional organizations have developed. Herein the role of emerging powers is key for the development of these conceptions and practices (Aris & Wenger, 2014). Single case studies or comparative studies of two cases span from maritime security (Burilkov & Geise, 2013) to cybersecurity issues (Ebert & Maurer, 2013; Mueller, 2011; Spade, 2011) as well as to the earlier mentioned mediation and conflict-management efforts in the respective regions.

In addition, single case studies assess and trace the evolution of the norm “responsibility to protect” (R2P) by looking at Brazil’s case—which, as noted, proposed a change to the norm R2P, that is, “responsibility while protecting” (Kenkel, 2012). Studies have revealed China’s domestic debates on this norm and how to make it more legitimate and operational (Chen, 2016; Liu, 2012). Similarly, India’s case shows how its policy toward this norm has evolved throughout three phases: skepticism, calibrated engagement, and renewed skepticism (see Jaganathan & Kurtz, 2014). South Africa, given its history, has as part of its national identity the core meaning of the norm R2P, which has been made operational through the African Union. Within this group South Africa has provided security goods through its involvement in mediation and conflict-management in times of regional conflict (see Verhoeven, Murthy, & Soares de Oliveira, 2014). Finally, Russia’s stance on intervention and R2P shows its own domestic political concerns and priorities. It is worth noting, however, that Russia seeks to shape the evolution of what it considers a contested norm, rather than striving for the redefinition of its core make-up (Averre & Davies, 2015).

Climate Change

The BRICS states have been depicted as pursuing obstructive foreign policies in global climate negotiations. Hurrell and Sengupta (2012) provide a more nuanced perspective, one that reaffirms that obstructive behavior is selective and not a constant pattern. In fact, these authors show how Brazil, China, and India have been playing an important role in climate change politics and policies ever since the United Nations Rio de Janeiro Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. Scholars have also paid attention to the roles and participation of emerging states enacted through coordination and coalition building, as well as the ways in which they interacted and related to the United States and European states during the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change of 2009. For instance, Hallding, Jürisoo, Carson, and Atteridge (2013) concentrate on the coalition and activities of the BASIC states (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) during the Copenhagen Conference, while Bodansky (2010) gives a full description of the most important aspects of the process and developments of such a conference on climate change. Nhamo (2010), meanwhile, compares the behavior of the BASIC countries in climate negotiations and outlines how the Copenhagen conference saw a shift in coalition building to secure a deal. The author argues that the new coalition of the United States plus BASIC was key to the new climate order; it was a process in which the EU was left on the sidelines.

Others go deep into studying one country case and the strategies and policies of climate governance, which consequently brings the focus to the domestic level. For instance, Hochstetler and Viola (2012) analyze the reasons why Brazil has to reduce climate emissions unilaterally at home but not to internationalize these commitments to formal multilateral agreements. Explanations for this behavior are to be found in the domestic political game played between the government and different interest groups, who follow a cost–benefit analysis in Brazil’s climate commitments (or lack of them).

In addition, norm diffusion also plays its part in climate change policies. India, for example, has experienced a change of view on global climate governance. It has shifted its understanding of the climate governance problem from blaming the Global North to assuming more responsibility itself in this regard. This change is in part due to a process of norm diffusion, as well as being the consequence of the domestic political changes that have brought new actors to the making of the foreign policy apparatus of the country (see Stevenson, 2011).

Thus, the different studies on the various issue areas of governance show that emerging powers are driven by their identities—while also pushing for their interests to be better reflected within different institutional regimes. BRICS or the group of emerging powers are not necessarily a homogenous force when it comes to being foreign policy actors. More broadly, emerging powers—while launching new institutional initiatives—still play by the rules of traditional multilateral institutions. Within these they unfold their nationally driven foreign policy strategies, with the purpose of forcing these institutions to adopt a more representative approach to emerging powers’ new international standing. The domestic level (interests and identities) and the diversity of BRICS realities thus explain these actors’ different approaches to global governance.

Future Research Agenda

The research agenda vis-à-vis emerging powers has dealt in a majority of cases with the systemic effects of the rising process of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS). In this sense, concerns that dominate the research agenda on emerging powers are whether these will be peaceful processes of rising in the security arena or whether emerging powers are reforming or substituting multilateral institutions. These studies start from a systemic premise in addressing the stability of the international order and the governance of the global economic system. Thus, research has predominantly dealt with the systemic and state levels without including sufficiently the domestic one. In this way, adopting a two-level game approach can be a point of departure (Putnam, 1988) or an inside-out perspective (see Moravcsik, 1997). In fact, some studies on the foreign policies of BRICS have started to look at the interplay between the domestic and state levels. This is especially so when it comes to explaining domestic negotiation strategy and, furthermore, the issue areas wherein the BRICS states aspire to set out their blueprint approaches. This is also the case for studies done with regard to foreign economic policies and strategies of emerging powers, either comparatively or as single cases (see Gottwald & Bersick, 2015; Mahrenbach, 2013; Nölke, 2015; Nölke, ten Brink, Claar, & May, 2015; Rothacher, 2016; Schirm, 2013).

Even though the research agenda on rising powers has broadened to include the domestic level, especially in foreign economic policy works, few studies dealing directly with emerging processes take into consideration the vertical and horizontal axes of the interactions that even constitute foreign policy analysis (FPA) as a subfield of international relations. As argued by Destradi (2016), scholars studying emerging powers tend to use and abuse the word reluctance when analyzing and explaining emerging powers’ patterns of behavior. There is thus the reluctant regional power, reluctant regional leader, and reluctant followers. Reluctance as a concept covers the underachievement of emerging powers’ foreign policy goals and actions, within both their regions and internationally. Such underachievements are not only about changes in the material capacity of an emerging power and systemic forces but also about domestic interactions, domestic institutions, leaders’ beliefs, and competing identities at the national level. Kaarbo (2015) has previously discussed the domestic turn in international relations. In this sense, the phenomenon of emerging powers presents fertile ground to bring in, in a more systematic way, the personal and state levels of analysis and the interplay of the domestic and the international—specifically to the scrutiny of emerging powers’ strategies, identities, and actions, as they take place regionally and internationally.

For instance, the way in which leaders and their personalities are key to capitalizing on or not the systematic growth of their countries needs to be researched. The leadership changes taking place in some BRICS states have implied a redirection of the foreign policy strategies in a context of emergence; this is so especially for the cases of Brazil and South Africa. Even if leadership continuity prevails within an emerging power, it still remains to be researched how any systemic changes have affected the leader’s set of beliefs or roles to be advanced in the context of the stagnation of the emergence process. Leaders’ personality trait analysis and operational code analysis can be well-suited tools with which to understand their ideas, beliefs, and roles in the context of the rising process.

For example, He and Feng (2015) use operational code analysis to study the impact of the change of leadership in China from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping on China’s foreign policy, specifically in the context of the country’s rising. Moreover, He and Feng (2015) integrate the personal, state, and international levels of analysis so as to study China’s foreign policy toward multilateral institutions by looking at three generations of Chinese leaders. The authors use operational code analysis to assess the level of socialization of China coming about as a consequence of its participation in multilateral organizations. Vigevani and Cepaluni (2012) meanwhile study Brazil’s foreign policy through its autonomy (or lack thereof), but at the same time they also look at the different domestic constellations in Brazil—within the governmental institutional apparatus and through the course of different presidential leaderships. These types of works are rather the exception than the rule when it comes to studying leaders and emerging powers within the context of the rising processes of states. That said, these works can be used as a starting point for the study of other cases of emergence from a leader’s perspective and for making an attempt to integrate the different levels of analysis within the field. In addition, these studies can also be a departure point to connect emerging powers research with more general theories on leaders’ in FPA (see, for example, Hermann, 2005; Shafer & Walker, 2006).

Thus there is a lack of studies on emerging powers that address the relationship between the government and public opinion or the influence of the latter on issues related to the rising process of BRICS and their respective core issue areas. There is a similar paucity of research on emerging powers using middle-range FPA theories, such as the interactions between the executive and legislative bodies, political parties as contesting or facilitating the governmental agenda on rising, small group dynamics, the personality of leaders in the making of foreign policy, and so on. Although there are some studies on these issues, especially with regard to China and Russia, they are barely related to the phenomenon of the emergence of regional powers and, indeed, the global level (see, for example, Jonson, 2004; Lai, 2010). Including previously unexplored areas of research on new emerging powers in the context of rising does not mean giving up on conducting research about systemic concerns but is rather an opportunity to look at this topic of research from a more diverse set of angles.


An overall impression of the topic of emerging powers from the perspective of foreign policy analysis (FPA) is given here. Power, institutions, identities, and norms are ever present in the study of emerging powers’ foreign policies. Emerging powers research has hitherto focused mainly on the impact of new risers on the regional and international systems. The main concern and focus of the literature have thus been on whether or not emerging powers represent a threat to the current system. This is so especially with regard to China. Plenty of studies focus on balance of power, accommodation, status, and socialization in order to study the threat that emerging powers represent. Others focus on identities, roles, and norms to reveal the traditions and principles that drive emerging powers’ foreign relations and thus determine the nature of their rising process. In addition, new emerging powers’ foreign policy strategies oscillate between balancing, soft balancing, and bandwagoning. When it comes to the regional level, meanwhile, emerging powers can sometimes lack followership and regional peers may contest the leadership claims of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS states).

Emerging powers have a specific set of interests and normative views about multilateral institutions and the global economic governance system, which they try to reform but not to drastically alter. However the BRICS, and in some cases India, Brazil, and South Africa, cannot be considered a homogenous force pursuing always similar interests with regard to multilateral institutions. Regional and multilateral institutions are the arenas and, indeed, outcomes of the foreign policy actions of emerging powers, as the case of the BRICS New Development Bank shows—new regional organizations launched and led by some BRICS states also suggest this. In other words, the priority is about systemic impact and the type of regional and global institutional architecture that is likely to emerge or is already emerging. Moreover, the research on emerging powers has started moving toward the study of the interplay of the domestic and the international. In this sense, more research is needed with regard to the inclusion of the personal and state levels of analysis—as well as on the interactions occurring between the government, its different institutions, and relevant domestic actors.

The nomenclature of emerging powers is associated almost exclusively with the so-called BRICS states. However, the phenomenon has, in fact, been present in FPA from the outset. As such, it is likely that emerging powers will continue to be a recurrent topic of interest and scholarship in FPA. Today it is BRICS, but in the future it may well be a new set of states to which the term emerging powers refers.


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