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date: 30 October 2020

Major Powers vs. Global Powers: A New Measure of Global Reach and Power Projection Capacitylocked

  • Michael J. LeeMichael J. LeeDepartment of Political Science, Hunter College, City University of New York
  •  and William R. ThompsonWilliam R. ThompsonDepartment of Political Science, Indiana University Bloomington


Major powers appear to behave differently from other states in the international system. They are more active and less constrained by distance than other actors. The common approach of testing conflict (and other) hypotheses across relevant dyads builds this fact into the architecture of quantitative IR. However, we argue that the dominant operationalization of major power status actually conflates two different kinds of states—global powers and regional powers. Global powers are those with both a strong interest and a capacity for long-distance engagement in IR: they build strong navies and air forces and seek to control access to the global commons. In contrast, other states have predominantly local interests and lack much capacity to project force over distance (e.g., 19th-century Austria-Hungary). Here, we develop a new, historically robust measure of power projection capability by examining the naval and air power of states from 1816–2013.

We illustrate the face validity of our model by illustrating the important ways in which global powers differ from other states. Not only are global powers more active internationally, they also have fundamentally different concerns than other states. One of the strongest findings in quantitative research in conflict is the idea that states often fight wars with neighbors (either because of the importance of territorial conflicts, proximity, or both). Yet even this powerful result is nullified in dyads where one or both participants have high levels of power projection capability. Global powers are behaviorally different from other states—even many of those considered “major powers” by the Correlates of War (COW) project. We need to consider these distinctions carefully when modeling conflict behavior—particularly when declaring particular dyads to be “relevant dyads.”


  • International Relations

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