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When Pawns Become Queens: Becoming a Global Power


Editor’s Note: “When Pawns Become Queens” is a four-part series that seeks to explain how less powerful states are able to rise to prominence in international politics.

This week President Donald Trump is meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un for the second time. It is rare for countries outside of the Great Powers to receive such attention in international politics. And yet, North Korea has long been able to pursue an active foreign policy despite its limited power. How has the Hermit Kingdom, a country with little economic or military clout, been able to shape the international order and force concessions from the United States?

Image Courtesy of Adam Ratzlaff © 2019

International Relations is often described as a chess game between two or more Great Powers vying for influence on the global stage. Other countries are relegated to the role of pieces being manipulated and controlled by nations that wield power. Although this view lost prevalence after the Cold War, in recent years we have seen a return to concerns involving the role of Great Powers in International Relations. Analyses of U.S. relations with the European Union, Russia, and China have again become the most studied areas of foreign policy, while smaller powers and their role in shaping global dynamics remains understudied. These countries are often ignored during times in which they may actually have a hand in forcing action by global powers in the international arena. So, what happens when the “pawns” on the global game board become “queens,” calling the shots and shaping the global game?

This figurative understanding of global politics as a “grand chessboard” highlights the notion of power as something we can measure and compare. However, how power is measured has been fiercely debated. The most widely accepted measure defines power in terms of military expenditure, military personnel, energy consumption, iron and steel production, urban population, and total population. Others prefer to look at gross domestic product as a potential capability to build strong military might and thus an important element of power. However, these views lead scholars and policymakers to concentrate on “queens” that possess powerful military forces, great wealth, and/or large populations. Therefore, they continuously fail to recognize the importance of nations lacking these resources, or the “pawns.” This can lead to poor policy decisions and miscalculations in determining the strategies that states should take, both to promote their own interests and in attempting to become “queens” in international politics.

Among the more influential material factors outside of military and economic might, geography can serve to increase the influence of a nation. Since states are limited in altering their location, their geography and neighbors play an important role in shaping their capabilities. This can be due to their proximity to a natural barrier, such as Iran’s proximity to the Strait of Hormuz, or their ability to act as a buffer state between two powers. While location can be both a blessing and a curse, it serves a state’s ability to project and attain power. Another factor of great strategic importance is a nation’s access to key natural resources. Throughout history, humans have fought for access to strategic natural resources. However, in today’s world of liberalized trade, access to these resources can be leveraged into greater influence in international politics. Perhaps the clearest example is OPEC’s use of oil in the 1970s to rewrite the rules of the international game and its role in it. Similarly, the effective use and possession of instruments of warfare has allowed states to redefine their role in international politics. These have ranged from the development of nuclear weapons to assassination and terrorism as tools of statecraft and war.

Although material factors may appear as the most prominent tools of statecraft, nations can also increase their influence and prestige in international politics by appealing to notions of morality, creating a shared identity with other states, or playing the global political game effectively. Some nations, such as Norway, use their foreign aid in ways that appear altruistic, but allow them to more effectively pursue their foreign policy objectives despite having smaller militaries or national economies. Similarly, calls for unity and developing a shared identity among different groups or states can allow countries to pursue policies that would otherwise be outside of their capabilities. Until recently, Venezuela has been able to challenge U.S. influence in the Americas by calling upon a shared Latin American identity against Yankee Imperialism. Other nations have been able to play great powers off of one another in order to create space for their own foreign policy objectives, as Cuba and Egypt did so effectively during the Cold War. However, playing political games can take form within the domestic politics of a great power as well. Israel, for instance, has shown its ability to ensure the support of the United States by lobbying both Democrats and Republicans. These factors allow countries to pursue their objectives and shape the international system in innovative ways that their military or economic might could not support.

To better explore the strength of less prominent powers in the international arena, over the next three weeks we will examine the material and ideational factors that allow less-powerful states to play a prominent role in international politics and try to explain how they are able to leverage these assets into greater influence on the world stage. While states may appear to be “pawns” in terms of their economic and military might, one should not discount their ability to influence international politics. If these “pawns” are able to become “queens,” they can reshape the rules of the international game and change the course of history.

Part II of “When Pawns Become Queens” will explore the under-discussed material factors, such as geography and resources, that allow states to play a greater role in international politics.

The WPBQ team consists of a group of young scholars from Florida International University (FIU) who are interested in the role of lesser powers in the International System. The team members responsible for this article series are listed below.

Bibek Chand, PhD, is Visiting Instructor of International Relations at FIU. Bibek’s research focuses on foreign policy, international security, and geopolitics. His specific interests include the international relations of small states, the role of buffer states in international security, and Sino-Indian interactions in the Asia-Pacific. Follow Bibek on Twitter @bibekcnp.

Yang Gyu Kim is a Fulbright Scholar and a Ph.D. Candidate in International Relations at FIU. He completed his BA and MA in International Relations at Seoul National University in South Korea and worked as a research fellow at the East Asia Institute. His research focuses on coercive diplomacy, power transition, and Northeast Asia.

Adam Ratzlaff is a Ph.D. student in International Relations at FIU and Staff Writer for Charged Affairs. Prior to coming to FIU, he conducted research on Latin American public and foreign policy for a number of groups including the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. He holds an MA from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. Follow him on Twitter @adam_ratzlaff.

Lana Shehadeh is a Ph.D. student in International Relations at FIU concentrating on the study of rentier economies in the Middle East. Prior to this, she worked as a Senior Researcher for the BBC Media Action where she led research projects in the Middle East. She holds an MA in International Development from American University. Follow her on Twitter @Lana_Shehadeh.

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