Stephen M. Walt

Over-achievers and under-achievers

Here’s an IR theory puzzle: Why do some seemingly powerful states exert relatively little influence on world politics, while other states with more modest capabilities cast a bigger shadow than one would expect? Although there is no consensus on how national power should be defined or measured, most IR scholars would probably agree that there ...


Here’s an IR theory puzzle: Why do some seemingly powerful states exert relatively little influence on world politics, while other states with more modest capabilities cast a bigger shadow than one would expect? Although there is no consensus on how national power should be defined or measured, most IR scholars would probably agree that there is a substantial but not perfect correlation between national power and international influence. Indeed, one could imagine a simple regression, with “power” on the X-axis and “influence” on the Y-axis, and a diagonal line bisecting that space. I’d expect most states to array themselves pretty close to that line: as their power increased (measured in terms of GDP, population, military capability, resource endowments, etc.) one would expect to see a corresponding increase in their global influence.

But what about the outliers — either the “overachievers” who swing a bigger bat than one would expect or the “underachievers” who wield less influence than their overall capabilities might provide? Here’s my personal, decidedly un-scientific top five list in each category, followed by some thoughts on what might explain why some states punch above their weight and some potentially major powers cast a comparatively small shadow.

(in no particular order)

1.  Sweden.

With a population of only 9 million, one wouldn’t expect Sweden to cast much of a shadow, despite its advanced industrial economy. Yet for its size and population, Sweden has been a significant international player. Its welfare state and other social policies have been widely-studied and a model for others, and diplomats such as Dag Hammarskjold, Folke Bernadotte, and Olof Palme were all important international voices. Sweden still devotes a higher percentage of its GDP to foreign aid than any other country, and institutions such as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute have amplified Sweden’s visibility on major issues of arms control and disarmament. Awarding the Nobel Prizes probably doesn’t hurt either.

2. North Korea.

With a small population (22 million), an obsolete military machine, a bankrupt ideology, and an economy that exposes its citizens to periodic famine, one wouldn’t expect North Korea to get much attention at all. Indeed, on most measures North Korea is an under-achiever (especially when compared with its neighbor to the south). But Pyongyang’s leaders are past masters at commanding international attention, usually by threatening to do something undesirable (and then sometimes going ahead and doing it). North Korea is hardly an inspiring model for anyone, but it shows how sheer cussedness can enable a country to punch well above their weight.

3. Canada.

America’s northern neighbor has the world’s second largest land mass but a relatively small population (only 32 million) and only modest military assets.  Yet Canada has been a consistent proponent of multilateralism, ranks ninth in the world as a provider of foreign aid, and has been an enthusiastic participant in international peacekeeping missions. Indeed, Canada has lost 117 soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, the highest per capita figure of any ISAF participant.

4. Israel.

For a country whose total population is less than that of New York City, Israel generates a lot more attention than one would expect. To be sure, some of this reflects Israel’s economic success (which includes advanced hi-tech sector and a significant arms industry) not to mention its nuclear arsenal and overall military power. And then there’s the occupation and the violence that it has produced over the years. Regardless of one’s views on that thorny subject, it’s hard to argue that Israel doesn’t exert a lot of influence on the global agenda, especially given its very modest size.

5. Singapore.

For a city-state with a population of only 4.4 million, which gained independence only in 1965, Singapore’s international prominence marks it as an obvious outlier, even when one allows for its advanced economy and high per capita income. In addition to its economic achievements, Singapore has been a major force behind regional cooperation in Southeast Asia, an energetic promoter of institutions such as ASEAN, and its leaders have rarely been bashful about offering their views on major international issues.   

(also in no particular order)

1. Japan.

Despite having the world’s 2nd largest economy and the world’s sixth largest defense budget, Japan performs a remarkably modest international role. As Richard Samuels of MIT recently pointed out in Newsweek, Japan sent warships to help defend against tSomali pirates only after China announced it was going to do so, and it has only 38 soldiers participating in UN peacekeeping missions. Increasingly, its leadership both at home and abroad seems paralyzed. Moreover, with a declining and rapidly aging population, Japan seems likely to become even less influential over time, despite its economic size and considerable national wealth.

2. India.

It is the world’s most populous democracy, the dominant state in south Asia, the home country of a sizeable and successful global diaspora, and a nuclear power. Past Indian leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Indira Gandhi were major international figures. While far from being inconsequential, India has yet to exercise a global leadership role, or even to exert far-sighted and constructive influence over its immediate neighborhood. Moreover, a recent article in The Hindu deplores the deteriorating state of international studies in India, at precisely the same period when a rising China is taking the study of international relations very seriously.  

3. Germany.

Now reunified, with the world’s 14th largest population and either the 3rd or fifth largest economy (depending on whether one uses straight GDP figures or purchasing power parity estimates). Germany is also the world’s third largest exporter. While not entirely absent on the world stage, it is hardly exercising an influence commensurate with its latent capabilities. Even when Germany does get more actively involved (as they have in Afghanistan), they operate under highly restrictive rules of engagement that substantially undercut their effectiveness. A far cry from the Germany of Otto von Bismarck, or even the creative leadership of Konrad Adenauer and Willy Brandt.

4. Russia.

At first, I thought about putting Russia in the other category — a large but relatively weak state that managed to exert more influence than its overall capabilities might suggest. But on reflection, I think Russia belongs here. Despite its geographic size, oil and gas resources, and relatively well-educated work force, as well as the inherited assets of permanent Security Council membership and a large nuclear arsenal, Russia today exerts less influence on the agenda of world politics than its overall capabilities might provide. Its political system is not a model for anyone; its culture is not a magnet, and its leaders are either unable or unwilling to play a constructive role in addressing the major problems that confront the world today. Instead, Moscow mostly plays a spoiler role, which is what former great power do when they cannot find a way to lead.

5. Brazil.

Yes, I’ve read about the BRICS, and how countries like Brazil are going to reshape the global balance of power in the 21st century. But the world’s tenth largest economy (and fifth largest population) has yet to achieve an international role of similar stature. Brazil clearly wants a more prominent international position, as exemplified by its current efforts to win a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, its extensive diplomatic presence and active participation in existing international organizations.  President Lula da Silva has very high approval ratings (including the highest ratings in all of Latin America). But so far, these ambitions and capabilities have not been translated into as much direct influence as I’d expect.

So what explains why some states punch above their weight and others punch below it? This would be a great topic for a dissertation, but here are a few tentative thoughts. First, individual leadership matters. A leader like Charles De Gaulle, Lester Pearson, or Lee Kwan Yew can elevate a country’s profile above its “natural” place, and a series of weak leaders can keep a country from reaching its true potential. Second, history can have a long-term impact on a country’s overall influence: Britain and France occupy somewhat enhanced roles today because they were once great powers with extensive global empires and Sweden’s tradition of international activism may even be a legacy of its former role as a great power several centuries ago. Third, the examples of Germany and Japan suggest that extreme misconduct in the past can suppress a state’s willingness or ability to play a large international role for a very long time. And in these two cases, the legacy of World War II has been reinforced by decades of Cold War free-riding. Fourth, small states can leverage a relationship with a major power like the United States (as both Israel and Singapore have done) in order to maintain positions that would be harder to sustain on their own.  Lastly, relatively weak states may enhance their overall influence by occupying a specialized “niche” in the international environment, as neutral powers like Sweden or Switzerland have done.

I’m sure I missed some other good examples and possible explanations, so I hope readers will contribute suggestions or critiques of their own.

Ryan Pierse/Getty Images for DAGOC

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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