Shifting the Great Powers

Danny Quah
Apr 2023

Great Power competition between China and the US affects more than just the world's two great powers. Everyone is a stakeholder in geopolitical rivalry. Conventional wisdom is not optimistic for lesser nations' being anything but passive observers, not least following Thucydides's observation on Great Powers doing what they will and the rest of us suffering what we must. Nonetheless, both equilibrium reasoning and empirical evidence suggest that the positions of the Great Powers can be shifted through the influence of other states, i.e., that Great Powers' behaviours are elastic with respect to Third Nations' agency.


Soft power is of course long established as a leading mode of thinking on world order. Less noted, however, is how its emphasis on trust, attractiveness, and legitimacy shifts the centre of gravity of decision-making from those who deploy power, the supply side of world order, towards those who experience its consequences, the demand side. This shift is a hallmark of analysis of world order that applies equilibrium thinking founded on game-theoretic or market-based competitive analysis.


Finally, a less happy example from Thucydides's own time: the infamous Thucydides Trap of course had Sparta and Athens clash in the Peloponnesian War, resulting in Athens's defeat. Shortly after, however, in response to unbenevolent Spartan hegemony, the city-states Thebes and Corinth ("the rest of us") waged military uprising against their former ally Sparta. The great general Epaminondas led Thebes to a resounding victory at the Battle of Leuctra, crushing Spartan military dominance barely three decades after the Peloponnesian War, leaving the once-victorious hegemon isolated and permanently weakened. Thebes, in turn, would be burnt to the ground a mere four decades later by Alexander the Great.

(Completions in what follows, the first article slightly more technical than the second.)

Quah, Danny. 2023. "Shifting the Great Powers", Apr 2023

Quah, Danny. 2023. "Global intervention may be necessary to pull the US and China back from brink of disaster", SCMP (20 Apr)

Mao Zedong welcoming US President Richard Nixon at his home in Beijing on 22 Feb 1972.  Nixon urged China to join the US in a 'long march together' on different roads to world peace. Photo: AFP