2010/07/15

A yesterday man's confusion on Great Power status

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History has proved that certain grand ideas - once believed to be self-evident - are (or became?) wrong.
One such error was the idea that you need to have a large land mass if your nation has a large population (Germany). Another such error was the idea that it takes a colonial empire for a country to be rich & powerful (UK, France, Spain - falsified by Germany during the late 19th century). Yet another example is the idea that a country needs guaranteed access to natural resources (preferably on its own or its colonies' soil) to be a rich industrial nation. This has been falsified post-WW2 by both Western European and East Asian nations.

Finally, one misconception seems to persist at least among some people: The idea that it takes military might - even the ability of "power projection" (being able to defeat some distant country) to be a Great Power.

There is no doubt that apart from the independent nuclear deterrent, great power status requires independent conventional military capacity.
by Alexander Woolfson

Uhm, no. There IS doubt. In fact, modern lists of Great Powers include several countries which don't even aspire to either an independent nuclear deterrent nor an independent conventional military capacity (of the kind that Woolfson had in mind).



Let's look at an easily accessible example: Wiki
Or let's look at a blog that focuses on Great Power stuff;

I could easily add other sources, but these two should suffice to show that there IS doubt.

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Japan was driven into its disastrous WW2 experience by a misguided belief that it needed direct access to foreign resources for prosperity.
Britain, France and Portugal fought series of wars (hundreds!) to build and maintain empires that did little for their prosperity. The same effort spent domestically would probably have yielded better results.
Spain was domestically broken by the economic and political effects of its colonial empire in the 16th to 18th century.

Germany got into WW2 for an asshole's stupid idea that it required a huge territory because its homeland would be too small for its greatness or whatever.

- - - - -

Today, some nations waste resources on inflated defence budgets and risk going to war over marginal topics (because some politicians cannot resits the military big stick once they have it at their disposal).

No, Britain does NOT need an independent nuclear deterrent and it does not need expeditionary forces that can cruise to some distant country and beat it up or occupy it. That's not what it takes to be a Great Power.

Great Powers are about influence, about relevance. Great Powers are those powers who must not be ignored in a large share of global conflicts and political matters. These conflicts and matters are nowadays almost always peaceful - unless certain Western countries launch a war.

Good relations with Commonwealth nations, the permanent UNSC seat, the UNSC veto right, the ability to assist with expertise and money in times of trouble, being leading advocate of mutually beneficial multinational agreements, a "honest broker" reputation in regard to the moderation of international conflicts - that would ensure Britain's Great power status in the 21st century.

A broke country with nukes and an expeditionary military that gets involved in needless wars of choice would not be a good Great Power, if one at all. Most importantly, such a recipe is not going to help the country to prosper socially and culturally.


Sven Ortmann

P.S.: And then there's the question who's luckier; a Great Power or a country like Luxembourg?!
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24 comments:

  1. "Great Powers are about influence, about relevance. Great Powers are those powers who must not be ignored in a large share of global conflicts and political matters."

    Totally agreed, where i disagree is the matter of whether a Great Power, i.e. one with disproportionate influence in international affairs, can be said to be so if they don't wield significant military might in [addition] to the other important metrics such as economic might and soft-power influence.

    The UNSC is a case in point, a nation the size of china or india by dint of its geography and population can argue for representation at the top-table, but they are outliers, and Britain or France certainly wouldn't be able to argue for its continued membership if it did not have a willingness to engage in the world.

    The other factors you identify are all useful methods to magnify ones influence, but taken alone, or even in isolation from an interventionist politico-military stance, would they qualify any nation for Great Power status?

    nb #1 - when i say "interventionist" I am not talking about some crazy Blair style credo of liberal intervention, i talk merely about a generalised willingness to commit to tackling problems.

    nb #2 - i am not saying that choosing not to be a Great Power in future is not a perfectly valid choice, most middle sized nations do perfectly well.

    But Great Power status in general, and the UNSCin particular, when applied to middle-sized nations does indeed come with a commitment to changing the world, and that includes by coercion in the final instance.

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  2. Well, China is clearly a great power even though it didn't engage in military power projection beyond Vietnam and Korea until a few months ago when they joined the pirate hunt.
    That, of course, became even a hobby for small power politicians.

    The willingness for (or an actual) military intervention in a distant reggion does both create and destroy influence. You lose the benefits of a neutral (especially in moderation of conflicts), gain foes (and hopefully allies) and you effectively chose a side.
    Look at the U.S.'s diplomatic influence on the conflicts that surround Israel. It's limited to bribing because they chose a side, lost their neutrality.
    A politician from Switzerland or Luxembourg would have better chances to negotiate peace in that region than a U.S. politician.

    You mention coercion as final instance. Care to offer an example where that worked with significant advantage for the Great Power?
    The closest example would be the Kosovo conflict - and that was an alliance action with no real advantage other than silence.

    Have a look at the influence gained by countries like Brazil, China or Germany. Germany is more influential in Europe than the UK or France.
    Brazil is today the most influential country in South America (rivalled by the loud Venezuela).

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  3. Nice post. Just a minor critique:

    "Germany got into WW2 for an asshole's stupid idea"

    While it seems to be en vogue to blame Hitler for everything that has happened in Germany between 33 and 45, truth is that the idea of the necessity of yet another war after the 1914-1918/19 disaster was widely shared among military, social and political elites. It hasn't been an asshole's stupid idea, it was elite fuck-up galore.

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  4. @Anonymous:
    Some war, sometime - yes. The conservative elites didn't want THAT war, though. The invasion of Poland that started the mess and both the war against the USSR and US were both specifically the asshole's idea and not welcome at all.
    The military even thought about a coup d'état in '38 because the foreign policy became too risky.

    WW2 started before the UN was founded and before the Cold War cooled down the world-wide routine inter-state war activity.
    At that time, it seemed almost natural that a major European nation would experience a major war at least every 2nd generation.

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  5. Had the asshole limited himself to annexing only adjoining German-majority territories; had he not been a pathological racist, he would have gone down in history as Bismarck Mk. II. But then he would not have risen to power in the first place.

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  6. Sven - interesting comments on my article. I'm not convinced by your thesis though. You don't provide credible examples of great powers whose power is not backed by military capability. With the exception of Japan the examples don't come easily. The countries on the wiki list of great powers you point to all have both independent nuclear and conventional capability. The one historical constant on that list is the perseverance of militarily strong countries, except Japan. Japan is an interesting example having been a notably absent voice from involvement in most of the major military and territorial disputes of the post-war era despite her considerable economic clout. So for the time being at least, until more cosmopolitan dreams become realised, I think Ken Waltz's model of great power status still stands. I am yet to understand how 'influence' and 'relevance' will impact upon nuclear proliferation for instance. My article was about the need for strategic debate in the UK about where our national interests lie and whether they require independent expeditionary capability. Its clear what I think but if we collectively disagree then we should be rapidly scaling back military spending altogether and should not pursue the political fig-leaf of a poorly funded military. Until the composition of the UNSC falsifies my argument I think I have a few more days of clarity about great power status.

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  7. Actually, that list on Wikipedia also includes Germany - yet another country without permanent UNSC seat (or even veto), a military for unilateral epeditions and also without nuclear weapons.

    The UNSC has its roots in the 40's and is a solidified representation of times long gone and therefore it's neither representative about great power status nor a requirement for it.

    "I am yet to understand how 'influence' and 'relevance' will impact upon nuclear proliferation for instance."

    Likewise, I am at loss about the value of US/UK military power in this regard. The threatening posture of the US seems to be a major driver in the present nuclear proliferation mess instead.
    In fact, I noted how recently two non-nuclear powers with regional power status and great power potential have achieved (at least superficially) more in negotiations with Iran than any Western nuclear/great power did.

    The idea that expeditionary military poweris a necessity for a great power seems to date back to the late 19th century when naval battlefleets were dominant. Nevertheless, even at that time several great powers were not really capable of non-improvised major expeditions.
    Gunboat diplomacy and shows of force didn't seem to achieve much of value after WW2. Such behaviour created problems, added costs and created hostilities. You lose your influence on a power once you become hostile - unless you actually use your military might and enter a typically unneccessary and expensive war.


    About the UK's national interests and force composition; it's about time to realise that the English Channel has lost its relevance.
    The British interests depend no more on the maritime domain or non-European affairs than do the Danish, German or Austrian ones.

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  8. "Well, China is clearly a great power even though it didn't engage in military power projection beyond Vietnam and Korea until a few months ago when they joined the pirate hunt."

    Exactly my point, China is an outlier by dint of its massive and rapidly developing population, it is not relevant as an example for medium-sized nations that have ambitions of grandeur.

    "You mention coercion as final instance. Care to offer an example where that worked with significant advantage for the Great Power?"

    Libya's nuclear program.

    "Have a look at the influence gained by countries like Brazil, China or Germany. Germany is more influential in Europe than the UK or France.
    Brazil is today the most influential country in South America (rivalled by the loud Venezuela)."

    Brazil is the regional superpower by any metric, of course it has influence, and it is notably pursuing power projection capabilities.
    China is an outlier, as discussed above.
    Of course Germany has greatest influence europe, it is the largest economy in a post-war political grouping, but there is more to the world than europe, a factor that will become more apparent as time marches on.

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  9. "About the UK's national interests and force composition; it's about time to realise that the English Channel has lost its relevance."

    Only if you accept the position that war within europe has gone forever. Not an unreasonable assumption, but not one I can entirely discount when Brussels appears to have forgotten that very mission statement in its determination for ever-deeper-union even when this leads to an increase in internal tension.

    "The British interests depend no more on the maritime domain or non-European affairs than do the Danish, German or Austrian ones."

    When Britain accrues 49% of the value of trade in goods and services from outside the EU I am forced to disagree. By comparison only 40% of German exports leave the EU, and they are one of the most export oriented countries within the bloc, I wonder how low the Eurozone average would be? Different priorities.

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  10. The Libya example is not that clear-cut. Several powers used the shifted priorities and perceptions in 2002 for new diplomatic approaches (such as Iran, which basically offered toend the old U.S.-Iranian troubles and was rejected by Bush).

    The agreement with Libya was presented as happening under the impression of the invasion of Iraq, but Libya was not seriously threatened at that time. There was until recently a push for normalisation of relations and for modernisation by a son of Ghaddafi.
    This single person was probably more relevant to Libya's new path than any military threat.


    Keep in mind that they were bombed in 86 and has aerial skirmishes over the sea and small clashes with the French in Chad.
    THEN they began to think more seriously about nukes, finally giving up the idea decades after the period of greatest military stress.


    Neither the connection between threat and action nor the "sigificant advantage" are clear-cut to me in this example.


    Jedibeeftrix; even an "outlier" is enough to prove that the assertion of necessity in the article was wrong. It's the smoking gun, the evidence that clearly says "falsified!".

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  11. "Only if you accept the position that war within europe has gone forever."

    Naval weapons - both torpedoes and missiles - exceed the English channel's width with their range.
    There's absolutely no need for more than mine warfare boats for what once required naval battlefleets; the invasion of England.
    On the other hand, air defence and fighter establishments could reasonably call on the intra-European war scenario in the quest for funds.

    "When Britain accrues 49% of the value of trade in goods and services from outside the EU I am forced to disagree. By comparison only 40% of German exports leave the EU..."

    I fail to see a significant difference in dependence between your examples. A loss of 40% export is a deal-breaker, especially as the share of trade in German GDP is higher than for the UK. I didn't calculate it yet, but German overseas trade per capita might well exceed the UK equivalent.

    According to Wiki it's 934 $ g/capita Chinese wares to Germany vs. 424 for the UK, for example.


    I stick to my opinion that the UK doesn't depend more on overseas trade than many continental EU countries. Traditions and history distort the perception of the importance of the maritime domain (and RN!) in the UK.

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  12. I have two questions: Exactly how "British" is the British nuclear deterrent? I have heard that the British Trident-arsenal is so dependent on American technical support that the British PM would never be able to launch it on his own. Is that correct? If so the whole idea of maintaing a British nuclear force becomes pointless since it would always take American approval to use them.

    Secondly how relevant are nuclear weapons even in todays world? My impression is that nukes play a diminishing role and are only important for the very weak countries like - say North Korea. Other countries instead invest in precision guided munitions or in weapons that have some of the same capabilities as nukes. Like for example the idea of converting some of the American ICBM-forces to launch one or several conventional warheads over a great deal of distance. Or making conventional bombs that has the same explosive bomber like the smallest nuclear bombs. What do you think?

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  13. You better ask on a British blog about their nukes. Afaik they use an American missile and warhead design, but have full control over its use.

    The influence of nukes today is difficult to tell. Their creation pretty much coincides with the end of WW2 and the creation of the UN. Whatever influence they still hold - I'm quite confident that a minimal deterrence approach would yield the same results. No nation wants to risk ruining its 50 largest cities - so what difference make the other hundreds and thousands of nukes?

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  14. Hi Anonymous,

    The key phrase here is independence of operation rather than acquisition:

    http://jedibeeftrix.wordpress.com/2010/03/24/britainss-nukes-independence-of-operation-not-of-acquisition/

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  15. I'm not sure I agree with your reasoning.

    Imperial Germany was ground down by an allied blockade.
    It simply didnt have the option of sitting in its trenches and waiting out the siege.
    Had they not cracked nitrite production, the blockade would have collapsed Germany in months.

    Japan WAS being starved to death by a US oil blockade, which is why it attacked the US fleet, then made a mad rush for SE Asian oil fields.

    I'd also question how you define great power.
    If Sudan stormed the Japanese embassey, tortured to death the staff and showed the videos on YouTube, theres not a lot Japan could do about it.
    Cut off aid?

    Any action would have to be taken at the whim of a nearby nation, with the paying of more bribes.

    The US, UK and France could make a punitive strike without assistance.

    "P.S.: And then there's the question who's luckier; a Great Power or a country like Luxembourg?!"
    But Luxemburg is only free at the whim of its neighbours.

    I think great power is a bad term.
    Regional and World are better.

    Germany is certainly a regional power, but is it a world power?
    The same can be said for Brazil, within its region, its undisputed king, but any further?

    Whereas like it or not, France can sail to the opposite side of the world, smack the regional power in the face and sail home.


    Moral Power is a joke.
    If Israel started a genocide against the arabs, all the "Moral Power" of Norway and Luxemburg combined couldnt stop them.

    But the Military Power of China might.

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  16. I wrote about Germany/WW2, nto Germany/WW1.

    Japan was embargoed by the U.S. in response to Japan's war of conquest in China. That in turn was an extension of its older strategy of securitng continental resources (such as Manchurian coal) for its industry.
    It got into WW2 because it sought direct control of natural resources (which were in great part absorbed wby its oversized military).

    Your Sudan example doesn't convince me. There wasn't mcuht eh u.S. was able to do in the similar Tehran case - was the U.S. no great power in your opinion?

    Sailing to a distant country, smack it in the face and go home. That's useful for what exactly?
    The only actual overseas post-colonial interventions of France were very well in the range of Belgium's and the Netherland's capabilities. Does this make Belgium a great power?

    I don't know where the term "moral power" comes from.
    Nevertheless, I'm quite sure Israel couldn't do anything productive in international affairs better than Norway.
    It's better at destruction, but then again - what is this good for beyond defence?
    Israel did not seem to have had a net benefit from both Lebanon wars, for example. Its Entebbe operation could have been improvised even by Luxembourg.

    In the end, the everyday problems are being solved with diplomacy or not at all. Military action rarely solves more problems than it creates.
    A good foreign policy (strategy) and good relations are more valuable than the potential for violating the UN Charter and NATO treaty with an aggression against some remote country that pissed you off.

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  17. "Japan was embargoed by the U.S. in response to Japan's war of conquest in China. That in turn was an extension of its older strategy of securing continental resources (such as Manchurian coal) for its industry."

    I dont understand your arguement.
    The US cut Japan off from oil.
    How would Japan have been been in a better position if the US could have cut it off from oil, coal and steel?
    It wouldnt have had to fight a war against the US?
    No it wouldnt, the US would have conquered it without fireing a shot.

    "Your Sudan example doesn't convince me. There wasn't mcuht eh u.S. was able to do in the similar Tehran case - was the U.S. no great power in your opinion?"
    Lack of will rather than lack of ability.

    "That's useful for what exactly?"
    Coercian.
    You can either say "Serbian armed forces, please stop murdering unarmed muslims in Bosnia" and then close your eyes as the killing continues, or you can sail an army to Yugoslavia and MAKE THEM do as you command.


    "I don't know where the term "moral power" comes from."

    "A politician from Switzerland or Luxembourg would have better chances to negotiate peace in that region than a U.S. politician."

    I thought thats what you were getting at.

    "Nevertheless, I'm quite sure Israel couldn't do anything productive in international affairs better than Norway."
    I suppose it depends on how you view the world.
    Israel can make its neighbours act in a certain manner because it can kill them if they wont.
    I dont, but some people do, believe that Norway can ask nicely and two fighting armies will stop killing each other and somehow solve the issues they were fighting over amicably.

    "It's better at destruction, but then again - what is this good for beyond defence?"
    Making people do as you say.

    "In the end, the everyday problems are being solved with diplomacy or not at all. Military action rarely solves more problems than it creates."

    Solves and creates for whom?
    Egypt is in dire straights with regards to food production.
    It has partly solved that problem by threatening war on anyone who tries to divert the nile up stream.
    The threat of military action has solved the problem for Egypt by transfering it on to Egypts Southern Neighbours.

    Being well respected and having polite diplomats cannot convince a foreign nation to voluntarily suffer starvation.

    The threat of military action can

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  18. DominicJ; Japan got into the whole mess BECAUSE it attempted to gain control over natural resources. There would have been no Pacific War if they had simply limited themselves to importing natural resources in exchange for industrial goods.

    The Switzerland/Norway example was actually about reputation. Such small powers often have the ability to moderate in a conflict with personalities who are actually accepted as neutrals.
    A Russian moderating some Central Asian conflict or an American moderating in the Near East will never have that benefit.


    We have a status quo that includes a lot of military powerand threatening. No matter what this background noise of military power achieves - at the status quo it appears that the real influence on the status quo (ability to change) is not military in nature.
    We had several attempts of employment of military power for political objectives since the end of the Cold War, and the only one that has apparently achieved much per cost was the South Ossetian War. It didn't do mroe for Russia than to preserve status quo, of course.

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  19. "DominicJ; Japan got into the whole mess BECAUSE it attempted to gain control over natural resources. There would have been no Pacific War if they had simply limited themselves to importing natural resources in exchange for industrial goods."

    Your assuming that the US (or another colonial power) wouldnt have tried to subjugate Japan in any event.

    "The Switzerland/Norway example was actually about reputation. Such small powers often have the ability to moderate in a conflict with personalities who are actually accepted as neutrals."
    I disagree
    Because foreign policy isnt about being fair or finding an equitable solution, its about grabbing as big a slice of the cake as you can manage.
    I just dont believe the Swiss can say "come on" and suddenly peace will break out in the middle east, everyone forgetting that theres only food and water for 10 million people in an area with a population of 20 million.

    Military Power isnt the only source of influence, but it is by far the biggest and most constant.
    Theres also the fact that you dont have to drop bombs to employ military power.

    People say Israels Lebanon war was a failure, but for all their bluster, Hezbollah were very quiet when Israel went into Gaza several years later, as were Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

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  20. I see little reason for why the U.S. would have entangled itself much in East Asia if Japan had not become aggressive. It took events like the Nanjing massacre to make the U.S. at least angry.

    It's difficult to comparethe effects of military and other forms of weight behind national influence. I suspect economic power is by far the greatest factor, and less prone to bilateral neutralisation than military power.
    And diplomacy doesn't need to be able to magically create peace in the Near East to be superior to military might as long as military might proves its utter inability to achieve the same.

    About Hezbollah: They were extremely quiet as long as the armistice with Israel held (it can be argued that Israel did much more to end it than Hezbollah did).
    The actual use of militar power against Hezbollah provoked a violent response that basically proved the futility. The rocket rain during that 2006 war was greater than what israel would have endured in many years of peace or even many decades of armistice.
    The 2006 Lebanon War is definitely no evidence for the utility of military might as a problem-solver.

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  21. "The 2006 Lebanon War is definitely no evidence for the utility of military might as a problem-solver."

    I disagree, Israel can now be confident that there is no arab alliance ranged against it, like there was 30 years ago.
    Thats one hell of a problem solved.
    I cant see any political concessions made, except to Egypt.
    Sure, the rocket rain wasnt pleasent, but Israel has driven home the fact that it can out escalate anyone else AND everyone else seems to have accepted it.

    "I see little reason for why the U.S. would have entangled itself much in East Asia if Japan had not become aggressive. It took events like the Nanjing massacre to make the U.S. at least angry."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unequal_Treaties

    When Japan started its wars with China, it was only 40 years since an American fleet had sailed into its port and forced it to open its borders.
    The rest of the western powers had forced the same treaties, and Russia was quite happily marching south, its hardly unreasonable for Japan to worry that once Russia finishes its conquest of Korea, it'll move on to Japan, unless of course France or Great Britian could beat it to the punch

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  22. "I disagree, Israel can now be confident that there is no arab alliance ranged against it, like there was 30 years ago.
    Thats one hell of a problem solved."

    Well, first of all, success with method A does not prove its superiority over method B.
    Second, you are likely the only man in the world who thinks that Israel has solved security-related problems.
    Third; it's Arab weakness, not Israeli strength, that keeps Israel alive.

    "Sure, the rocket rain wasnt pleasent, but Israel has driven home the fact that it can out escalate anyone else AND everyone else seems to have accepted it."

    And that rain of rockets should have driven home the message that the political move of having an armistice with Hezbollah (which worked around 2005) was unbelievably superior to the military approach.
    To prove that you have the longer one is not an advantage if you prove it by banging it on a nail bed.

    The unequal treaties were mostly a problem for the Chinese; the Perry expedition of about 1864 didn't do much more than to break the Japanese equivalent of Cromwell's navigation act.

    The war that really pissed the U.S. government off and led to Pearl Harbour began in about 1937, three generations after Perry. There had not been any U.S. aggression or direct threat to Japan for decades. Instead, both were signatories to the Washington naval limitation treaties.

    The Russians were defeated by Japan in 1905, later skirmishes such as the Nomonhan incident were the result of unnecessary if not dumb Japanese provocations and did not signal a real invasion threat by the Soviets.

    In the end, it was the employment of the military for natural resources access policy that led Japan into the disastrous WW2.
    Contrary, the post-WW2 Japan with its "self-defence force" had great access to natural resources through trade and prospered.

    That, of course, addresses the question whether being a great power is worth the hazzle. The article's question about the necessity of great (expeditionary) military power for great power status is a different one.
    China's non-expeditionary military and Germany's rather moderate military strength (in comparison to population and economy) point at the fact that you do NOT need nukes, aircraft carriers, marines and the like for great power status.

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  23. "Japan was driven into its disastrous WW2 experience by a misguided belief that it needed direct access to foreign resources for prosperity."

    That is wrong.

    Japan was driven into it because of two major reasons:

    1) the so called "ABCD encirclement" that was "strangling" Japan. America, Britain, China and the Netherlands.

    2) the war in China was eating up resources faster than anyone had expected. Even during the Pacific War China locked up more than 1 million Japanese soldiers.

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  24. Your points make no sense.

    (1) was unproblematic at peace (and the Netherlands + China had no aggressive intent) and mostly relevant because these were refusing to trade with Japan at some time or another - as a consequence of Japanese aggressiveness.

    (2) makes even less sense, for an additional war was bound to require even more resources + the war in China was about getting direct access to resources in the first place.


    The root of Japanese warfare in 1931-1945 was direct access to resources which were under control of colonial powers and China.

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