Brittany Henderson's Blog

Benefactors and Bellicosity: The Need For A New Strategy Among Superpowers

July 5, 2017

Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, the United States has increasingly adopted a unipolar grand strategy in which power politics reign supreme over diplomatic relations. Instead of focusing on strategies that promote the improvement of understanding and relations with countries outside of NATO, the United States choses to further distance itself from the international community by flexing muscle instead of thinking about how its unilateral decision-making is interpreted by the international community. Through actions that range from legal to condemned by the United Nations and the international community, the United States’ current approach to diplomacy and foreign policy decision-making serves to increase tensions amongst itself and other rising powers outside of NATO and its mandate.

Currently, the United States maintains a strict hierarchy of power within the international community; however, both Russia and China have made formidable advancements in the projections of their respective power and influence over world affairs. In order to preserve peace and decrease the probability of legitimate conflicts arising between the triad of powerful states, it is necessary for each of these states to examine the past decisions made by the United States, determining which exertions of power are in their best interest, and which could actually serve as a detriment to their influence in the long-term.

The current posture of the United States still reflects what scholar John G. Ikenberry refers to as a transformative position of power. In post-war conditions, the relative victors are in the strategically significant position of decision-making in which they may choose between three major courses of action. The first is to return to an isolationist camp, leaving the rest of the world to struggle in its attempt to reconstruct the world order. Conversely, the new power may choose to impose its power on the rest of the world without exception or apology, effectively exerting uncontested power at the expense of depriving the rest of the world of its voice in international politics. This strategy, though effective in the short-term in the securing of power and influence, ultimately cannot be sustained simply because all soft power capabilities are lost. The loss of legitimacy and credibility in diplomacy will not allow the powerful state to project its power in the long-term. Lastly, the leading state may choose to invest time and resources into generating a post-war, international environment that ensures the progression of its interests throughout time, while also gaining the favor of the countries that would have floundered immensely without the supporting strength the victor has to offer. Thus, the projection of interests is accompanied by legitimate diplomacy, allowing both power and conciliation to work symbiotically to generate an effective structure of power. This is the approach that powerful states claim to have integrated into their grand strategy, therefore allowing them to appear benevolent while also justifying their opportunism. However, this strategy only is effective during times of immense uncertainty that result from a prolonged conflict that weakens the international community holistically. As other states rise to prominence and positions of influence, this strategy must be revised.

It is exactly this attitude that drives the United States and other rising powers to falter in their international diplomacy. The United States continuously acts as if it is the world’s benefactor, constantly inserting itself into the affairs of other states under the pretense that its doing so is for the advancement of all nations’ well-being. This reasoning is used to justify extended occupation and prolongation of the use of force in order to rewrite the international agenda to the tune of the Star-Spangled Banner. The American government has used sweeping rhetoric and intentions of bringing liberty and peace to those deprived of it to unlawfully intervene in the Middle East, begin a war on Terror against anyone who it determines to be a threat, and act as a bulwark against any legitimate, positive evolution of international law.

This is not to say that other countries have not also followed this exact pattern of behavior. When a state feels itself rise to a position of power and preeminence, it is faced with the same dilemma of balancing its influence and the desire to project its interests while staying out of certain sects of international politics. More often than not, powerful states opt to project its power and influence rather than strategically balance its priorities. Decisions like these lead states to ultimately diminish their chances of remaining in a position of power. For example, the Chinese government’s decision to construct new islands, and occupy preexisting ones, in the South China Sea aggravates other states in the region while also gaining the attention of the international community. While Realpolitik may dictate that opportunism and Machiavellian ambition are expected and applauded in the international political arena, reality dictates otherwise. The overextension of power translates into arrogance in the eyes of the international community, leading the powerful state down a path that offers little hope in the preservation or projection of that power. Russia, among the most powerful states in the world, also is faced with this dilemma. For example, the continued presence in the conflict in Syria, while just in the eyes of the government, offers another opportunity for a potential overextension of power. The war in Iraq is to the United States what the Syrian Civil War could be to Russia. Continuous interference and willingness to use force to demonstrate will, in times where doing so is not imperative to the survival of Russian power. Though they are following the same overall strategy that the United States has continuously employed, there will be an advantage in recognizing how such opportunism tarnished the credibility of the United States in the world eye. If Russia wishes to both preserve its power and avoid alienation within the international community, it needs to analyze where the unipolar strategy of the United States falters.

It is now more important than ever before to recognize the faults within this strategy. While effective immediately after periods of war, transformative postures have become a façade for powerful states who wish to project their power while also appearing to be in advocacy of a more open and fluid international political sphere. Interests and opportunism will tempt international powers to overindulge in their potency, thus losing credibility and generating distaste among the international community. The state that learns to temper these desires to constantly exert power will find itself engaging in a grand strategy that not only generates favor within the international community, but also has the most potential in maintaining the state’s position of power into the future. Once the fault lines of this strategy are recognized, each of the states may learn how to mold its respective grand strategy according to the balance of soft power and a realist strategy. The first state to effectively respond to this reality will have the strongest chance of gaining formidable and sustainable influence over the international community, thereby ensuring the projection of its interests well into the future.


Ikenberry, G. John. After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order After Major

Wars. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

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