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date: 22 October 2018

Summary and Keywords

Great powers have traditionally played a major role in the study of foreign policy. From a variety of work on foreign policy analysis, it is known that great powers are more active in their foreign policy than other states in the international system are. Whether the actions are disbursing foreign aid, creating alliances, conflict involvement, or others, studies will often control for great power status, with the underlying expectation being that major powers will be more likely to utilize these foreign policy tools. In fact, when considering relevant dyads in quantitative studies of foreign policy analysis, states have to be contiguous for the dyad to be considered relevant, but an exception is made for dyads containing at least one major power, given the ability of great powers to project their power beyond their borders.

Key literature on the foreign policy behavior of great powers discusses different ways of defining great powers. In particular, the debate over defining great power status has focused on whether a great power should be defined solely on its physical capabilities, or also on intangible factors, such as its foreign policy interests or whether the state is recognized as a great power by others in the international system. Further, there are questions of whether great powers have to be military powers or whether economic superiority is enough to classify a state as a great power. There is also the issue of regional powers: states that are clearly military, economic, and political leaders within a limited geographic region, but not at the global level. Should these states be considered great powers, or should that classification be reserved for global powers?

The literature on great-power foreign policy also discusses cooperative and conflictual behaviors of great powers in the international system. It addresses great power war, focusing on how they are more conflict prone than minor powers, and reviews the issues that drive great powers to engage in conflict, such as positional issues and the intent to shape the international system to their liking. It also discusses a variety of foreign policy actions, both coercive and cooperative, that major powers are more likely to engage in than their minor-power counterparts. In addition, there is much work done on the relationships between great powers and between great powers and minor powers, stressing the competitive nature of major-power interactions and the trade-off between economic and military security and policy concessions that defines major-minor power interactions.

Keywords: great powers, foreign policy, hierarchy, political relevance, major powers

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