What is a world power, a great power and a regional power?

Ben Pardo
Ben Pardo
Nov 20, 2017 · 4 min read
The United Nations Security Council

This week on the News and Information Study Group, our participatory YouTube Live Show, we are reading Reimagining Great Power Relations Part I by Ambassador Charles W. Freeman, Jr.

Ambassador Freeman begins as so:

International reactions to the election of Donald Trump have catalyzed a far swifter collapse of the American-led world order than anyone could have imagined. Interactions between great and middle-ranking powers are undergoing rapid evolution. The political, economic, and military interests and influence of the United States still span the globe, as does American popular culture. Nations and non-state actors in every region continue to worry about American policies, activism, or passivity on matters of concern to them. In short, the United States is still the planet’s only all-around world power. But the clout that status confers is not what it used to be.

Here, Freeman asserts that the United States is still the “only all-around world power” despite our decline. Throughout the article, Ambassador Freeman gives an evaluation of power relations between nations. As we are reading an article about great power and world power, perhaps it would be good to start with some definitions from the OED:

World power

2. A nation, state, etc., that has great power or influence in world affairs. Also in extended use, as of a person.

Here power might mean reach and capability in asserting how things are going to be. Influence is a type of power that can only be measured after it is shown. Influence can be power of persuasiveness or it can be that other nations want to emulate or please an influential nation.

Great power

In the OED, we only have quotations:

1919 Contemp. Rev. July 41 A small nation which possesses petroleum, or forests, or ‘strategical position’ is..deliberately hunted to death by a Great Power or a Group of Great Powers.

1955 Times 11 May 10/3 Moscow invariably speaks of a meeting of the Great Powers rather than the four Powers.

Already we get a sense that great power can be used to coerce others against their will. It is also distinguished (by Moscow) from power in general which is possessed by any nation or person.


Although superpower is not used in the article, it certainly relates.

2. A nation or state with dominant power and influence in world politics; spec. the United States of America and (formerly) the Soviet Union. Also in extended use.

The greatest difference here is that a superpower is dominant, but Freeman is not writing a story about the future of superpower.

Assessing great power and regional power

Here are a few perspectives for criteria concerning great power and regional power:

The test of a great power is the test of strength for war.

The Struggle for Mastery in Europe by Alan Taylor

Here war’s power is absolute, but is it? There are some people who would rather die than comply with an order they do not believe in. Napoleon said “The moral is to the physical as three to one.” Why have our political objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan failed so badly despite all of our firepower?

[G]reat powers do not gain and retain their rank by excelling in one way or another. Their rank depends on how they score on a combination of the following items: size of population and territory, resource endowment, economic capability, military strength, political stability and competence.

The Emerging Structure of International Politics by Kenneth N. Waltz

I find most striking here the additional categories of political stability and competence. It gives us a way to explain our recent military failures rather than being stuck assuming that firepower is everything.

Regional power

A regional power must …

(1) … be part of a definable region with an identity of its own

(2) … claim to be one (self-image of a regional power)

(3) … exert decisive influence on the geographic extension of the region as well as on its ideological construction

(4) … dispose over comparatively high military, economic, demographic, political and ideological capabilities

(5) … be well integrated into the region

(6) … define the regional security agenda to a high degree

(7) … be appreciated as a regional power by other powers in the region and beyond, especially by other regional powers

(8) … be well connected with regional and global fora.

The Concept of Regional Power: The Middle East as a Deviant Case by Martin Beck

Regional power on the other hand has the same qualities of power in general, but lacks the reach of global power. In the definition regional power also relates to images and stories that the regional power tells itself and others, whereas in great power this may be assumed. This may be to distinguish it from smaller powers.

Additional Resources


The story of our Micro Demonstrations, how you can make your own Micro Demonstration and how to teach others

Ben Pardo

Written by

Ben Pardo

Teacher, computer programmer, writer, performance artist, MicroDemonstrator: InstaMarch.org


The story of our Micro Demonstrations, how you can make your own Micro Demonstration and how to teach others

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