Do tough neighborhoods breed big powers?

Are emerging great powers like Old Etonians or street-fighters?  Or, to be a bit more literal, should we expect great powers to emerge out of privileged, prosperous backgrounds with lots of resources and few natural enemies?  Or will they punch their way out of tough, highly conflictual regions?  If you look at the first decades twentieth century, the U.S. obviously benefited from having a benign neighborhood, while Germany’s rise was complicated by the ring of unfriendly powers around it.

Looking at the world today, strategists get very excited by the potential for Sino-Indian rivalry to constrain one or both of those powers.  (Brazil is, by contrast, the Old Etonian amongst the BRICs, with no serious long-term rivals in its region.)  Over on his blog “Polaris”, Dhruva Jaishankar highlights how this worries Indian policy-makers:

One of the few points of consensus at a conference on India I helped organise in February was that India would find it difficult to escape its region unless it were able to establish peaceful relations with (and stability within) the countries in its immediate neighbourhood, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. The feeling was that India would be tethered by disputes with these smaller states, and adversely affected by the instability spilling over from them. This would, in turn, compromise India’s great power ambitions. A similar logic underlies Pakistan’s longstanding policy of attempting to destabilise India through asymmetric and unconventional means.

But Dhruva can think of quite a few big powers that came out of tough neighborhoods:

Exhibit A. Europe. For much of modern history, the only powers capable of global reach were located in Europe: Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, England, France, and subsequently Germany and Italy. The close proximity of these states to one another, and the presence of strong second-tier states in their immediate vicinities, meant that at no time were the fates of these countries secure at home. This did not stop any of them from seeking conquests and projecting power on multiple continents.

Exhibit B. Japan.
The rise of Japan in the late 19th century after the Meiji Restoration coincided with unstable politics at home and in the region. Nine years into the new era, the Japanese ruling oligarchy had to crush the Satsuma Rebellion in the south. Japan went on to fight wars against China and Russia, and annexed Korea and Formosa (Taiwan). In the midst of almost continuous regional conflict, Japan was accorded all the trappings of a great power, including seats at the League of Nations and the Washington Naval Conference.

Exhibit C. China. The growth of China is a remarkable story, but once again it has come despite—not because—of its political relationships with its neighbours. Certainly, China has not had a significant conflict since 1979 and it has settled many of its land boundary disputes. However, it continues to have uneasy relations with almost all its neighbours, including a sizeable dispute with its largest regional competitor, India. It also has one of the most unstable states in the world—North Korea—immediately bordering it. And the military presence of the world’s preeminent power in its region severely limits its actions. None of this has stopped China’s rise.

As Dhruva recognizes, this doesn’t mean that India – or indeed China – can ignore bad stuff on its borders.  But it’s an interesting reminder that, while Western strategists worry about the erosion of the liberal order, today’s rising powers may be able to tolerate a pretty high degree of disorder as they assert themselves…