Global Gatekeepers: How Great Powers Respond to Rising States

Posted: 30 Jul 2014

See all articles by Peter Harris

Peter Harris

University of Texas at Austin

Date Written: 2014


Why do some shifts in power between states pass off peacefully while others result in conflict? Scholars have debated the implications of shifting power at least since Thucydides documented the rise of Athens in his History of the Peloponnesian War and the fear that this aroused in Sparta. Must the rise in power of a potential challenger lead to covetousness, enmity and conflict as Thucydides claims was the case in antiquity? Or can established and rising powers make common cause on the world stage? Most attempts to answer these questions have focused on the decision-making calculus of rising states or else have modeled abstract dyadic relations between two rational actors under conditions of shifting power. In this paper, I shift the analytic focus onto the decision-making of leaders in established Great Powers, examining the international and domestic-political circumstances under which states will acquiesce to or even promote the rise in power of another state and when they will instead seek to stymie the rise of a potential rival. The paper advances the notion that established Great Powers act as critical gatekeepers of world order. In the context of shifting power, established Great Powers are by definition materially stronger than their rising challengers — at least during initial phases of a power transition. As such, I argue that established Great Powers are able to apply their preponderant power — military, economic and diplomatic — in ways that shape the opportunity structures available to a would-be challenger. I provide a model to explain when and why an established state will see advantage in conciliating a rising state and when its leaders will instead opt for a strategy of containment. Empirically, I present four illustrative case studies of British and American responses to rising states, 1890-1990.

Keywords: International Relations, Foreign Policy, Power-Transition Theory, Rise of China

Suggested Citation

Harris, Peter, Global Gatekeepers: How Great Powers Respond to Rising States (2014). APSA 2014 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

Peter Harris (Contact Author)

University of Texas at Austin ( email )

2317 Speedway
Austin, TX 78712
United States


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