Contested Leadership in International Relations – Power Politics in South America, Eastern Europe, Asia and sub-Saharan Africa

Dr. Daniel Flemes
2010 - 2019
VolkswagenStiftung, Schumpeter Fellowship



Research Questions

  • Does regional acceptance or contestation influence regional powers’ chances of success in global affairs? In short, does regional support matter?
  • How do regional orders shape the global strategies of regional powers?
  • How do the relations between regional and external players (the US, China, Russia, the EU and Germany) impact regional power distribution?
  • Which factors motivate secondary powers to accept or contest regional powers’ leadership claims? In short, why do followers (not) follow?

Contribution to International Research

First, the interregional comparison of the relations between regional and secondary powers explains why potential followers tend to contest regional leadership. The proposed study focuses on both the leaders and the followers (or contesters of leadership) and contributes to the theoretical IR debate on the sources of leadership.

Second, the research project adds to the existing knowledge on the nexus of regional and global orders. It analyses the global impact of secondary powers’ regional strategies (acceptance or contestation) using a comparative perspective. A direct or indirect impact of secondary powers’ foreign policies at the global-system level would support the thesis of a multiregional world order. This view would be compatible with predictions of a systemic transformation into a “non-polar world” (Haass 2008) or a system of "multi-multipolarity" (Friedberg 1994).

Third, the interregional comparison illustrates how different regional environments shape regional powers’ global strategies. In addition, analysis focuses on cultural and historical factors, economic interconnectedness and regional security settings.

Research Design and Methods

We compare dyads in regional relations: For instance, India vs. Pakistan, China vs. Japan, China vs. Vietnam, Brazil vs. Colombia, Russia vs. Poland and South Africa vs. Nigeria. Additionally, we analyse the bilateral relations of each of the regional and secondary powers with extra-regional powers – namely, the US, China, Russia, the EU and Germany – to capture the external influences on the regional relationship patterns. Conversely, we explore the impact of bilateral relationships with external powers and regional patterns (cooperation, competition, conflict) on the global order. Those factors assumed to be determinants of the actors’ foreign policies and, hence, of the relationships between regional and secondary powers – which are marked by different types of “contested leadership” – are the focus of the comparison: resources, interests, strategies and perceptions of foreign policy.

Preliminary Results

The preliminary results identify the following drivers as the decisive variables in the development of secondary powers’ foreign policy strategies:

A secondary power’s choice of regional strategy is primarily dependent on structural drivers such as its relative position in the regional hierarchy. Direct, usually military contestation strategies correlate with a relatively symmetric distribution of power and resources between primary and secondary power. In contrast, indirect forms of contestation/opposition are predominantly observed in regions marked by high polarity in terms of political and economic resources.

In relatively peaceful regional orders (e.g. security communities), domestic actors exert more influence on the regional strategy of a secondary power than in regions characterised by violent conflicts.

The central explanatory factors for secondary powers’ contestation strategies in the realm of foreign policy are as follows: (a) diverging interests between the primary and secondary powers at the regional and bilateral level, (b) the regional power’s unwillingness to provide public goods, and (c) the regional power’s non-transparent defence and arms policies.