The Effect of Change in Balance of Power on International Law

International law lawyers usually debate the ability of International law to constrain the behaviour of states. But the changes that emerged in the power structure raised the question of the influence of power in international law. This is because many experts claim that the international law is a result of powerful states. For the past seventy years, the US along with its European counterparts have either collectively or individually governed the international law. However, the era in which these states could steer the international legal system has passed. Today, numerous other countries, from South Africa to Turkey and from Mexico to Indonesia are quickly transitioning from tertiary status to influential international actors. The relative power of the United States and Europe is progressively declining, while China, Russia, India and Brazil’s power are growing. The table below demonstrates the transition of power from the US and Europe toward China, Russia, India and Brazil.

 Table1: Economic Power Shift: 2002 -2013[1]

These circumstances indicate that the power is not just shifting from U.S and Europe towards China, Brazil, Russia, India, but being diffused across the international system. In the emerging new international structure, a large number of states have sufficient power to influence regional and global issues.

In 2002, China had the world’s six largest economy. By 2013; it had the second largest surpassing Japan, U.K, Germany, France and Italy. On the other hand, Brazil surpassed Canada and Italy, while Russia outweighed India, Canada, Australia and Spain. Despite these facts, Europe and the US maintained their steady growth. In the next ten years; Brazil, China, Russia, and Turkey will out rival other European states. The rise of the South was once unthinkable. However, the next wave of rapid economic growth will occur by 2025 and include; South Korea, South Africa, Mexico, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines and Vietnam. This is due to the virtue of these states showing steady growth in recent years.

Concerning military capacity except for China’s military expansion, there has been very little change in other emerging countries. The Correlates of War, Composite Index of National Capability data reveals the relative consistency of U.S. military capability between 1997 and 2007 was approximately 14% but also indicates a sharp increase in China’s military capacity has seen a surge from 14% to 20%. On the contrary, the European powers have seen their share of military capacity decline to from 11.9% to 9.1%[2].

Nonetheless, the US and Europe still uphold significant soft power advantages, while China, Russia, Brazil and India are out of top twenty countries according to the British Institute of Government. Regardless, these countries have the potential to develop their soft power advantages on the grounds that a country’s economic wealth increases its capacity to engage in activities that improve their soft power. For instance, building a satisfying educational system and exporting culture especially to non-developed countries can enhance soft power.

It seems that different countries are gaining relative advantages in peculiar disciplines but fail to attain power in all fields. No one state or a small group of states can command power.

The US and European states independently or collectively have had extraordinary influence on the processes and the substantive of international law over the past seventy years. Many principles adopted in international law reflect their preferences. Today with the rest of world gaining power, the international law is facing restoration and rebuilding. For instance; Brazil and Iran have called for a change in veto rights of the Security Council numerous times. President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in his speech during the 69th UN General Assembly Session, has announced that: “The world is bigger than five”.[3] This plight highlights that the rest of world is eager to participate in the process of reviewing the UN Charter and subsequent laws which include multitudes of rules that contradict with sovereign equality of all its Members.

In the present-day the international law is progressing from universal to the regional level, and the difference of preferences between powerful states elicits the international law redundant especially regarding security terms and fails to solve disputes between states. For instance, Russia, Turkey, and Iran agreed to solve the Syrian crisis without the interference of US and European states. This order was not thinkable earlier, however, after the decline of Western countries, emerging states have found an opportunity to solve their problem without their intrusion.

Posterior to China, Russia, Brazil and India’s economic and military gains. The implication in redistribution of power between numerous states gave the international law the following three features:

  1. International law has transitioned from a unipolar structure to a multipolar one. We can see this feature in Russia, Turkey and Iran’s attempt to solve the Syrian crisis without the support of the US and Europeans. These states showed considerable efforts to fight terrorism while the UN and the Security Council couldn’t take any practical step toward terrorist activities in Syria.
  2. Pluralism. Before the emergence of China and Non-Western States, the US, and European expansively dominated the legal discourse and rulemaking. Following the distribution of power, creating universal rules have become challenging due to requiring the consent of many powerful states with contrasting preferences.
  3. International law returns to its Westphalian origin. Today, Russia and China are the most persuasive advocates of state sovereignty. They refuse intervention in other states due to this right being misused by US and European states.

In conclusion, as the US and European governments consume their powers; international law gains different characteristics because the international law has been assembled in accordance with the US and European states preferences. Today two influential Islamic states; Turkey and Iran are required to act together in the breakthrough of the international law to protect Muslim world preferences.


[1] William W. Burke White, “Power Shift in International Law: Strucural Realgnment and Substantive Pluralism”, Harvard International Law Journal, Vol: 56, Issue: 1, Winter 2015, p. 18,  http://www.harvardilj.org/wp-content/uploads/561Burke-White.pdf, (Erişim Tarihi: 25.07.2017).

[2] Burke-White, Ibid., p. 20.

[3]Erdoğan: Dünya 5’ten Büyüktür”, Al Jazeera Türk,  http://www.aljazeera.com.tr/haber/erdogan-dunya-5ten-buyuktur. (Erişim Tarihi: 26.07.2017).