A superpower is a state with a dominant position characterized by its extensive ability to exert influence or project power on a global scale. This is done through the combined means of economic, military, technological and cultural strength as well as diplomatic and soft power influence. Traditionally, superpowers are preeminent among the great powers.
The term was first applied post World War II to the United States and the Soviet Union. For the duration of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union dominated world affairs. At the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, only the United States appeared to be a superpower.Alice Lyman Miller defines a superpower as "a country that has the capacity to project dominating power and influence anywhere in the world, and sometimes, in more than one region of the globe at a time, and so may plausibly attain the status of global hegemony". China is now considered an emerging global superpower in economy, military, and technology. According to the 2019 Asia Power Index, Lowy Institute considers China as a superpower of Asia, ranked second behind the US.
No agreed definition of what is a superpower exists and may differ between sources.However, a fundamental characteristic that is consistent with all definitions of a superpower is a nation or state that has mastered the seven dimensions of state power, namely geography, population, economy, resources, military, diplomacy and national identity.
The term was first used to describe nations with greater than great power status as early as 1944, but only gained its specific meaning with regard to the United States and to a lesser extent, the Soviet Union after World War II. This was because the United States and the Soviet Union had proved themselves to be capable of casting great influence in global politics and military dominance. The term in its current political meaning was coined by Dutch-American geostrategist Nicholas Spykman in a series of lectures in 1943 about the potential shape of a new post-war world order. This formed the foundation for the book The Geography of the Peace, which referred primarily to the unmatched maritime global supremacy of the British Empire and United States as essential for peace and prosperity in the world.
A year later in 1944, William T. R. Fox, an American foreign policy professor, elaborated on the concept in the book The Superpowers: The United States, Britain and the Soviet Union — Their Responsibility for Peace which spoke of the global reach of a super-empowered nation.Fox used the word superpower to identify a new category of power able to occupy the highest status in a world in which—as the war then raging demonstrated—states could challenge and fight each other on a global scale. According to him, at that moment there were three states that were superpowers, namely the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. The British Empire was the most extensive empire in world history and considered the foremost great power, holding sway over 25% of the world's population and controlling about 25% of the Earth's total land area, while the United States and the Soviet Union grew in power before and during World War II. The UK would face serious political, financial and colonial issues after World War II that left it unable to match Soviet or American power. Ultimately, Britain's empire would gradually dissolve over the course of the 20th century, sharply reducing its global power projection.
According to Lyman Miller, "[t]he basic components of superpower stature may be measured along four axes of power: military, economic, political, and cultural (or what political scientist Joseph Nye has termed "soft power")".
In the opinion of Kim Richard Nossal of Queen's University in Canada, "generally this term was used to signify a political community that occupied a continental-sized landmass, had a sizable population (relative at least to other major powers); a superordinate economic capacity, including ample indigenous supplies of food and natural resources; enjoyed a high degree of non-dependence on international intercourse; and, most importantly, had a well-developed nuclear capacity (eventually normally defined as second strike capability)".
In the opinion of Professor Paul Dukes, "a superpower must be able to conduct a global strategy including the possibility of destroying the world; to command vast economic potential and influence; and to present a universal ideology". Although "many modifications may be made to this basic definition".According to Professor June Teufel Dreyer, "[a] superpower must be able to project its power, soft and hard, globally". In his book Superpower: Three Choices for America's Role in the World , Dr. Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, argues that a superpower is "a country that can exert enough military, political, and economic power to persuade nations in every region of the world to take important actions they would not otherwise take".
Apart from its common denotation of the foremost post-WWII states, the term superpower has colloquially been applied by some authors retrospectively to describe various preeminent ancient great empires or medieval great powers, in works such as Channel 5 (UK)'s documentary Rome: The World's First Superpower or the reference in The New Cambridge Medieval History to "the other superpower, Sasanian Persia".
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The 1956 Suez Crisis suggested that Britain, financially weakened by two world wars, could not then pursue its foreign policy objectives on an equal footing with the new superpowers without sacrificing convertibility of its reserve currency as a central goal of policy.As the majority of World War II had been fought far from its national boundaries, the United States had not suffered the industrial destruction nor massive civilian casualties that marked the wartime situation of the countries in Europe or Asia. The war had reinforced the position of the United States as the world's largest long-term creditor nation and its principal supplier of goods; moreover it had built up a strong industrial and technological infrastructure that had greatly advanced its military strength into a primary position on the global stage. Despite attempts to create multinational coalitions or legislative bodies (such as the United Nations), it became increasingly clear that the superpowers had very different visions about what the post-war world ought to look like and after the withdrawal of British aid to Greece in 1947 the United States took the lead in containing Soviet expansion in the Cold War.
The two countries opposed each other ideologically, politically, militarily, and economically. The Soviet Union promoted the ideology of Marxism–Leninism, planned economy and a one-party state whilst the United States promoted the ideologies of liberal democracy and the free market in a capitalist market economy. This was reflected in the Warsaw Pact and NATO military alliances, respectively, as most of Europe became aligned with either the United States or the Soviet Union. These alliances implied that these two nations were part of an emerging bipolar world, in contrast with a previously multipolar world. [ citation needed ]
The idea that the Cold War period revolved around only two blocs, or even only two nations, has been challenged by some scholars in the post–Cold War era, who have noted that the bipolar world only exists if one ignores all of the various movements and conflicts that occurred without influence from either of the two superpowers.Additionally, much of the conflict between the superpowers was fought in proxy wars which more often than not involved issues more complex than the standard Cold War oppositions.
After the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s, the term hyperpower began to be applied to the United States as the sole remaining superpower of the Cold War era.This term, popularized by French foreign minister Hubert Védrine in the late 1990s, is controversial and the validity of classifying the United States in this way is disputed. One notable opponent to this theory is Samuel P. Huntington, who rejects this theory in favor of a multipolar balance of power. Other international relations theorists such as Henry Kissinger theorize that because the threat of the Soviet Union no longer exists to formerly American-dominated regions such as Western Europe and Japan, American influence is only declining since the end of the Cold War because such regions no longer need protection or have necessarily similar foreign policies as the United States.
The Soviet Union and the United States fulfilled the superpower criteria in the following ways:
|Demography||Had a population of 286.7 million in 1989, the third largest on Earth behind China and India.||Had a population of 248.7 million in 1990, at that time the fourth largest on Earth behind China, India and the Soviet Union.|
|Geography||Largest state in the world (actually a federal superstate), with a surface area of 22,270,000 km2 (8,600,000 sq mi).||Third or Fourth largest country in the world, with an area of 9,630,000 km2 (3,720,000 sq mi).|
|Economy||GNP of $2.7 trillion in 1990 (equivalent to $5.3 trillion in 2019). Second largest economy in the world. Enormous mineral energy resources and fuel supply. Generally self-sufficient using a minimal amount of imports, although it suffered resource inadequacies such as in agriculture. Large-scale industrial production directed by centralised state organs leading to a high degree of inefficiency. Five-year plans frequently used to accomplish economic goals. Economic benefits such as guaranteed employment, free healthcare and free education provided to all levels of society. Soviet life expectancy and certain indicators of healthcare performance exceeded those of the United States, but often fell below the standards of the most developed Western European states. Economy tied to Central and Eastern-European satellite states.||GNP of $5.2 trillion in 1990 (equivalent to $10.2 trillion in 2019). Largest economy in the world. Capitalist market economic theory based on supply and demand in which production was determined by customers' demands, although it also included rising income inequality since 1979. Enormous industrial base and a large and modernized farming industry. Large volume of imports and exports. Large resources of minerals, energy resources, metals and timber. High standard of living with accessibility to many manufactured goods. Home to a multitude of the largest global corporations. United States dollar served as the dominant world reserve currency under Bretton Woods Conference. Allied with G7 major economies. Supported allied countries' economies via such programmes as the Marshall Plan.|
|Politics||Strong Marxist–Leninist state with extensive secret police apparatus, organized under a quasi-parliamentary system with strong fusion of powers, with checks and balances for both the executive and the judiciary primarily based on commanding the legislature's confidence. The Supreme Soviet enjoyed de facto parliamentary sovereignty despite a written constitution and nominal federalism as no court was vested with judicial review. As no formal office of President has existed, the standing legislature also served as a collective head of state. The only national-level popular elections were the quinquennial elections to the Supreme Soviet which were yes-or-no votes on candidates handpicked beforehand. However, radical government reforms in 1989 introduced competitive elections, a directly-elected executive President and a Constitutional Court, both having rudimentary separation of powers from the existing components of the system. One-party system with the Communist Party having an institutionalized monopoly of power. Permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.||Strong liberal constitutional republic, organized under a presidential system with strong separation of powers, with a complicated system of checks and balances exercised between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. The legislative powers of the United States Congress were limited both by the written constitution and by the federal nature of the national government. Despite the lack of a dedicated Constitutional Court, judicial review of laws has been vested in the Supreme Court by judicial precedent. The President was both head of state and head of government and his cabinet was not required to command congressional confidence. The only national popular elections were the biennial congressional elections. However. the quadrennial presidential election has de facto changed from an indirect election by an Electoral College into a direct, although weighted, popular election. Two-party system between Democrats and Republicans. Permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council along with two allies (France and the United Kingdom).|
|Foreign relations||Strong ties with Central and Eastern Europe, countries in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa. Also had an alliance with China up until 1961. Supported Marxist–Leninist countries around the world.||Strong ties with Western Europe, some countries in Latin America, the Commonwealth of Nations, several East Asian countries and Israel. Supported liberal democracies and anti-communist dictatorships around the world.|
|Military||Possessed largest armed forces and air force in the world and the second largest navy. Possessed bases around the world. Held the world's largest stockpile of nuclear weapons for the second half of the Cold War. Founder of Warsaw Pact with satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe. Global intelligence network with the GRU and the First Chief Directorate of the KGB. Ties with paramilitary and guerrilla groups in the developing world. Large arms industry production with global distribution.||Highest military expenditure in the world, with the world's largest navy surpassing the next 13 largest navies combined and an army and air force rivaled only by that of the Soviet Union. Possessed bases around the world, particularly in an incomplete ring bordering the Warsaw Pact to the West, South and East. Largest nuclear arsenal in the world during the first half of the Cold War. Powerful military allies in Western Europe with their own nuclear capabilities. Global intelligence networks with the Intelligence Community. Ties with paramilitary and guerrilla groups in the developing world. Large armament production through defense contractors along with its developed allies for the global market.|
|Media||Constitutional guarantees for freedom of speech and freedom of the press were made conditional both for fulfilling one's citizen's duties and for conformity with the interests of the government, thereby turning them into effective dead letters. Press explicitly controlled and censored. Promoted through the use of propaganda its socialist ideal that workers of all countries should unite to overthrow capitalist society and what they called the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and replace it with a socialist society where all means of production are publicly owned.||Maintained constitutional guarantees for freedom of speech and freedom of the press, although the ongoing Cold War did lead to a degree of censorship, particularly during the Vietnam War and the Second Red Scare when censorship was the heaviest.|
|Culture||Rich tradition in literature, film, classical music and ballet.||Rich tradition and worldwide cultural influence in music, literature, film, television, cuisine, art and fashion.|
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 which ended the Cold War, the post–Cold War world has in the past been considered by some to be a unipolar world,with the United States as the world's sole remaining superpower. In 1999, Samuel P. Huntington wrote: "The United States, of course, is the sole state with preeminence in every domain of power – economic, military, diplomatic, ideological, technological, and cultural – with the reach and capabilities to promote its interests in virtually every part of the world". However, Huntington rejected the claim that the world was unipolar, arguing: "There is now only one superpower. But that does not mean that the world is unipolar," describing it instead as "a strange hybrid, a uni-multipolar system with one superpower and several major powers". He further wrote that "Washington is blind to the fact that it no longer enjoys the dominance it had at the end of the Cold War. It must relearn the game of international politics as a major power, not a superpower, and make compromises".
Experts argue that this older single-superpower assessment of global politics is too simplified, in part because of the difficulty in classifying the European Union at its current stage of development. Others argue that the notion of a superpower is outdated, considering complex global economic interdependencies and propose that the world is multipolar.
A 2012 report by the National Intelligence Council predicted that the United States superpower status will have eroded to merely being first among equals by 2030, but that it would remain highest among the world's most powerful countries because of its influence in many different fields and global connections that the great regional powers of the time would not match.Additionally, some experts have suggested the possibility of the United States losing its superpower status completely in the future, citing speculation of its decline in power relative to the rest of the world, economic hardships, a declining dollar, Cold War allies becoming less dependent on the United States, and the emergence of future powers around the world. Others have pointed out that the US has four times the wealth of its nearest competitor China, and five to six times the military capacity, giving it a lead that will not soon be overcome.
According to a RAND Corporation paper by American diplomat James Dobbins, Professor Howard J. Shatz, and policy analyst Ali Wyne, Russia in the breakdown of a disintegrating unipolar world order, whilst not a peer competitor to the United States, would still remain a player and a potential rogue state that would undermine global affairs. The West could contain Russia with methods like those employed during the cold war with the Soviet Union, though this would be tested by Russia's overt and covert efforts to destabilize Western alliances and political systems. On the other hand, China is a peer competitor to the United States that cannot be contained, and will be a far more challenging entity for the West to confront. The authors state that China's military dominance in the Asia-Pacific is already eroding American influence at a rapid pace, and the costs for the US to defend its interests there will continue to rise. Moreover, China's economic influence has already broken out of its regional confines long ago and is on track to directly contest the US role as the center for economic trade and commerce.
However, while China was referred to as an emerging superpower that could potentially challenge the eroding status of the US as sole superpower, it still lacked several factors until recently, particularly global military power.
The term potential superpowers has been applied by scholars and other qualified commentators to the possibility of several political entities achieving superpower status in the 21st century. Due to their large markets, growing military strength, economic potential, and influence in international affairs, China,the European Union, India and Russia are among the political entities most cited as having the potential of achieving superpower status in the 21st century. In 2020, a new UBS survey found that 57% of global investors predicted that China would replace the U.S. as the world's biggest superpower by 2030. However, many historians, writers and critics have expressed doubts whether any of these countries would ever emerge as a new superpower. Some political scientists and other commentators have even suggested that such countries might simply be emerging powers, as opposed to potential superpowers.
Besides those mentioned above, a limited number of observers have also discussed, although ultimately dismissed, Brazil having the potential to emerge as a superpower.
The record of such predictions has admittedly not been perfect. For example, in the 1980s, some commentators thought Japan would become a superpower due to its large GDP and high economic growth at the time.However, Japan's economy crashed in 1991, creating a long period of economic slump in the country which has become known as The Lost Years . As of August 2012, Japan had yet to fully recover from the 1991 crash.
Pax Americana is a term applied to the concept of relative peace in the Western Hemisphere and later the world beginning around the middle of the 20th century, thought to be caused by the preponderance of power enjoyed by the United States. Although the term finds its primary utility in the latter half of the 20th century, it has been used with different meanings and eras, such as the post-Civil War era in North America, and regionally in the Americas at the start of the 20th century. Pax Americana is primarily used in its modern connotations to refer to the peace among great powers established after the end of World War II in 1945, also called the Long Peace. In this modern sense, it has come to indicate the military and economic position of the United States in relation to other nations. For example, the Marshall Plan, which spent $13 billion to rebuild the economy of Western Europe, has been seen as "the launching of the pax americana".
Superpower collapse is the political collapse of a superpower nation state; the term is most often used to describe the dissolution of the Soviet Union but also can be applied to the loss of the United Kingdom's superpower status.
A hyperpower is a state that dominates all other states in every domain and is considered to be a step higher than a superpower. The term often refers to the United States due to its status as the world's only current superpower; however, its possible status above that remains a topic of dispute.
Power in international relations is defined in several different ways. Modern discourse generally speaks in terms of state power, indicating both economic and military power. Those states that have significant amounts of power within the international system are referred to as small powers, middle powers, regional powers, great powers, superpowers, or hegemons, although there is no commonly accepted standard for what defines a powerful state. NATO Quint, the G7, the BRICS nations and the G20 are seen by academics as forms of governments that exercise varying degrees of influence within the international system.
A great power is a sovereign state that is recognized as having the ability and expertise to exert its influence on a global scale. Great powers characteristically possess military and economic strength, as well as diplomatic and soft power influence, which may cause middle or small powers to consider the great powers' opinions before taking actions of their own. International relations theorists have posited that great power status can be characterized into power capabilities, spatial aspects, and status dimensions.
In international relations, a middle power is a sovereign state that is not a great power nor a superpower, but still has large or moderate influence and international recognition.
The term "new world order" has been used to refer to a new period of history evidencing dramatic change in world political thought and the balance of power. Despite various interpretations of this term, it is primarily associated with the ideological notion of world governance only in the sense of new collective efforts to identify, understand, or address worldwide problems that go beyond the capacity of individual nation-states to solve.
"China's peaceful rise", sometimes referred to as "China's peaceful development", was an official policy in China under former paramount leader Hu Jintao which sought to assure the international community that China's growing political, economic, and military power would not pose a threat to international peace and security. It characterized China as a responsible world leader that avoids unnecessary international confrontation, emphasizes soft power, and vows that China is committed to its own internal issues and improving the welfare of its own people before interfering in world affairs. Furthermore, it sought to rebut the "China threat theory" and reestablish the view of China as a nonthreatening world power, as historically Chinese empires were regarded as less aggressive.
The American Century is a characterization of the period since the middle of the 20th century as being largely dominated by the United States in political, economic, and cultural terms. It is comparable to the description of the period 1815–1914 as Britain's Imperial Century. The United States' influence grew throughout the 20th century, but became especially dominant after the end of World War II, when only two superpowers remained, the United States and the Soviet Union. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States remained the world's only superpower, and became the hegemon, or what some have termed a hyperpower.
Polarity in international relations is any of the various ways in which power is distributed within the international system. It describes the nature of the international system at any given period of time. One generally distinguishes three types of systems: unipolarity, bipolarity, and multipolarity for three or more centers of power. The type of system is completely dependent on the distribution of power and influence of states in a region or globally.
The Cold War (1962–1979) refers to the phase within the Cold War that spanned the period between the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis in late October 1962, through the détente period beginning in 1969, to the end of détente in the late 1970s.
The balance of power theory in international relations suggests that states may secure their survival by preventing any one state from gaining enough military power to dominate all others. If one state becomes much stronger, the theory predicts it will take advantage of its weaker neighbors, thereby driving them to unite in a defensive coalition. Some realists maintain that a balance-of-power system is more stable than one with a dominant state, as aggression is unprofitable when there is equilibrium of power between rival coalitions.
The Chinese Century is a neologism suggesting that the 21st century will be geopolitically dominated by the People's Republic of China, similar to how "the American Century" refers to the 20th century and "Pax Britannica" refers to the 19th. The phrase is used particularly in the assertion that the economy of China will overtake the economy of the United States as the largest national economy in the world, a position it held in the 16th, 17th century and early 19th century. The Economist has argued that the "Chinese Century" has already begun, citing China's overtaking of the U.S economy in 2013, if calculated on a purchasing-power-parity basis.
The European Union (EU) has been called an potential superpower by scholars and academics like T. R. Reid, Andrew Reding, Andrew Moravcsik, Mark Leonard, Jeremy Rifkin, John McCormick and some politicians such as Romano Prodi and Tony Blair. They believe that the EU is a superpower, or will become one, in the 21st century – while noting that the concept of "superpower" has changed to one of soft power rather than the hard (military) superpowers of the 20th century. Others have challenged their views.
A potential superpower is a state or a political and economic entity that is speculated to be—or to have the potential to soon become—a superpower.
The Tragedy of Great Power Politics is a book by the American scholar John Mearsheimer on the subject of international relations theory published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2001. Mearsheimer explains and argues for his theory of "offensive realism" by stating its key assumptions, evolution from early realist theory, and its predictive capability. He readily acknowledges the inherent pessimism of offensive realism and its predictions because his world is one in which conflict between great powers will never see an end.
In its course, the Cold War became a growing threat to world peace and when it reached its highest form of confrontation, as a direct and indirect consequence, numerous people suffered great misfortunes. Since the end of the war up until its subsequent century, the Cold War had many effects on nation-states and targeted them in many economical and social ways, for example in Russia, military spending was cut dramatically since 1991 creating a decline in the Soviet Union’s military-industrial sector. Such a dismantling left hundreds of millions of employees unemployed thus affecting Russia’s economy and military
A Maritime power is a nation with a very strong navy, which often is also a great power, or at least a regional power. A Maritime power is able to easily control their coast, and exert influence upon both nearby and far countries. A nation that dominates the world navally is known as a maritime superpower.
Post-Cold War era is the period after the end of the Cold War. Because the Cold War was not an active war but rather a period of geopolitical tensions punctuated by proxy wars, there is disagreement on the official ending of this conflict and subsequent existence of the post-Cold War era. Some scholars claim the Cold War ended when the world’s first treaty on nuclear disarmament was signed in 1987, the end of the Soviet Union as a superpower amid the Revolutions of 1989 but it was truly ended with the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Despite this ambiguity, the end of the Cold War symbolized a victory of democracy and capitalism, giving a boost to the rising world powers of the United States and China and India. Democracy became a manner of collective self-validation for countries hoping to gain international respect: when democracy was seen as an important value, political structures began adopting the value.
The term foremost power has been used by political scientists and historians to describe the allegedly greatest power in the world, or in a given region, during a certain period of history. Multiple empires have been described as such, often for the same time period, resulting in a problematic assessment of the conflicting scholarly opinions and points of view on the matter. There is therefore a general lack of consensus between the various authors and scholars in reference to the nations and empires that were allegedly the world's most powerful at various points in history.
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