Superpower

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Superpower describes a state or supranational union that holds a dominant position characterized by the ability to exert influence or project power on a global scale.[1][2][3] This is done through the combined means of economic, military, technological, political, and cultural strength as well as diplomatic and soft power influence. Traditionally, superpowers are preeminent among the great powers. While a great power state is capable of exerting its influence globally, superpowers are states so influential that no significant action can be taken by the global community without first considering the positions of the superpowers on the issue.[4]

In 1944, during World War II, the term was first applied to the United States, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union.[5] During the Cold War, the British Empire dissolved, leaving the United States and the Soviet Union to dominate world affairs. At the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States became, and remains, the world's sole superpower, a position sometimes referred to as that of a "hyperpower".[6][7][8] Since the late 2010s and into the 2020s, China has been described as a new superpower,[9][10][11][12][13] as China poses "the most significant challenge of any nation-state in the world to the United States".[14][15][16][Note 1]

Terminology and origin[edit]

A world map in 1945. According to William T. R. Fox, the United States (blue), the Soviet Union (red), and the British Empire (teal) were superpowers.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and General Secretary Joseph Stalin, meeting at the Yalta Conference in Crimea in February 1945, near the end of World War II

No agreed definition of what is a superpower exists and may differ between sources.[7] 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.[17]

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 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 the 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.[18] 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[19] 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")".[20]

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)".[7]

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".[21] According to Professor June Teufel Dreyer, "[a] superpower must be able to project its power, soft and hard, globally".[22] 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".[23]

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".[24]

Cold War[edit]

This map shows two global spheres during the Cold War in 1980:
  NATO member states
  Other NATO and United States allies
× Anti-communist guerrillas
  Warsaw Pact member states
  Socialist states allied with the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact
  Other allies of the Soviet Union
× Communist guerrillas
  Socialist states not allied with the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact
  Neutral nations
× Other conflicts

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.[25] 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[26] 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.[27] 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.[28]

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.[29] 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.[30]

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.[7] 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.[31]

Post-Cold War era[edit]

Countries with the military bases and facilities of the present sole superpower – the United States
The New York Stock Exchange trading floor. Economic power such as a large nominal GDP and a world reserve currency are important factors in the projection of hard power.

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,[32][33] with the United States as the world's sole remaining superpower.[34] In 1999, political scientist and author 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".[35]

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.[36][37][38][39]

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.[citation needed] 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.[40][41][42]

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.[43][44][45][46]

Proposed early superpowers[edit]

Major economies from 1 AD to 2003 AD, according to Angus Maddison's estimates[47]

There have been many attempts by historians to apply the term superpower retrospectively, and sometimes very loosely, to a variety of entities in the past. Recognition by historians of these older states as superpowers may focus on various superlative traits exhibited by them. The first states to actually exert influence and project their power at a global level (and not just regionally) and to be in fact superpowers in the modern sense of the concept were the states of the Iberian peninsula, namely the Kingdom of Portugal and Habsburg Spain,[48][49] which inaugurated the European overseas expansion in the 16th century, establishing vast colonial empires. The signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas, establishing the division of the lands discovered by Portugal and Spain, nominally divided the world between these superpowers until 1580, when there was the Iberian Union between the crowns of the monarchies of these nations that lasted until 1640. During the 17th century the Portuguese Empire was largely replaced by the Dutch Empire that made much of the 17th century part of the Dutch Golden Age. Soon after the Spanish and Dutch Empires were joined by the French colonial Empire from 1643 until 1815[50][51] from the reign of King Louis XIV until the defeat of Napoleon in the Napoleonic Wars[52] though the French would then build a second colonial empire during the 19th century. After 1688, with the end of its Golden Age, the Dutch Empire was largely replaced by the British Empire,[18] after this country went through its Glorious Revolution in 1688 and its pioneering role in the industrialization process in the 18th century that would lead to global hegemony in the 19th century and early 20th century (before the World War I). By the end of the 19th century Germany had also acquired a colonial empire of notable size though smaller than those of Britain and France.

These are proposed examples of ancient or historical superpowers, taking into account that the knowledge of what the "known world" was constitued was extremely limited in past eras (for example, the ancient Romans never knew of the existence of the Americas or Australia and had extremely limited knowledge about East Asia). Many of the nations below were never superpowers in the modern sense (a nation capable of projecting power on a global scale), so in practice many were regional powers.

Archaic globalization (before 1500)[edit]

Note: Does not take into account city-states and stateless nomadic peoples.

Bronze Age[edit]

Middle East in the Early Bronze Age
Middle East in the Middle Bronze Age
Middle East and Mediterranean Sea in the Late Bronze Age (known by the Minoans and Mycenaean Greeks)
East Asia

Classical antiquity[edit]

Middle East and Mediterranean Sea in the Classical antiquity (known by the Ancient Greeks before the Hellenistic period)
Classical antiquity (known by the Ancient Romans in their Republican era)

Main reserve currency in the region: Drachma, minted by many state, most notably in the Ptolemaic Egypt

Classical antiquity (known by the Ancient Romans in their Imperial era)

Main reserve currency in the region: Roman Denarius, later replaced by the Roman Solidus.

Western Europe
East Africa
Indian Subcontinent
East Asia

Post-Classical Age[edit]

Near East and Mediterranean Sea in the Post-Classical Age (known by Medieval Europeans)

Main reserve currency in the region: Roman Solidus, later replaced by the Dinar, minted by the Caliphates.

Western Europe
East Africa
West Africa
Indian Subcontinent
East Asia
South America

Proto-globalization (1500-1800)[edit]

Planetary scale

According to historical statistics and research from the OECD, until the early modern period, Western Europe, China, and India accounted for roughly ⅔ of the world's GDP.[82]

Superpower collapse[edit]

Soviet Union/Russia[edit]

Dramatic changes occurred in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc during the 1980s and early 1990s, with perestroika and glasnost, the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, and finally the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. As early as 1970, Andrei Amalrik had made predictions of Soviet collapse, and Emmanuel Todd made a similar prediction in 1976.[83]

British Empire/United Kingdom[edit]

The Suez Crisis of 1956 is considered by some commentators to be the beginning of the end of Britain's period as a superpower,[84][85][86] but other commentators have pointed much earlier such as in World War I, the Depression of 1920-21, the Partition of Ireland, the return of the pound sterling to the gold standard at its prewar parity in 1925, the Fall of Singapore, the loss of wealth from World War II, the end of Lend-Lease Aid from the United States in 1945, the postwar Age of Austerity, the Winter of 1946–47, the beginning of decolonization and the independence of British India as other key points in Britain's decline and loss of superpower status.[87]

The Suez Crisis in particular is regarded by historians to be a political and diplomatic disaster for the British Empire, as it led to large-scale international condemnation, including extensive pressure from the United States and Soviet Union. This forced the British and the French to withdraw in embarrassment and cemented the increasingly-bipolar Cold War politics between the Soviet Union and United States. In the 1960s, the movement for decolonization reached its peak, with remaining imperial holdings achieving independence, accelerating the transition from the British Empire to the Commonwealth of Nations. As the Empire continued to crumble, the home islands of the United Kingdom later experienced deindustrialization throughout the 1970s, coupled with high inflation and industrial unrest that unravelled the postwar consensus. This led to some economists to refer to Britain as the Sick Man of Europe. In 1976, the United Kingdom had to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which it had previously ironically helped create, receiving funding of $3.9 billion, the largest-ever loan to be requested up until that point.[88][89] In 1979, the country suffered major widespread strikes known as the Winter of Discontent. All these factors were seen by academics, economists and politicians as symbolising Britain's postwar decline. Lastly, the Handover of Hong Kong to China was seen by experts as the definitive end of the British Empire.

Nevertheless, the United Kingdom today has retained global soft power in the 21st century, including a formidable military. The United Kingdom continues to have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council alongside only four other powers, and is one of the nine nuclear powers. Its capital city, London, continues to be regarded as one of the pre-eminent cities in the world, being ranked as a global city by the Mori Foundation.[90] In 2022, the United Kingdom was ranked the foremost European country in terms of soft power by Brand Finance.[91] However, it has been assumed by economists that more recent economic difficulties since the 2010s exacerbated by Brexit, a cost-of-living crisis, political instabilities and industrial disputes and strikes may have caused further permanent damage and erosion to Britain's lingering power.[92]

United States[edit]

In After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order[93] (2001), French sociologist Emmanuel Todd predicts the eventual decline and fall of the United States as a superpower. "After years of being perceived as a problem-solver, the US itself has now become a problem for the rest of the world." Since the 2010s, as a result of asymmetric polarization within the United States, as well as globally perceived U.S. foreign policy failures, and China's growing influence around the world, some academics and geopolitical experts have argued that the United States may already be experiencing a decay in its soft power around the world.[94][95]

Superpower disengagement[edit]

Superpower disengagement is a foreign policy option whereby the most powerful nations, the superpowers, reduce their interventions in an area. Such disengagement could be multilateral among superpowers or lesser powers, or bilateral between two superpowers, or unilateral. It could mean an end to either direct or indirect interventions. For instance, disengagement could mean that the superpowers remove their support of proxies in proxy wars in order to de-escalate a superpower conflict back to a local problem based on local disputes. Disengagement can create buffers between superpowers that might prevent conflicts or reduce the intensity of conflicts.[citation needed]

The term usually refers to various policy proposals during the Cold War which attempted to defuse tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States, largely because of the risk of any superpower conflict to escalate to nuclear war. Examples of one-sided disengagement include when Joseph Stalin decided to end Soviet support for the communist guerrillas in Greece during the Greek Civil War, and when Richard Nixon withdrew US troops from Vietnam in the early 1970s.[citation needed]

The more important candidates for disengagement were where Soviet and US forces faced each other directly such as in Germany and Austria. The Austrian State Treaty is an example of formal, multilateral, superpower disengagement which left Austria as neutral for the duration of the Cold War, with Austria staying out of the Warsaw Pact, NATO, and the European Economic Community. The 1952 Stalin Note is perhaps the most controversial proposal of superpower disengagement from Germany.[96][97]

Potential superpowers[edit]

Extant superpower Potential superpowers—supported in varying degrees by academics
  China
  India
  Russia

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,[98][99][100] the European Union,[2] India,[101] and Russia[102] 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.[103] However, many historians, writers, and critics have expressed doubts whether any of these countries would ever emerge as a new superpower.[104][105] Some political scientists and other commentators have even suggested that such countries might simply be emerging powers, as opposed to potential superpowers.[106] The European Union has been called a "regulatory superpower" due to the Brussels effect.[107][108][109]

The record of such predictions has 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.[110] However, Japan's economy crashed in 1991, creating a long period of economic slump in the country which has become known as the Lost Decades.

Increasing doubts have emerged around the potential of Russia to gain superpower status given its declining economy, severe military underperformance during the invasion of Ukraine, and its loss of influence in Central Asia, a region once dominated by Moscow for centuries.[111][112][113]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ While the source uses the term "Nation state", China is more accurately described as a "State" or a "Civilization state". True nation-states are rarely, if ever, achieved.

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