A superpower is a state with a dominant position in international relations and is characterised by its unparalleled ability to exert influence or project power on a global scale. This is done through the means of both military and economic strength, as well as diplomatic and soft power influence. Traditionally, superpowers are preeminent among the great powers (i.e. as the United States is today). The term first applied to the British Empire, the United States and the Soviet Union. However, following World War II and the Suez Crisis in 1956, the British Empire's status as a superpower was greatly diminished; for the duration of the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union came to be generally regarded as the two remaining superpowers, dominating world affairs. At the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, only the United States of America appeared to fulfill the criteria of being a world 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."
Besides the United States, the British Empire and the Soviet Union, there have been many attempts by historians to apply the term 'superpower' to a variety of past entities.
Terminology and origin
The terminology of a superpower is not clearly defined and as a consequence they 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; 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, the British Empire and the Soviet Union after World War II. This was because the United Kingdom, 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, 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 (1944), 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, there were (at that moment) three states that were superpowers: British Empire, the United States, and the Soviet Union. 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 in World War II.
According to Lyman Miller, "The 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, "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."
Superpowers of the past
Besides the United States, the British Empire and the Soviet Union, there have been many attempts by historians to apply the term superpower retrospectively, and sometimes very loosely, to a variety of past entities. Recognition by historians of these older states as superpowers may focus on various superlative traits exhibited by them. Examples of these ancient or historic superpowers include; Ancient Egypt, the Persian Empire, the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, the Portuguese Empire, the Spanish Empire, and the Empire of Napoleon.
According to historical statistics and research from the OECD, before the start of Western imperialism in Asia during the 1700s, Ancient China and Ancient India accounted for the worlds two largest economies by gdp output.
The Cold War
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 communism: planned economy and a one-party state, whilst the United States promoted the ideologies of liberal democracy and the free market. 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.
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, Samuel P. Huntington, 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:
|Soviet Union||United States|
|Politics||Strong Communist state. Anti-colonialist movements and labour parties. Permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Strong ties with Central and Eastern Europe, countries in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Also had an alliance with the People's Republic of China up until 1961. Supported Communist and socialist countries around the world.||Strong capitalist federation/constitutional republic. Permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council plus two allies (France and Britain) with permanent seats. Strong ties with Western Europe, some countries in Latin America, the Commonwealth of Nations, and several East Asian countries. Supported democracies and right-wing dictatorships around the world.|
|Culture||Press explicitly controlled and censored. Promoted, through the use of propaganda, its Communist and 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. Rich tradition in literature, classical music, and ballet.||Maintained constitutional guarantees for freedom of speech and freedom of press, though the ongoing Cold War did lead to a degree of censorship, particularly during the Vietnam War era and the Second Red Scare when censorship was the heaviest. Rich cultural influence in music, literature, film, television, cuisine, art, and fashion.|
|Military||Possessed largest armed forces and air force in the world, and the second of the world's largest navies. Possessed bases around the world, Also 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 GRU and the First Chief Directorate of KGB. Ties with paramilitary and guerrilla groups in the developing world. Large armament production industry 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 (NATO) with their own nuclear capabilities. Global intelligence networks, the CIA, NSA and DIA. 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.|
|Economy||GDP of $2.9 trillion in 1990. Second largest economy in the world. Enormous mineral energy resources and fuel supply. Generally self-sufficient using a minimal amount of imports, though suffered resource inadequacies such as in agriculture. Marxist economic theory based primarily on production: 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, free education on all levels formally assured for all citizens. Economy tied to Central and Eastern-European satellite states.||GDP of $5.2 trillion in 1990. Largest economy in the world. Capitalist free market economic theory based on supply and demand: production determined by customers' demands, though 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. U.S. 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.|
|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.|
|Geography||Largest country in the world, with a surface area of 22.27 million km².||Fourth largest country in the world (after the Soviet Union, Canada, China), with an area of 9,526,468 km².|
Post–Cold War era
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 that ended the Cold War, the post–Cold War world was sometimes considered to be a unipolar world, with the United States as the world's sole remaining superpower. In the opinion of Samuel P. Huntington, "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."
Experts argue that this older assessment of global politics was 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. According to Samuel P. Huntington, "There is now only one superpower. But that does not mean that the world is unipolar. A unipolar system would have one superpower, no significant major powers, and many minor powers." Huntington thinks, "Contemporary international politics" ... "is instead a strange hybrid, a uni-multipolar system with one superpower and several major powers."
A 2012 report by the National Intelligence Council said that America's superpower status will have eroded to merely being first among equals by 2030, but that the USA would still be the most important country in the world 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 the United States relative decline in power 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.
Some people doubt the existence of superpowers in the post Cold War era altogether, stating that today's complex global marketplace and the rising interdependency between the world's nations has made the concept of a superpower an idea of the past and that the world is now multipolar. However, the military dominance of the United States remains unquestioned, and its international influence has made it an eminent world power.
The term 'Potential superpowers' has been applied by scholars and other qualified commentators to the possibility of several states 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 and India are among the countries (or political entities) most cited as having the potential of achieving superpower status in the 21st century. However it is far from certain that some or all of these countries will ever emerge as superpowers. A number of historians, writers, critics have expressed doubts. Furthermore, some political scientists and other commentators suggest that such countries may simply be emerging powers, as opposed to potential superpowers. Pertinently, a country would need to achieve great power status first, before they could develop superpower status, and it could be disputed whether some of the countries listed above (e.g. India) are presently great powers.
Besides those mentioned above, a limited number of observers have also discussed the merits of Brazil having the potential to emerge as a superpower, while some academics have argued that a resurgent Russia may have the potential to re-emerge as a superpower.
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. However, Japan's economy crashed in 1991, creating a long period of economic slump in the country known as The Lost Years. As of August 2012, Japan has not fully recovered from the 1991 crash.
A hyperpower is a state that dominates all other states in every sphere of activity, and is traditionally considered to be a step higher than a superpower. British journalist Peregrine Worsthorne first coined the term in The Sunday Telegraph's the "Bush doctrine" on 3 March 1991. After the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, some political commentators felt that a new term was needed to describe the United States' position (Pax Americana) as the lone superpower. French Minister Hubert Védrine popularized the term in 1998, because from France's position, the United States looks like a hyperpower, although the validity of classifying the United States in this way is disputed.
The term has also been applied retroactively to dominant states of the past. In her book Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance - and Why They Fall, professor Amy Chua suggest candidates such as the First Persian Empire, the Tang dynasty of Ancient China, the Roman Empire, the Mongol Empire, and the British Empire as successful examples of historical hegemons, with the Spanish Monarchy, Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, and Third Reich as counters, and then reflects on assertions of the United States as a current modern hyperpower. In a historical context, it is usually understood to mean a power that greatly exceeds any others in its political environment along several axes; Rome did not dominate India or China, but did dominate the entire Mediterranean area militarily, culturally, and economically.
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