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- This article is about superpowers in the context of international relations. For superhuman abilities possessed by fictional characters, known as super powers, see special attack.
A superpower is a state with the ability to influence events and project power on a 'super' scale. It was a term applied to the United States and the Soviet Union after the end of World War II. One common claim is that any retrospective application of the term to an earlier Great Power or Global Empire is anachronistic. However this temporal limit is disputed as arbitrary by those who see the concept of superpower being validly applied to pre 1945 states that meet its criteria. The usual candidates for this argument being Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, France, Britain and Russia at their peaks during the European colonial era from the end of the fifteenth century until 1945. These historic powers frequently exercised their power by manifold methods beyond their territories. In this view "superpower" is approximately equated with the older concept of "great power", though it also requires that the state have singular strength relative to most rivals, which is not needed in the notion of a great power, and that there is evidence of some sort of global reach. The most definitive precedents for this interpretation are that of Spain from 1525 to 1643 and Britain from 1814 to 1914. Other less certain candidates have included China at various times, the Ottoman Empire, the Ummayad Empire, the Mongol Empire, the Roman Empire, the empire of Alexander the Great, the Persian Empire and even such powers as ancient Egypt, the Aztec Empire and the Inca Empire.
As the majority of the war was fought far from the United States' national boundaries, it did not suffer the industrial destruction or massive civilian casualties which marked the wartime situation of the countries in Europe or Asia, and during the war the U.S. had built up a strong industrial and technological infrastructure which had greatly advanced their military strength into a primary position.
Following the war, much of Europe had also been occupied by another Allied power, the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin. Despite attempts to create multinational coalitions or legislative bodies (such as the United Nations), increasingly it became clear that both the USA and the USSR were the dominant political and economic powers of the newly emerging Cold War, and had very different visions about what the postwar world ought to look like.
The term "superpower" was first used in this context in 1930, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but did not pick up as a primarily descriptive term for the USA and USSR until the immediate postwar years (in the 1920s the term was used to describe electrification). It implied that these two nations were part of an emerging bipolar world, in contrast with a previous multipolar world. Whether a true reflection or not, a number of nations undertook various programs to guarantee their own independent "superpower" status, such as the development of nuclear weapons by the United Kingdom, France, and China, as conscious attempts for military independence from the USA and USSR as well as a rite of passage for being a "world player".
The idea that the Cold War period revolved around only two nations, or even only two blocs, has been seriously challenged by 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 which occurred without influence from either of the two so-called superpowers. Additionally, much of the conflict between the superpowers was fought in "proxy wars", which more often than not involved issues far more complex than the standard Cold War oppositions.
After the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s, the term hyperpower has been applied to the United States as the sole remaining superpower of the Cold War era. This term was coined by French foreign minister Hubert Védrine in the 1990s. The validity of classifying the USA as a hyperpower is controversial. One notable opponent to this theory, Samuel P. Huntington, rejects this theory in favor of a multipolar balance of power.
The United States headed NATO (also referred to as the First World or, sometimes, as the "Western Bloc", as compared to the Eastern Bloc) during the Cold War. In the post-Cold War era, the United States is the world's sole remaining superpower, with the world's largest economy, and spending more on the military than the next twelve countries combined. However, due to the size of its economy, the United States actually spends a far smaller percentage of its Gross National Product on its military than many countries, even as it outspends its nearest rivals in absolute terms--a fact that testifies to the USA's status as a global hyperpower.
The Soviet Union was the United States' superpower rival during the Cold War. The Soviet Union was not just a superpower rival, but also an ideological rival, representing the ideology of Communism in opposition to the capitalism of the west. The Soviet Union headed the Warsaw Pact and was commonly known as the Eastern Bloc or the Second World. The Soviet Union was a military and political superpower, economically it rated as a major power with emerging power similarities.
Criteria defining the status of a superpower
- Superior economic power, characterized by access to raw materials, volume and productivity of the domestic market, a leading position in world trade as well as global financial markets, innovation and the ability to accumulate capital.
- A large population, high level of education, well-developed infrastructure, and pronounced cultural and economic ability to shape the regions around them as well as the ones under direct control.
- Pre-eminent military ability, characterized by relative invulnerability, ability to deter or cause great damage, and capacity to project military might globally.
- Functioning political system capable of mobilizing resources for world political goals.
These are countries that many observers believe may attain superpower status within this century.
The People's Republic of China is often considered to be the most likely candidate due to its large and stable population, to its rapidly growing economy and to it's rapidly growing military spending and capabilities.
China's population is the world's largest, with about 1.3 billion citizens. With the global human population currently estimated at about 6.4 billion, China is home to approximately 20%. Because of the One Child Policy China's population has stabilized. This policy combined with the rapid rising of the living standard causes a rapidly aging population. In 2004 about 7% of the population was older than 65, but in 2050, about 25% of the population will be. Because in most countries the evolution of to an older population happens after the evolution to economic welfare, it is expected that China's growth to economic welfare will be slown down by its aging population.
China's GDP has grown at a rate of about 9 percent per annum for more than 25 years (although recently the government has sought to slow this growth to prevent a crash), the fastest growth rate for a major economy in recorded history. The economy of China is now the second largest in the world when measured by purchasing power parity, with a GDP (PPP) of US $7.124 trillion in 2004. In the same period of time, it has moved 300 million people out of poverty and quadrupled the average Chinese person's income - yet China's per capita median income is still below that of traditional developing nations like Mexico and Turkey.
China also has a significant nuclear deterrent and the largest army worldwide, and it's military expenditure doubled between 1997 and 2003, and is still increasing at a fast rate. However, China's military capabilities are still dwarfed by that of the United States, whose military spending outstrips that of its next major competitors combined. The U.S. military also has military bases all around the world. Though China currently also has, like Russia and the U.S., operational land-based ICBM systems, it is the USA that possesses the most lethal strategic capability, as it has a more reliable arsenal than Russia and a massive numerical edge in ICBMs over China.
China was also the third country (after the former Soviet Union and the USA) to send humans into space. Another important factor is the strong and economically influential Chinese diaspora around the world, especially in South East Asian countries like Malaysia.
- See also: Economy of the People's Republic of China, China's military spending, People's Liberation Army, Military of Russia, U.S. Military
Russia still possesses some attributes of a world power, notably including the world's largest arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons, inherited from the USSR. It also has the proven ability to conduct manned space travel. Perhaps most importantly, it is the geographically largest country of the world and has control over a variety of strategic raw materials. Russia still has a clear capacity for destructive force, which in light of the current delicate political situation is not calculable beyond the medium-term. As one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia also has notable political influence in the world.
However, Russia's economy is generally thought to be unstable and less competitive on a global scale. The population has been shrinking since the fall of the Soviet Union and is predicted to fall even lower within the next 10 years, due to drastically shortened life expectancies since 1990 and falling birthrates. Life in what was one of the safest (if dreariest) places in the world has become rife with danger and insecure for most people. Furthermore, Russia is unable to control Chechen separatism and terrorism that is threatening neighbouring areas in the south and could lead to the break up of the south of the country. Russia is also unable to prevent illegal Chinese immigration into Asian Russia which may cause the eventual loss of that mineral rich region. A major brain drain of Russia's vast coterie of high quality scientists and engineers, a legacy of its excellent Soviet era education system, is also occurring and undermining Russia's long term economic development. Out of control post Soviet corruption diverts vast sums of government resources away from valuable programs. The Russian people have been thoroughly demoralised and humiliated by the rushed democratic and free market experiment and look to an increasingly authoritarian leadership to stamp out exploding private crime, both ordinary and corporate, official corruption and regional insurgencies. The challenges faced are vast.
Similar to China, India has a population of over one billion, nuclear weapons, the world's 2nd largest land-force and 4th largest airforce, as well as a thriving economy (4th largest in PPP). India also enjoys the advantage of a large and well-educated English-speaking workforce. The biggest obstacle: India is still a "developing" country in many respects with poor infrastructure, a huge poor and under-educated lower class that has a tremendous gap with the middle and upper classes; widespread corruption, brain-drain, social and ethnic tensions as well as potential conflict with its neighbor and rival, Pakistan. Despite India's widespread poverty, the Indian middle class consists of approximately 200 million people and poverty levels have been falling consistently since the '90s, though in rural areas, where most Indians still live, there has been little improvement. Today, approximately 20% of India's population lives in absolute poverty. It is thought that India's democratic foundations ensure some kind of long term government stability.
The European Union contains the former world powers United Kingdom, Germany and France. If counted as a single unit, the E.U. would have the largest economy in the world, as well as formidable military potential. Thanks to its highly developed economies, the European Union as a whole is one of the leading places for investment, science, and technology, though it is lagging behind in R&D expenditures (in % of GDP) compared to the United States and Japan. The EU already has a tremendous cultural, political and economical attraction for surrounding states. At present, transitionally industrial countries such as Croatia and Turkey are actively seeking full EU membership. The political and military fragmentation presents the greatest obstacle to the EU's status as a single superpower. This status would likely depend on further progress in European integration and federalization. This is marred by the fact that large proportions of some of the member states, namely the United Kingdom, are more against the European Union than for further intergration. The repudiation of the new European constitution by the voters of founder nations and EU stalwarts, France and the Netherlands, in 2005, unexpectedly undermined plans for closer integration. Future political developments will determine the place of the EU in world events.