A superpower is a state with a leading position in the international system and the ability to influence events and project power on a worldwide scale; it is traditionally considered to be one step higher than a great power. Alice Lyman Miller (Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School), 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 hegemon." It was a term first applied in 1944 to the United States, the Soviet Union, and the British Empire. Following World War II, as the British Empire transformed itself into the Commonwealth and its territories became independent, the Soviet Union and the United States generally came to be regarded as the only two superpowers, and confronted each other in the Cold War.
After the Cold War, the most common belief held is that only the United States fulfills the criteria to be considered a superpower, although it is a matter of debate whether it is a hegemon or if it is losing its superpower status. China, the European Union, India and Russia are also thought to have the potential of achieving superpower status within the 21st century. Others 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.
There have been attempts to apply the term superpower retrospectively, and sometimes very loosely, to a variety of past entities such as Ancient Egypt, Ancient China, Ancient Greece, the Persian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Mongol Empire, Portuguese Empire, the Spanish Empire, the Dutch Republic and the British Empire. Recognition by historians of these older states as superpowers may focus on various superlative traits exhibited by them. For example, at its peak the British Empire was the largest the world had ever seen.
The term in its current political meaning was coined in the book The Superpowers: The United States, Britain and the Soviet Union – Their Responsibility for Peace (1944), written by William T.R. Fox, an American foreign policy professor. The book 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: Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. The British Empire was the most extensive empire in world history, which was considered the foremost great power and by 1921, held sway over 25% of the world's population and controlled about 25% of the Earth's total land area, while the United States and the Soviet Union grew in power in World War II.
The criteria of a superpower are not clearly defined and as a consequence they may differ between sources.
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”).
In the opinion of Kim Richard Nossal of McMaster 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)."
Former Indian National Security Advisor Jyotindra Nath Dixit has also described the characteristics of superpowers. In his view, "first, the state or the nation concerned should have sizable territorial presence in terms of the size of the population. Secondly, such a state should have high levels of domestic cohesion, clear sense of national identity and stable administration based on strong legal and institutional arrangements. Thirdly, the state concerned should be economically well to do and should be endowed with food security and natural resources, particularly energy resources and infrastructural resources in terms of minerals and metals. Such a state should have a strong industrial base backed by productive capacities and technological knowledge. Then the state concerned should have military capacities, particularly nuclear and missile weapons capabilities at least comparable to, if not of higher levels than other countries which may have similar capacities.
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.
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 or 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, 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 either with 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 Soviet Union and the United States fulfilled the superpower criteria in the following ways:
|Soviet Union||United States|
|Political||Strong Socialist Republic. Had permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Strong ties with Eastern Europe and the developing world. Strong ties with anti-colonialist movements and labour parties.||Strong Capitalist Republic. Permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Strong ties with Western Europe, Latin America, British Commonwealth, and several East Asian countries.|
|Geographic||Largest country in the world, with a land area of 22.27 million km²||Third largest country in the world, with an area of approximately 9.6 million km².|
|Cultural||Wielded influence through communist governments and left-wing dictatorships and organizations around the world. Rich cultural heritage based around classical music, ballet, literature, theatre, chess.||Influential in music, TV, films, art, and fashion. Freedom of speech and other guaranteed rights for residents. Wielded influence by supporting right-wing dictatorships in undeveloped countries and democracy in developed countries.|
|Military||Essentially land-based: Largest armed forces in the world, one of the two most powerful air forces, one of the strongest navies. The capability to develop advanced military and space technologies, and the world's largest stockpile of nuclear weapons for the second half of the Cold War. As well as a global intelligence network (KGB).||Essentially naval-based: World's largest and most powerful navy with amphibic capabilities, bases all over 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 — stationed on its own soil and also in Europe. One of the largest armies in the world,and one of the two most powerful air forces in the world. Powerful military allies in Western Europe (NATO).|
|Economic||Second largest economy in the world. Enormous mineral and energy resources and large farming areas. Largely self-sufficient. Marxist economic theory based primarily on production: industrial production directed by centralized state organs.||Largest economy in the world. Large resources of minerals, metals, and timber, large and modernized farming industry alongside an enormous industrial base. Western economic theory based on supply and demand: production determined by customers' demands.|
|Demographic||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.|
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, coined by French foreign minister Hubert Védrine in the 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 Japan and Western Europe, 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.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 that ended the Cold War, the post-Cold War world was sometimes considered as a unipolar world, with the United States as the world's sole remaining superpower. In the words 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."
Most 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."
Additionally, there has been some recent speculation that the United States is declining in relative power as the rest of the world rises to match its levels of economic and technological development. Citing economic hardships, Cold War allies becoming less dependent on the United States, a declining dollar, the rise of other great powers around the world, and decreasing education, some experts have suggested the possibility of America losing its superpower status in the distant future or even at the present.
Academics and other qualified commentators sometimes identify potential superpowers thought to have a strong likelihood of being recognized as superpowers in the 21st century. 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.
Due to their large populations, growing military strength, and economic potential and influence in international affairs, People's Republic of China, the European Union, India, and Russia. are among the powers which are most often cited as having the ability to influence future world politics and reach the status of superpower in the 21st century. While some believe one (or more) of these countries will replace the United States as a superpower, others believe they will rise to rival, but not replace, the United States. Others have argued that the historical notion of a "superpower" is increasingly anachronistic in the 21st century as increased global integration and interdependence makes the projection of a superpower impossible.