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This article is about superpowers in the context of international relations. For superhuman abilities possessed by fictional characters, see superhero and supervillain.

A superpower is a state with the ability to influence events or project power on a global scale. In modern terms, this may imply an entity with a huge economy, a large population, and strong armed forces, including air and space power and a considerable arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Criteria for superpower status are described in more detail below.



At the end of the Second World War, the United States emerged as one of the two dominant powers on the global scene. As the majority of the war was fought far from its national boundaries, it did not suffer the industrial destruction or massive civilian casulties 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 1990's, 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 1990's. 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.

United States

The United States headed NATO, commonly known as the Western Bloc or the First World before 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.

Soviet Union

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 similiarities.

Superpowers in history

Although the term superpower is a recent one, the word has been retrospectively applied to previous military powers. The oldest superpower on the planet, and one which maintained this at various points in history, were the civilizations in Mesopotamia, with their unrivaled wealth, antiquity and cultural domination of Asia and beyond. The Roman Empire covered most of Europe, North Africa & Asia Minor. Imperial China once had the world's largest navy, a record not broken until early 19th century. The Mongol Empire spanned from southeast Asia to Eastern Europe. In 16th and 17th centuries the Ottoman Empire stretched from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Persian Gulf and challenged the nations of Europe in its advances along its southeastern border. During its Siglo de Oro, Spain had possession of Italy, Germany, The Netherlands and many colonies in the Americas. After gaining independence from Spain the Dutch Empire had territories all over the globe. At various times during its history France had the largest military in the world, with colonies in western Africa, North and South America and southeast Asia. At its peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the British Empire covered a quarter of the Earth's land area and comprised a third of its population. It was said "The sun never sets on the British Empire." Not as clearly in this category are nations that gained unquestioned hegemony over a large neighborhood at a time before global travel was a reality. Nations such as ancient Egypt, the Aztec Empire, the Persian Empire, and the short lived Greek/Macedonian empire under Alexander the Great could in one sense be considered early superpowers, at least for a time when an understanding of what is meant by "the world" was much smaller than it is today.

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 a pronounced cultural and economic ability to shape as well as absorb a variety of things.

- Pre-eminent military ability, characterized by relative invulnerability, the ability to deter or cause great damage and project military might globally.

- Possessing an attractive social and value system as well as evidence of the ability to lead and impose order in a state's regional environment.

- Having a functioning political system capable of mobilizing resources for world political goals, the potential to build alliances or establish linkages with capable partners.

- The existence of a political consensus on a concept of world order and the preparedness to be engaged in international forums.

Potential superpowers

These are countries that might end up having superpower status in the next decades or so.


China is normally considered to be the most likely candidate thanks to the world's largest population and one of the fastest growing economies in the world. China has grown around 9 percent a year for more than 25 years, the fastest growth rate for a major economy in recorded history. In that same period it has moved 300 million people out of poverty and quadrupled the average Chinese person's income. China has also a potent nuclear arsenal and the biggest army of a single state world-wide. China is the third country (after Russia and the USA) able to send humans into space. Only three nations currently have operational land-based ICBM systems: the United States, Russia, and China. Another important factor is the strong and economically influential Chinese diaspora arround the world, especially in South East Asia. However, many people regard the authoritarian political structure of China could bring instability in the future. The Chinese economy is relatively fragile as any sudden downturn could also usher in economic and political instability. Its large military is severely deficient in modern technology and is largely obsolete compared to the United States, Europe, and Japan. A widening gap between the rich and poor as well as the rampant corruption among the leadership are also major obstacles for China's path towards superpower status. China's dispute over Taiwan has also increased tensions between the United States and China thus compromising relations to a certain degree.


Similar to China, India has a population of over a billion, nuclear weapons, the world's 3rd largest military and 4th largest airforce, as well as a thriving economy (4th largest in PPP). India also enjoys the advantage of a big 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 undereducated lower class that has a tremendous gap with the middle and upper classes; widespread corruption, inefficiency, 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 500 million people and poverty levels have been falling consistently since the '90s. Today, approximately 20% of India's population lives in poverty. India's democratic foundations also ensure government stability.

European Union

The European Union, if counted as a single unit, would have the second largest economy and military in the world. Thanks to its highly developed economies Europe is a leading place for investment, science, and technology. The EU already has a tremendous cultural, political and economical attraction for surrounding states. It seems likely that other important states like Turkey and Ukraine will join the EU before 2025. The biggest obstacle: the EU at the moment is still too politically and militarily fragmented to be considered as a single power. Achieving superpower status would therefore depend on further progress in European integration and federalization. But Europe lacks not only an operative center, but strategic thinking, for it to be capable of acting on the world political stage. This deficit is likely to prove itself to be the Achilles' heel of a future EU superpower. Europe will be decisively and prominently relevant only once it has successfully developed a culture of world political thinking.


Brazil has a large population, a relatively developed R&D sector and the potential to form the core of a united South America. It is presently campaigning for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. However, Brazil suffers from many problems typical of so-called "developing countries," such as poor infrastructure, poverty, a massive rich-poor gap, unstable economy, and widespread corruption and inefficiency.


Japan is one of the most developed nations on Earth and currently the second biggest economy (at market exchange rates, not counting the EU). However Japan does not control access to its most important raw materials, currently possesses insufficient military defensive capacities and has no nuclear deterrent ability. There is at this point, no recognizable normative concept of international order coming from Japan. Japan also has a relatively small population, which is expected to decrease over the next few years.


Russia still possesses some attributes of a world power, especially the largest arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons. It also has the ability for manned space travel. Perhaps most important of all it is the largest country of the world and is in control over strategic raw materials. Russia definitly still has a powerful capacity for destructive force, which in light of the current delicate political situation is not calculable beyond the medium-term. However, Russia lacks the economic power that a superpower needs.

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