The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







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.



At the end of the Second World War, the United States emerged as a dominant power 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 technology infrastructure which had greatly advanced their military strength into a primary position. During 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 difficult 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.

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 the economy, the United States actually spends a far smaller percentage of its Gross National Product 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. 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." 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 Netherlands 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.

Potential superpowers

Countries which some analysts predict could achieve superpower status in the coming decades include:

People's Republic of China

China is normally considered to be the most likely candidate thanks to the world's largest population and the fastest growing major economy in the world (which ranks 2nd in PPP in 2004). China has nuclear weapons and the biggest army of a single state world-wide. China became the third country (after Russia and the USA) able to send humans into space. Another quite important factor is the strong and economically influential Chinese diaspora arround the world, especially in South East Asia. The biggest obstacle: The authoritarian and dictatorial political system could bring instability in the future. The Chinese economy is extremely 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.


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.

European Union

The European Union, if counted as a single unit would have the largest economy in the world before the United States. It has the largest number of military forces in the world if counted as one. 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.


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

Last updated: 05-06-2005 14:31:49