4.1 Superpower Geographies
4.1.1 What is a superpower?
Superpowers are countries with disproportionate power and influence so that they have more than the rest of the world and thus are the biggest decision makers. Superpowers are usually large countries in terms of population and physical extent. Physical size may provide a natural resource base that the superpower can thus exploit and draw on to develop their power and influence further. These countries have global influence with the world as their backyards, and other countries treat them with respect in the face of such power. Currently, there is only one true superpower – the USA.
The table below highlights the USA in comparison with the rest of the world in 2008 (since grown):
Rest of the World
USA as a % of the world
Number of the world’s 2000 largest TNCs
Carbon dioxide emissions
6 billion tonnes
27 billion tonnes
“a superpower must be able to conduct a global strategy… to command vast economic potential and influence and present a universal ideology” (Professor Paul Dukes, University of Aberdeen)
The definition emphasises:
The global nature of superpower status
The economic power of superpowers
The political and cultural viewpoint or vision/ideology that a superpower projects on the world
Superpowers have economic, cultural and military power resulting in global political influence. Other types of powers may not be as influential and do not dictate decisions:
1. Emerging superpowers – these have a growing influence, e.g. China. China has a growing economy and military power but less cultural influence than the americanisation and westernisation influence of the USA. The EU has considerable power, but EU decisions and policies are often compromises because they must be the collective view of 27 member states
2. Emerging powers – these are further away from superpower status. They include a re-emerging Russia, India, arguably Brazil, and the Persian Gulf States. These have powerful resources such as energy, but not an entire set of influential factors required
3. Regional powers –these play an important role in economic and political processes on their continent –e.g. south Africa and Japan
4.1.2 Maintaining power
International influence has to be maintained. Superpowers do this using different mechanisms, some of which are hard (overt) and some of which are soft (more subtle).
Superpowers use hard power mechanisms because these are the most obvious and threatening. The USA has an enormous military reach around the world giving it more military power than any other nation. Its military are present on every continent except Antarctica (but the USA has kept a permanently manned scientific base at the south pole since 1957 and in 2003 opened a new $150million base, reinforcing it’s superpower credentials). The NATO military alliance provides the USA with allies in North America (Canada), Europe and the Middle East. NATO was important during the Cold War period when the USSR was considered the USA’s superpower enemy over the possession of nuclear firearms.
4.1.3 Changing Geographies
The geography of superpowers changes over time as old superpowers decline and new ones emerge. The number of superpowers in existence at any one time can also change:
A uni-polar world is one dominated by one superpower
Bi-polar world is one where two opposing superpowers exist
Multi-polar world is one with three or more superpowers
The UK is the dominant global power, at one point controlling around 25% of the land area of the world
Increasing power in the USA and Russia, the rise of Nazi-Germany and the maintenance of the power of the British empire; arguably a multi-polar period
USA and USSR