Concepts: Superpowers and Great Powers

A superpower is a term given to a country that has unmatched influence in global affairs, and is significant in international relations. No other state can challenge its authority, due to its superiority in military and economic capabilities, meaning it can manipulate the international environment to its best interests. A country like America, whose superpower status has not been disputed since the end of the second world war, has the ability to project power on a global scale.

Great power:

  • State deemed to rank amongst the most powerful in a hierarchal state system
  • Capacity to maintain their own security (NATO countries have primacy over their own military security)
  • Economically powerful (strong economies)
  • Mostly regional, sometimes global, interests
  • Influence international affairs


  • Power greater than a traditional power
  • ‘Great power plus great mobility of power’ – William Fox
  • Global reach
  • Strongest economies
  • superior military capacity (nuclear weaponry)
  • Dominate international affairs

The distinction between a superpower and a great power is blurred, with states dropping and then reclaiming such titles every few decades. Whilst America is declared the ultimate superpower, and has been since the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, it is often disputed as to how deserving America is of this title, and whether rising great powers, such as China, should be given such a status. Recent shifts in power have meant the titles used to define states are no longer acceptable because, although China is only considered a great power in terms of its military capabilities, its rising economies and influence over the asian region mean it is a firm competitor to the United States, and arguably has overtaken the US.

 The concept of a superpower is prone to debate and is sometimes given abstract definition, such as in a Times article about the US’ status as a superpower, where Ian Bremmer saw it as a country ‘that wields enough military, political and economic might to convince nations in all parts of the world to do things they otherwise wouldn’t’.

Arguably, the term ‘superpower’ is dated as the world stage is more crowded, with more countries competing to increase their share of power. The term suited the Cold War era but now there are far more powers on the rise. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the US as the sole remaining superpower- some may now see the world as unipolar. However, it is argued that the US is losing its superpower status with the emergence of major powers (particularly the BRIC countries) attempting to challenge the USA’s supremacy, the decline of the dollar and a diminished image throughout the world. Samuel P. Huntington argues that the US no longer has the dominance it possessed at the end of the Cold War and must “relearn the game of international politics as a major power, not a superpower, and make compromises.” This alludes to the idea that the world is now multipolar with no one ‘superpower’ dominating due to the growing interdependency between states through globalisation.

There are many great powers across the world, such as Japan, which has a strong economy (still tightly regulated and centered on large government banks- in other words not neoliberal) , a large military and admirable global influence. It also could be said to have some soft power, for example in the spread of its economic products especially technology) across the world. Yet it’s not a superpower, and not just because its might isn’t as prominent as America’s. This is for two reasons: 1) it doesn’t possess an alternative to the US led liberal world order and 2) it doesn’t want to. And with a slumping economy due to tight regulation, neoliberalism has become a more likely prospect following the election of Prime Minister Shinzo abe and his three arrows strategy. The US brand of liberal order fits a lot of countries just fine, and even China and Russia, as Ikenberry argues, embrace the logic of the US led framework, such as the UN and free markets.

Ilenya Nocivelli, Tasnia Uddin and Aidas Zvirblis


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