superpower geographies - physics & maths .2017-01-19 · superpower geographies . superpowers .


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    The concept of a superpower has developed to include economic, cultural, military and

    geographical influence, for example the development of the USA and USSR.

    Who are the superpowers?

    At present, the only superpower is the United States of America. Countries that used to be

    superpowers are Russia (as the USSR) and Britain (as the British Empire). Countries that may gain

    superpower status in the future include China and the other BRICS, and the European Union.

    Characteristics of superpowers

    A superpower must be able to conduct a global strategy, to command vast economic potential and

    influence and present a universal ideology. Superpowers have many common characteristics.

    Economic wealth brings global influence, money with which to develop infrastructure, and means

    with which to buy influence through foreign aid. Military power is often used as a threat or a

    bargaining chip. The superpower must have strong core beliefs and values which are believed to be

    superior to the beliefs of others. Resources are also required: land, fuel, minerals and people.

    USA and USSR

    After WW2, the USA and the USSR sought to increase their global dominance, starting a long period

    of hostile relations. The USA, a capitalist country, was strong militarily and industrially. It had been a

    creditor for countries weakened through war. Both countries build up arsenals and nuclear

    weapons. The USSR, a communist country, had a state-controlled economy. The USAs post-war

    policy was to contain the spread of Soviet influence.

    In the past, power was in the form of control, such as colonies, whereas nowadays it is economic, in

    the form of trade, capital flows and resources.

    How does their power develop over time?

    The British Empire once covered about 25% of the worlds land area and had 25% of its population in

    the past. However, the cost of fighting two world wars and the damage to the British economy and

    infrastructure meant that is could not afford to run its colonies. Moreover, many of the people in the

    colonies wanted independence from Britain. The post-war period therefore marked the decline of

    the former British Empire and the independence of the former colonies.

    The collapse of the USSR as a superpower was later and different. In 1979 Russia invaded

    Afghanistan in an attempt to prop up the communist government there. Russian troops were later

    withdrawn from Afghanistan in 1985. During this period the USA had developed the neutron bomb,

    cruise missiles and a Star Wars defence system with space satellites. Russia could not afford the

    arms race and its economy went downhill. The Russian president Gorbachev started Strategic Arms

    Reduction Talks. Free elections in Poland led to Solidarity, originally a banned trade union, gaining

    power, and this was followed closely by the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

  • Rising superpowers

    The economic rise of the BRICS and the oil-rich OPEC states brings economic benefits to many.

    Equally there may be economic costs to the existing superpowers and environmental and resource

    implications. In an increasingly globalised and interdependent world, it is likely that tensions will

    develop as power shifts.

    The BRICS increasingly challenge the post-Cold War order. This growing power can be explained by:

    Resources: Russia has huge oil and gas reserves, giving it economic power and energy

    weapons. The Gulf States have vast oil and gas resources. South Africa has the most

    resources in all of Africa.

    Alliances: EU growth from 6 countries in 1957 to an economic and political alliance of 28 in

    2015. The EU has a GDP of US$18.5 trillion, while the USA has a GDP of US$16.8 trillion.

    Economic power: Chinas phenomenal economic growth since 1990 has propelled it to

    become the third largest economy, after the EU and the USA, and turned it into the worlds

    manufacturing workshop.

    Demographic weight: some countries have economic potential because they are

    demographic superpowers China and India both have over 15% of global population and

    huge market potential.

    Nuclear weapons give countries power because they represent the ultimate threat. The USA,

    Russia, China, France and the UK all are recognised as nuclear states under the Treaty on the

    Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Pakistan, Israel, India and North Korea are not

    signatories to the Treaty but have nuclear weapons.

    Key terms

    Capitalism: an economic system for the generation of goods and services based on private

    enterprise. Most of the resources/means of production are owned by a relatively small number of

    individuals or companies. Workers convert their labour for wages.

    Cold War: the name given to the period of heightened tensions and competition between the USA

    and the USSR and their allies between 1945 and the early 1990s.

    Communism: a form of political development that envisages equality among people and a classless

    society. It is a type of revolutionary socialism based on the common ownership of the means of

    production and a shared economy. Each person should work according to their capacity and gain

    according to their capacity.

    Democracy: a form of political development in which the government is elected by the people in

    free elections.

    Rising superpowers: countries, or groups of countries, experiencing an increase in economic,

    military, cultural and geographic influence.

    Superpower: a nation or group of nations that has a leading position in international politics.

  • The geography of power and international influence can be seen through geographical patterns of

    military reach, trade and cultural dominance.

    Mechanisms of power

    Military presence and force is often considered a form of hard power. This includes large air, naval

    and land forces, nuclear weapons, military bases in foreign countries giving geographical reach,

    military alliances such as NATO, diplomatic threats to use force if negotiations fail, and the use of

    force. Superpowers use hard power mechanisms because they 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

    US$150 million base, reinforcing its superpower credentials. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation

    military alliance provides the USA with allies in North America (Canada), Europe (UK, France, Italy

    and others) and the Middle East (Turkey). NATO was important during the Cold War period when the

    USSR was considered the USAs superpower enemy.

    Aid and trade is considered to be between hard and soft power. Countries can favour certain trade

    partners by reducing import tariffs. Other forms of this power include trade blocs and alliances,

    providing allies with economic and technical assistance, using aid to influence policy or keep allies

    happy, and using economic sanctions against countries.

    Soft power is about culture and political ideology. This is promoted through the media to show a

    particular image and message about a country. Hollywood, for example, allows the USA to export its

    culture in the form of film, and Apple exports US culture as a recognised brand. Soft power gradually

    persuades doubters that a particular action or view is in their interests.

    The European Union

    Europe may be seen as a superpower.

    The EU has a population of about 493 million people, so it is one of the worlds largest

    superpowers, and most of the population is wealthy in global terms.

    In just 50 years, Europeans have made the likelihood of war between member nations


    The EU has brought a number of its countries out of dictatorship into democratic


    Surrounding the EU are 1.5 billion people who rely on the EU as their main trading partner

    and source of foreign direct investment and aid.

    Within the EU there are 28 different national governments, each with its own agenda, but

    despite differences, the EU attempts to incorporate and change countries into stable

    political and economic systems.

    The USA: evolution of a superpower

    After the Second World War, the USA had a greatly enhanced status and power. The Great

    Depression of the 1930s had been replaced by an economy stimulated by wartime production.

    Unlike Europe, the USA did not suffer from wrecked infrastructure. US involvement in the Second

  • World War the large-scale air and land campaigns in Europe and the island-hopping war against

    Japan in the Pacific set a precedent for the global projection of US military strength.

    The USA also encouraged the establishment of international institutions and international law. The

    United Nations headquarters were located in New York, and the World Bank and the International

    Monetary Fund were based in Washington. Although these were, and continue to be, international

    organisations, US institutions had greater access to them than if they had been located elsewhere.

    The growth of US military influence worldwide grew out of a number of doctrines. These included:

    The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 w