U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, then leaders of the Cold War's rival superpowers, meeting in Geneva, Switzerland in November 1985

Superpower is a term used to describe a state with a dominant position, which is characterised by its extensive ability to exert influence or project power on a global scale. This is done through the combined-means of economic, military, technological and cultural strength, as well as diplomatic and soft power influence. Traditionally, superpowers are preeminent among the great powers.

The term was first applied post World War II to the British Empire, the United States and the Soviet Union. However, after the end of World War II and the Suez Crisis in 1956, the United Kingdom's status as a superpower was greatly diminished, leaving just the United States and Soviet Union as superpowers. For the duration of the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union came to be generally regarded as the two remaining superpowers, dominating world affairs. At the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, only the United States appeared to fulfill the criteria of being a world superpower.[1][2][3]

Alice Lyman Miller defines a superpower as "a country that has the capacity to project dominating power and influence anywhere in the world, and sometimes, in more than one region of the globe at a time, and so may plausibly attain the status of global hegemony."[4]

Terminology and origin

A world map in 1945. According to William T.R. Fox, the United States (blue), the Soviet Union (red) and the British Empire (teal) were superpowers.
A world map. The United States remains the world's sole superpower.

No agreed definition of what is a 'superpower' exists, and may differ between sources.[2] However, a fundamental characteristic that is consistent with all definitions of a superpower is a nation or state that has mastered the seven dimensions of state power: geography, population, economy, resources, military, diplomacy and national identity.[5]

The term was first used to describe nations with greater than great power status as early as 1944, but only gained its specific meaning with regard to the United States, the United Kingdom and its empire and the Soviet Union after World War II. This was because the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union had proved themselves to be capable of casting great influence in global politics and military dominance. The term in its current political meaning was coined by Dutch-American geostrategist Nicholas Spykman in a series of lectures in 1943 about the potential shape of a new post-war world order. This formed the foundation for the book The Geography of the Peace, which referred primarily to the unmatched maritime global supremacy of the British Empire and United States as essential for peace and prosperity in the world.

A year later, in 1944, William T. R. Fox, an American foreign policy professor, elaborated on the concept in the book The Superpowers: The United States, Britain and the Soviet Union — Their Responsibility for Peace, which spoke of the global reach of a super-empowered nation.[6] Fox used the word Superpower to identify a new category of power able to occupy the highest status in a world in which, as the war then raging demonstrated, states could challenge and fight each other on a global scale. According to him, there were (at that moment) three states that were superpowers: the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union. The British Empire was the most extensive empire in world history and considered the foremost great power, holding sway over 25% of the world's population[7] and controlling about 25% of the Earth's total land area, while the United States and the Soviet Union grew in power before and during World War II.

According to Lyman Miller, "The basic components of superpower stature may be measured along four axes of power: military, economic, political, and cultural (or what political scientist Joseph Nye has termed “soft power”)".[4]

In the opinion of Kim Richard Nossal of Queen's University in Canada, "generally this term was used to signify a political community that occupied a continental-sized landmass, had a sizable population (relative at least to other major powers); a superordinate economic capacity, including ample indigenous supplies of food and natural resources; enjoyed a high degree of non-dependence on international intercourse; and, most importantly, had a well-developed nuclear capacity (eventually normally defined as second strike capability)."[2]

In the opinion of Professor Paul Dukes, "a superpower must be able to conduct a global strategy including the possibility of destroying the world; to command vast economic potential and influence; and to present a universal ideology". Although, "many modifications may be made to this basic definition".[8] According to Professor June Teufel Dreyer, "A superpower must be able to project its power, soft and hard, globally."[9] In his book, Superpower: Three Choices for America's Role in the World, Dr. Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, argues that a superpower is "a country that can exert enough military, political, and economic power to persuade nations in every region of the world to take important actions they would not otherwise take."[10]

Other Languages
Afrikaans: Supermoondheid
العربية: القوى العظمى
azərbaycanca: Super güc
беларуская: Звышдзяржава
čeština: Supervelmoc
chiShona: Mhitsa dzehondo
Cymraeg: Uwchbwer
dansk: Supermagt
Deutsch: Supermacht
Ελληνικά: Υπερδύναμη
Esperanto: Superpotenco
فارسی: ابرقدرت
français: Superpuissance
한국어: 초강대국
हिन्दी: परमशक्ति
Bahasa Indonesia: Adikuasa
italiano: Superpotenza
עברית: מעצמת-על
kurdî: Kelehêz
lietuvių: Supervalstybė
മലയാളം: വൻശക്തി
Nederlands: Supermacht
日本語: 超大国
norsk: Supermakt
norsk nynorsk: Supermakt
português: Superpotência
română: Superputere
русский: Сверхдержава
Scots: Superpouer
Simple English: Superpower
slovenščina: Velesila
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Supersila
suomi: Supervalta
svenska: Supermakt
தமிழ்: வல்லரசு
тоҷикӣ: Абарқудрат
Türkçe: Süper güç
українська: Наддержава
Tiếng Việt: Siêu cường quốc
吴语: 超级大国
粵語: 超級大國
中文: 超级大国