U.S. Remains The Only Superpower



We’ve all heard the term yet few seem to remember what it means. In a piece several months ago, fellow PolicyMic pundit Georgi Ivanov used the term to describe Russia, India, Japan, and Iran. If you pick up a paper or international affairs weekly, it is not uncommon to see the term applied to China. While it makes for colorful copy, using the term to describe any current state other than the United States represents a watering down of the term to a point that makes it a useless descriptor. To prove the point, we need only look at what it means to be a superpower and why by every measure, no country other than the U.S. fits the bill.   

A useful definition of a superpower comes from Andrei Gromyko who defined a superpower as “a country that has a say in every corner of the globe and without whose say nothing truly substantial can be achieved in any such corner.” No nation other than the United States fits such a description. In all measures of power (political, military, economic, cultural/soft power), the United States remains in a class of its own. Yes, China’s economy is surging, though anyone paying attention can see that its rise seems increasingly tenuous. Fitch Ratings has been warning of a possible ratings downgrade for China following concerns of its domestic borrowing. Regardless, two things remain fact — China’s growth and stability are unproven, whereas America has maintained an approximate 20% share of global GDP since the end of World War II, and America’s economy remains almost double that of China’s (approx. 20% v. 12%) in terms of global GDP. For India or China or anyone else to be considered a superpower, even on economic grounds (which still represents a bastardization of the term), they would have to have an economy equal to or greater than of the U.S. — and not just in terms of overall size, but in terms of per capita GDP.

And, when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of international relations, it is impossible to overlook the enormous power disparity between the U.S. and everyone else when it comes to military power — conventional and nuclear. For all the talk of China’s military modernization, the country still remains decades behind the U.S.

There is something to be said for the changing nature of power in the 21st century — technology and ideas may very well prove to be great equalizers or the true measure of a state’s power. But for the time being, economics and military strength remain essential power indicators and help us understand where everyone stands in the international pecking order.

It is impossible to dismiss that countries like China, India, and Brazil are indeed becoming more powerful and important players on the world stage. There is a shift in power away from the traditional centers to the peripheries. But does this mean we’re moving towards a multipolar world? Applying "superpower" status to China or any other country implicitly makes the suggestion. Again, we need to clarify the term. Polarity in international relations represent power centers. Multipolarity suggests just that — multiple centers of power. In a world with one superpower, as it is today, the world is unipolar, with the U.S. as the power center. In Europe’s hay-day, where Britain, Germany, and France were of roughly equal power capability and jostled for control and dominance of the continent and sea lanes, the world was said to be multipolar. But that’s the ticker — approximate power equality. China, Brazil, Russia, India — they may be on par with one another, but with the U.S.? Not quite. And this doesn’t even take into account institutional influence or the fact that the dollar remains the world’s reserve currency. We may be moving towards a multipolar world, but it won’t actually arrive anytime soon — definitely not as soon as some of my fellow pundits would have you believe.

It is important to look passed sensationalism and rhetoric when having frank and meaningful debates about international relations and the direction the world system seems to be moving. I have no doubt many of you will disagree with much of what I have said here — and I hope you do — but if we’re going to throw words around, it’s important that we remember what they mean.

Photo Credit: Shiraz Chakera