Superpower geographies

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Defining 'superpower'

  • Term 'superpower' first used during WWII to refer to the USA, the USSR, and the British empire.
  • Refers to a nation with the means to project its power and influence anywhere in the world, and to be a dominant global force.
  • True superpowers are rare, as it demands huge resources.
  • Some countries and country groupings are emerging as powerful forces and may attain superpower status in the future.
  • The EU and China are key contenders, wit hRussia, India, Brazil, and the oil-rich Gulf states powerful in particular ways.
  • Other countries fulfil regional power roles.
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Superpowers' forms of power

  • Military power. Access to nuclear weapons, and satellite and spy technology.
  • Economic power. Wealth allows superpowers to export their power around the world, buy resources, and influence trade patterns.
  • Cultural power. This includes the projection of a particular 'way of life' and cultural values.
  • Geographical power. The sphere of influence a superpower has. It might result from a physical or cultural ppresence in widespread locations.
  • Of all these, economic power is the most important as it is required to attain military power, spread cultural influence through trade and the media, and provide global geographical reach.
  • Arguably, today the USA is the world's only superpower. It is a major military force and the world's largest economy. Its cultural values have been spread globally and its cultural symbols are found worldwide.
  • Emerging and regional powers lack some forms of power. Japan has economic muscle, but lacks military power. In Latin America, Brazil acts as a regional power broker but its economic and military influence is confined to that region. China, as yet, lacks the cultural and geographical dominance of the USA.
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Superpower societies

There are fundamental differences in the ways various superpower societies are organised.

  • Imperialist system. E.g. the British empire. The culture, economy, and politics of Britain dominated its subordinate colonies. Democracy, in a limited form, existed only in Britain itself.
  • Capitalist system. E.g. the USA. The USA functions as a democratic capitalist system. There is a division between people who own business and make profit, and those who work for them.
  • Capitalist system. E.g. the USSR. Private ownership of the means of production was not allowed. The state owned all business and property, and was not a democracy.
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The geography of power

We can identify several ways the USA maintains its global hegemony.

  • The world's most powerful military machine. The US armed forces consists of 540,000 army personnel, 520,000 personnel in the navy and marines, and 330,000 personnel in the air force, 12 aircraft carriers, and 70 submarines.
  • Economically dominant. The Forbes Global 2000 list says that US-based companies accounted for 776 of the top 2000, followed by Japan with 331 and the UK with 132.
  • World trade and currency. The USA plays a major role in world trade, much of which is conducted in US dollars. The dollar is the world's reserve currency, so governments around the world hold reserves of dollars in their central banks.
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Cultural hegemony

  • The most obvious way of maintaining power is through direct force, usually in the form of police, army, and security forces.
  • However, power is not generally maintained in this way unless a society's leaders feel under threat of being overthrown by their people. 
  • The Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci described a particular type of power which he referred to as a hegemony or cultural hegemony. Gramsci, imprisoned in Mussolini's fascist Italy, was impressed by the way Mussolini maintained power without the need to resort to direct force. Gramsci believed power was maintained largely by consent. The values of those in power were accepted by people and this kept them in power. Education, religion and the media subtly reinforced the values of the powerful and maintained their hegemony. In such conditions, the ideology of the powerful simply becomes accepted as the 'way things are' and is rarely challenged. 
  • US cultural hegemony is largely unchallenged, at least for the moment. The dominance of US consumer culture can be identified through 'brand value'. The annual Business Week Interbrand survey identifies the most valuable global brands. In the 2008 survey, 53 of the top 100 brands by value were from the USA. 
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Changing patterns of power

  • Superpower status is not fixed. In the USA, there is concern that the country's superpower status is threatened. 
  • This is because the economic and population centre of gravity of the world is shifting towards Asia. 
  • In some ways it is inevitable that the USA will fall from its 'perch', if only because history suggests superpowers do not last for ever.
  • The nineteenth-century superpower was the British empire, which has emerged as the dominant global power during the eighteenth century. 
  • At its height, in 1921, the British empire held sway over about 458 million people, approximately one-quarter of the world's population. It covered about 36.7 million km squared, roughly a quarter of Earth's total land area.  
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The collapse of communism

  • The world changed dramatically following the collapse of communism. The process was rapid and pivoted around the key 'public' event of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This wall had for long symbolised the political separation of the Cold War superpowers.
  • The fall of communism in the eastern European Warsaw Pact countries took little more than 4 months. The cultural and economic hegemony of the USSR disintegrated overnight.
  • The causes of the collapse were reforms in the USSR begun in 1985 by President Mikhail Gorbachev.
  • The USSR itself collapsed in February 1990 when the Communist Party gave up its monopoly on power. This led to the break-up of the entire country, as nationalist tensions, kept in check by the Communist system, split the country apart.
  • In rapid succession the republics of the USSR, such as Latvia, Kazakhstan and Georgia, broke away to become independent nations.
  • The USSR portrayed its people as happy and healthy and willing to live within the Communist system because of the collective benefits it brought.
  • The speed of collapse might suggest force, rather than consent was more important in maintaining communism. 
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Emerging superpowers

The emerging superpowers (e.g. BRICs, the EU, oil-rich Gulf states) share one or more of the following;

  • Strong economic growth
  • Large populations
  • Access to key resources, especially fossil fuels.
  • Market economies
  • Regional power and influence

Global Trends 2025; A Transformed World, a report by the US National Intelligence Council in 2008, stated that:

  • 'A global multi-polar system is emerging with the rise of China, India and others'
  • 'The unprecedented shift in relative wealth and economic power roughly from West to East now under way will continue'
  • ''The United States will remain the single most powerful country but will be less dominant.
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The USA vs China

A weaker USA?

  • Vulnerability to terrorist attacks, such as 9/11 removing its veneer of invincibility.
  • Growing economic problems, such as the 2008 financial crisis.
  • A feeling that some of its foreign policy actions, such as the Iraq War and detention of terrorist suspects in Guantanamo Bay, were ill-conceived and have undermined its international authority.
  • Increased dependency on foreign oil and gas imports weakens its economic bargaining power.

A more influential China?

  • The 2008 Beijing Olympics were a showcase of Chinese culture, ingenuity, and techinal prowess.
  • In 2008, 70 of the world's largest companies were Chinese, compared to only 30 in 2002.
  • China's position as the world's biggest emitter of CO2 gives it new status and increasingly important role in the fight against global warming.
  • Chinese technology is advancing rapidly, as seen in the first Chinese space-walk in 2008.
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Modernisation theory

  • In the 1960s W. W. Rostow's modernisation theory was used to explain the dominance of the British empire and the USA. These were the first nations to experience the Industrial Revolution and this gave them an initial advantage over as yet unindistrialised countries and regions.
  • Rostow believed the economies of developed countries moved through five stages of economic development and that all countries would follow the same development pathway. Rostow was a strong believer in free trade and in a Western model of democracy and capitalism, 
  • Socialist and communist countries, such as the USSR, Cuba, and at that time, China, could not expect to develop unless they adopted this model. 
  • Rostow's model was influential and led to many developing countries attempting to create the preconditions for take-off by investing in key infrastructure and industries. Some of these countries, such as the Asian Tigers, succeeded, while others failed and found themselves burdened by debt.
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Dependency theory

  • Based on the work of A.G. Frank, and views the world as having an economically developed core and an underdeveloped periphery.
  • According to the theory, the capitalist core deliberately keeps the periphery in a state of underdevelopment by exploiting its cheap resources, taking its most skilled workers and selling it manufactured goods.
  • By this argument, the developing world actually helps the developed world to become wealthier. Frank calls this 'the development of underdevelopment'. 
  • Dependency theory argues that the developing world is placed in a position of selling its resources to the developed world for very little, while buying from it costly manufactured good, technology, and credit.
  • As the periphery remains underdeveloped, its most skilled people move to the developed world, further draining it of any chance to develop. 
  • Using this model, aid to the developing world could be seen as a way of preventing the periphery becoming too restless.
  • The rise of NICs (e.g. the Asian Tigers) seems to argue against dependency theory, as they are examples of countries that have developed. 
  • However, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Japan all received huge economic support and aid from the USAm as it was felt that strong capitalist economies in Asia were a way of containing Communist China.
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World systems theory

  • Wallerstein's theory attempts to overcome the problem of a two-tier core and periphery world.
  • More of an analysis of geographical patterns than a threory, Wallerstein's view is of a three-tier world.
  • This is a more dynamic model, as it allows for change to take place, with some countries entering the semi-periphery and even emerging to be part of the core. Dependency theory is much more static.
  • There are two conflicting explanations of the recent rise of China and India. Wallerstein takes the view that industrial capitalism was born in Europe and that the rise of China and India simply represents another stage in the growth and spread of the global economy.
  • In contrast, Frank sees the current situatio as simply a shift back to a much older world order, where China and India were powerful economic forces. This global system was replaced for some 500 years by European hegemony. Frank views Britain and other European powers as the first NICs. 
  • What remains unexplained is why the global centre of gravity should swing, first from Asia to Europe, and then back again.
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