World superpowers, also called global superpowers, are the world’s most powerful nations. Superpowers assume dominant positions on the world stage and are characterized by their ability to exert influence or project power (or aid) on a global scale. The economic, military, and foreign policies of superpowers are watched closely by other countries and can greatly impact the rest of the world. Britannica insightfully defines a superpower as "a state that cannot be ignored on the world stage and without whose cooperation no world problem can be solved."
The term “global superpowers” first appeared after World War II and was applied to the United States and the Soviet Union. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. dominated world affairs during the Cold War, and neither made a move without considering the reaction of the other (hence Britannica's reference to cooperation). Some experts argue that only the U.S. remained a superpower after the Soviet Union dissolved/downsized to become Russia in the early 1990s. Today, opinions differ as to whether the U.S. remains the only global superpower or whether it is one of a small, select group of superpowers.
The United States is the one country today whose global superpower status is indisputed. In fact, some experts argue that the U.S. is currently the world's only true superpower. The U.S. is the world’s most dominant military and economic power, with a military budget of US$778 billion for 2020 and a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US$20.9 trillion. The United States spends more on defense than the next nine highest-spending countries (China, India, Russia, the U.K., Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, and South Korea) combined.
The U.S. also has strong economic growth capacity. According to Tufts University political scientist Michael Beckley, long-term economic growth depends upon a country's geography, demography (people), and political institutions, and the United States is better-positions than competing powers in all three categories, being "big (geographically), young, and highly educated" with a healthier government than competing superpowers.
Given its strengths, some experts argue that the United States' greatest vulnerability is possible decay from within, particularly given the current highly divided political climate. An example of this division is the Presidency of Donald Trump, whose actions on immigration, foreign policy, trade, and military strategy were often viewed as less cooperative than those of previous administrations, and garnered significant attention—and often criticism—even from the United States’ closest allies. Some of the most impactful moves made during Trump's tenure included withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, banning citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., leaving the Paris climate accord, and conducting military actions including a January 2020 drone strike on Iran.
Trump's successor, President Joe Biden, has walked back many of Trump's foreign policy changes and decisions. For instance, Biden lifted the "Muslim ban", canceled Trump's planned withdrawal from the World Health Organization, and rejoined the Paris climate accord in 2021.
China is considered to be an emerging superpower or a potential superpower. Some experts argue that China will pass the United States as a global superpower in the coming decades. China’s 2020 GDP was US$14.7 trillion, the second-highest in the world. It is also the most populous country in the world. While China’s defense spending is significantly lower than that of the United States at $252 billion, it is still the second-highest in the world. Additionally, China continues to gain ground on the world stage: increasing its diplomatic reach, rising to become one of the largest contributors to the global economy, and pushing technological advances—especially in artificial intelligence (AI) and green technology.
That said, China must overcome some significant hurdles in its path. Its population is large, but rapidly aging and highly undereducated, with more than 2/3 of its workers lacking a high-school education. The sheer number of Chinese citizens puts a constant strain on the country's resources, and pollution and malnutrition are ongoing concerns. The Chinese government is also often cited as a hindrance to growth due to its deep corruption and willingness to sacrifice economic growth and the personal advancement of its citizens in order to maintain control.
The European Union (EU) is considered to be an emerging superpower by many scholars. However, the EU's progress toward becoming a global superpower has been greatly hampered, first by the European sovereign debt crisis from 2008 to 2012 and then by "Brexit", in which the United Kingdom officially left the EU in 2020. The EU’s 2020 GDP was 15.2 trillion, larger than China's. Although the EU lacks a combined army as of 2022, several of its members, such as Germany, the UK, and France, have very substantial military capabilities.
Despite these strengths, some experts argue that the EU might not be sustainable with so many member nations, each with its own unique economic and political interests and priorities. Additionally, the EU lacks a unified foreign policy and cannot (as of 2022) effectively project military power worldwide.
India is a potential global superpower. India is the world’s second-most populous nation and is expected to pass China’s population by 2025. India has matched its growing population with significant economic growth and has the largest and youngest workforce in the world.
India has also built up its military to secure its borders from potentially hostile neighbors such as Pakistan and China. The Indian military boasts about 100 nuclear warheads and two aircraft carriers (with a third on the way), establishing India as one of the few nations in the world that is capable of projecting military influence anywhere. In addition to its growing population, booming economy, and strengthened military force, India also has the third-most billion-dollar start-up businesses in the world, trailing only the U.S. and China.
Whether Russia is a global superpower in today's world is a matter of some debate, but there is no doubt that its predecessor, the Soviet Union, was absolutely a superpower. Russia is the world’s largest country by landmass, covering most of northern Asia and Eastern Europe and sharing borders with more than a dozen neighboring countries. Russia is also one of the world's leading suppliers of oil, natural gas, and wheat. However, modern Russia is not the same global powerhouse it once was. Its 2020 GDP was only US$1.4 trillion, roughly 10% of China's and less than 7% of the United States GDP. Russia's population is about 145.8 million people but is expected to decrease by as much as 30% over the next 30 years.
World leaders, scholars, and journalists often disagree about whether Russia is currently a proven or potential superpower. The late Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, stated in 2009 that Russia is a superpower, citing the waning influence of the U.S. in global affairs. But Matthew Fleischer of the Los Angeles Times argued in 2014 that Russia would only become a superpower if the climate change that is melting the permafrost that currently covers about two-thirds of the country reveals plentiful stores of natural gas, oil, and precious minerals, enabling Russia to control the world’s supply of these resources.
Others argue that Russia is not even a potential superpower because it has the trade relations of a Third World country, a much smaller GDP than China or the United States, and no highly rated universities, among others things. Russia is also among the poorest countries in Europe in terms of personal income, ranking 10th or 11th depending upon whether one counts the partially-recognized state of Kosovo.
The global balance of power is constantly shifting. As such, at least some of today's superpowers will eventually fade as time and change erode their power. When this happens, which countries are most likely to take their place? Management consulting firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers predicts that not only India and China, but also Brazil, Mexico, and Nigeria will emerge as superpowers by the year 2050.
Superpower countries have the most influence over global projects and political decisions. As of 2022, the five superpowers included the European Union, the United States, Russia, India, and China.