Chapter 1b - Global Superpowers

Chapter 1b - Global Superpowers

Global superpowers are what they because of the economic, geopolitical and cultural influence. There are perhaps just three global superpowers. The US is by far the biggest followed bu China and the EU economic block. Together they exert huge control. This page examines the reasons and differences.


Global superpowers and their economic, geopolitical and cultural influence

Detailed examples of at least two actual or potential global superpowers, USA, China and the EU 

Who are the global Superpowers?

A superpower is a state with a dominant position 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. These ability to influence can be categorised under hard and soft power.

Hard power exists when a state forces its will on another state. It does this through military force, payments and economic sanctions. Soft power exists when a state attempts to persuade other states. This can be achieved through its political influence, cultural influence and positive engagement. Superpowers tend to use both hard and soft power to exert influence. The global superpower is the USA. Other superpowers include China and the EU regions. 

To examine the extent of their power we should look at their influence on global economics, politics and culture.

Russian Council

ATL - Collaboration

Study the snapshot of superpower indicators below and discuss where each of the three examples demonstrate superpower qualities

Global Superpowers at a Glance

Military Spend

(2019 $Billion)

Army Size

(2020- Million)

Perm. Security

Council Seat

UN Funding


World Bank SharesIMF Funding

Share of Global Exports


Annual GDP

($Trillion) 2020)

Fortune 500 TNCs


EU & UK3001.5UK & France910.4UK & France 8.12%UK, France & Germany 12.5%16%18.37134


The USA dwarfs every other nation in terms of military spending. This financial and technological superiority makes it by far the most powerful military force in the world. With almost 2.3 million personnel, 4,800 defence sites, on seven continents and an annual budget over $700 billion, the US military is considered the world's premier fighting force. Its superiority in arsenal compared to every country can be seen below as well as its permanent and unconfirmed distribution of military bases, called lily pads and lily pods. This provides the US with unparalleled capacity to exert hard power.

David Vine
Business Insider

China has the biggest army in the world and a growing military budget to finance its modernisation. In 2019 it spent $291 billion on its military, known as the People's Liberation Army (PLA). As of yet the army's technology lags far behind that of many other military powers. This inhibits its ability to engage in modern warfare. However, it has clear aims to be a maritime power in the South China Sea, partly to secure its trading routes and partly to exert power over Taiwan. This can be seen in China's militarisation of the Spratly Islands as well as some deep sea ports it operates through. It is however unclear, whether China wishes to develop a worldwide military reach like the USA. What is more likely to occur is a more localised, dynamic use of power through the PLA, as well as other security forces and civilian security contractors it deploys abroad. These security forces are more likely to be deployed to operate within domestic laws to protect key Chinese assets abroad. In this way they deter threats and secure operations.

Digital Globe, Subi Reef, Spratly Island

Europe has over 1.5 million personnel, nearly 7,700 tanks, 2,450 aircraft (including helicopters), and nearly 550 warships and submarines on call, making it one of the most powerful and modern military forces in the world. Its member states are also part of the  NATO alliance which in addition to the European states, includes Turkey and the US. The US is the biggest financial contributor to the alliance. NATO provides a military alliance that promotes democratic values and security in Europe and other regions and acts as major deterrent to aggression from Europe's powerful neighbour Russia.

Global Governance

The USA also has a firm grip of influence over important intergovernmental organisations, many of which have their headquarters in the US. The US is the leading share holder in the World Bank and all World Bank presidents to this date have been US citizens. USA is the leading funder of the UN, The International Monetary Fund (IMF), The World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and NATO and the list goes on. This financial control over global institutions allows the US to exert its influence on the organisations and policies of the intergovernmental institutions. One such example can be seen in the alignment of neo-liberal policies that define US foreign policy with the funding mechanisms and principles of the World Bank and the IMF, known as the Washington Consensus.

China does have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and like with the USA, this comes with the power of veto. This affords China great credibility and power. China can stand up an oppose the USA at the highest level of intergovernmental leadership. As a result UN resolutions are carefully shaped by Chinese influence. China does take a less unilateral role in the world and does not intervene too much in attempting to influence domestic policies of individual sovereign states. In this regard, China has taken a very different path to western powers. China also has far less leverage to influence the policies and priorities of the World Bank and the IMF. However, China has become more engaged and integrated into intergovernmental organisations. In addition to its membership of organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Asian Development Bank China is increasingly cooperating with intergovernmental organisations such as the World Bank and UN. It has ambitions to reform these organisation from within and Chinese officials currently hold head positions in four of the fifteen UN specialised agencies including the FAO.

For this reason China has established its own bilateral and multilateral partnerships. It has strong ties with other non-democratic states such as Russia as well countries considered more authoritarian. China has also established its own intergovernmental organisations. For example, the Shanghai Cooperative Organisation (SCO) that brought together Russia, India and the Central Asia States. This organisation helps promote values more in line with China's. One example includes the idea of a closed Internet that is controlled by states rather than free global access. Perhaps China's most ambitious global initiative can be seen in its global infrastructure projects. In 2013 China launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The Belt and Road Initiative

A massive infrastructural investment program with 138 member countries as of 2020. This project leverages positive international relations and trade links that connects China to other world markets by shipping lanes and road. The initiative will deepen physical infrastructure, financial, political, and security ties and will span Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East and aims to place Beijing in a position to shape global norms and rules on aid, infrastructure, and logistics. Under the initiative, China has announced over $600 billion in lending to BRI projects.

Criticisms of BRI state that lending does not align with lending practices of other international banks and donor countries. Some foreign leaders and civil society groups have criticised BRI practices for lacking transparency and failing to uphold environmental and safety standards. Some recipient states have incurred high levels of debt through BRI.


Beside the BRI, China also launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2015. AIIB is a multilateral financial institution that invests in infrastructure projects and other productive sectors across Eurasia. Unlike the BRI, the AIIB generally follows international lending standards and often cooperates with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank to fund projects.

Europe has lower levels of political influence across intergovernmental organisations but some countries remain powerful. Both France and the UK are permanent member of the UN Security Council and so have veto powers over any UN vote, although this is seldom used. The fact that it exists gives these countries huge leverage in shaping UN resolutions. Europe also has significant influence over the World Bank and IMF and with more Fortune top 500 TNCs with European headquarters than both the US and China it promotes similar values towards opening up free markets and neo-liberalism. The EU is also a world leading region in humanitarian aid and soft power political diplomacy and government bilateralism.

ATL - Collaboration

Discuss the factors that make these three global superpowers culturally influential or not


The USA also has a global reach in terms of cultural influence. It has achieved this through its free market policies that have opened up markets for multinationals to enter. USA multinationals have globalised the business world making English its language and driven consumer culture in so many sectors from food brands, like McDonalds and Coco-Cola to popular culture, such as tv, cinema, music and sport. US tech firms have a global dominance over social media and through these platforms they have unrivalled ability to influence attitudes and values, including democratic values such as freedom of speech and the right of ownership and competition through capitalism.

China has been isolationist for hundreds of years and this remains the same today through the efforts the state takes to shield its population from western cultural influence. The fact that China does not share democratic values with the rest of the world also sets it apart on a cultural level. Therefore, China has very little impact on the global cultural landscape. It has subsidised education exchanges and promotes cultural and language learning in educational institutions abroad but it simply does not have the impact of the corporate, media and popular culture influence that is facilitated by US companies and the English language.

Europe has a more discrete and underlying influence on global culture. On the one hand it is recognised as a major historical reference as it promotes a rich heritage, and this heritage is also shared by many US citizens as well. It has a strong influence on culture, through architecture, art, fashion and food. These perhaps do not have the same global brand identity as some US cultural brands but certainly you cannot deny the global influence of Italian food, but this is certainty not the same as McDonalds. On the other hand Europe promotes values, such as democracy, liberalism, secularism and equity, it also promotes a multiculturalism through a growing and unified Europe, although this pluralism does also create obstacles and challenges that limits Europe's impact on global culture. It is fragmented to the extent that Europeans struggle to articulate what being European is. Ask them what European identity is and you will have many different answers. You could also suggest that through the close economic ties between Europe and the USA, European culture has experienced the most 'Americanisation' through its obsession for American popular culture and brands.

Other Powers

There are many other powerful countries and places in the world. For example there are nine nuclear states with Russia comparable to the USA in terms of available nuclear weapons. In fact USA and Russia combined have 92% of all nuclear arsenal. Despite this, countries like China, India, Pakistan, Israel who also have a small arsenal of nuclear weapons, makes them immediate powers. With India's growing population, currently standing at 1.2 billion it is certainly a country of significant global influence, both in terms of global production as well as being a democratic and growing middle income market. Few countries can boast of having 300 million highly educated middle class people in their population.

Other countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have enormous economic power through their ability to influence energy prices with their membership of OPEC, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries. This makes them not only important global players but also regional powers in the Middle East. In addition Qatar also boasts the global media outlet Al Jazeera which has global reach as big as the BBC and CNN and arguable a much stronger influence on regions like the Middle East. Countries like Nigeria who have large oil reserves have a growing economic and political influence in Africa.

ATL - Communication

Attempt the following written assessment

Assess the factors that make different groups global superpowers (12)

Words: 400-800



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