Lesson 3, Topic 4
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Superpowers

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There are a handful of states across history that have reached the time-limitted status of “superpower”. Hundreds of years ago China was a superpower, then it declined, and for the past thirty years it has been on a rapid rise back to superpower status. Through much of the 19th and the early 20th century the UK was a superpower, and some argue it still is because of its nuclear arsenal, but its global influence has vastly diminished following the decolonisation and the fall of the British Empire. For the past 150 years, the US has been gaining and gaining until it became the single global superpower after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1988. Now it seems headed towards a bipolar global order featuring the US alongside China as the two guardians.

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But what exactly makes a country a superpower? There are a few key factors, but ultimately it comes down to power and influence, and two keeps types of power, and possible a third.

1. Economic power

A country that has a huge economy can dominate trade negotiations and dictate the flows of goods and services across the world. It can also use its economic might to coerce others and to avoid retribution.

2. Military power

The size of a countries military dictates the extent to which it can exert its interests on other parts of the world. When a country has a military as large as the US’, it can afford to take risks and to be assertive in the global arena in a way that other countries cannot. Ownership of nuclear weapons used to be the definition of a superpower. Today, other factors are important too, but the amount of force a country can exert at any moment is non the less an indicator of superpower status.

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A US B2 Bomber

3. Cultural power?

By far the most important factors that decide whether a country is a superpower are its economic and military power. But cultural influence also significantly effects the ability of a country to exert its interests on others. If a country has a culture that others seek to imitate, then the country with that cultural power is in a superior position where it can exert serious influence. Evidence of US culture can be seen in almost any country in the world and this helps to instigate pro-American attitudes where there otherwise might not be.

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McDonalds in Saudi Arabia