The Case for America's Continued Superpower Status

By Dennis Shiraev and Grant Gibson
Cornell International Affairs Review
2009, Vol. 2 No. 2 | pg. 2/2 |

The Case Against The Rest

The United States is not simply fitting of this comprehensive definition of superpower—it is the only state that is and will be fitting of a unipolar superpower status in the foreseeable future. No other state or region of the world is fitting of this denotation.

The Russian Federation has been mentioned by Zakaria as a country on the rise, ascending to its old status as a world leader and power. However, the Russian Federation does not come close to meeting the definition of a superpower that has been set forth in this paper. Militarily, Russia remains a shadow of its former self. Neglect has left large stocks of weapons useless and a counterproductive, nepotistic and cruel culture has emerged within the military community. Additionally, the Russian military never fully designed and produced a set of weaponry comparable in quality to weaponry produced by the U.S in the eighties.

As for internal stability, the Russian Federation is in a bad situation. The Caucus republics have grown more and more unstable since the fall of the Soviet Union. Only the presence of the military and heavily armed internal security troops maintains order in these regions. Separatist rebels have found common cause with Al-Qaeda and have become part of an international terrorist network with vast resources. These networks have already struck within Russia with great effect. Partly as a consequence of the increasingly authoritarian government—which is moving further and further away from even the most imaginative conceptions of a democratic state—there is little respect for property rights. Organized crime and corruption have corroded the average individual's ability to hold and invest in property.13

Russia ultimately lacks something that it possessed with great strength throughout the Cold War: an ideology with universal appeal. Communism was at times very popular in countries crucial to Russian national security interests, but Russian nationalism is no substitute for communism and does not give the Russian Federation the amount of international leverage possessed by the Soviet Union. Russia will only be relegated to the role of a second-rate power for the foreseeable future.

India, with its rapid growth rate and possession of nuclear weapons might also be described as a rising power capable of assuming a certain level of global leadership. In terms of economic growth, which is necessary for bringing millions of Indian citizens out of poverty, India's long term economic expansion will be hampered by several long-term economic maladies. The socialist legacy of a large bureaucracy hurts growth while a lack of infrastructure will severely limit Indian growth until rectified.

Militarily, India will be limited by the need to defend itself from a hostile Pakistan and an increasingly powerful China. These defensive considerations will forever limit India's ability to project military force beyond its own borders. Internally, rising Hindu nationalism has added an element of instability to an already volatile domestic scene. Ethnic and religious strife threatens to destabilize regions within India as well as upset the already delicate political balance. If marginalization continues, ethnic and religious minorities may feel compelled to resort to violence to achieve their goals. Finally, although a democracy, India has never really attempted to embrace or export an ideology with broad appeal. The rising Hindu nationalism will only further corrode India's ability to utilize its own soft power. These limitations will undoubtedly hamper India's power for the foreseeable future.

India's sprawling slums are one of the challenges facing India's rise as a superpower

India's sprawling slums are one of the challenges facing India's rise as a superpower

Brazil has in recent years been cited as a power rising in South America that will challenge American hegemony in the Americas. However, Brazil must overcome a myriad of obstacles before it can even begin to be considered a world power, let alone a superpower. Its current growth rate is about five percent but it has yet to develop any solid infrastructure.14 Brazil has little ability to project military power beyond its own borders because Brazilian military operations will be confined for the next several decades to South America and to peacekeeping operations.

As for internal stability, Brazil is suffering from a crime wave that shows no sign of abetting. Gangs control large swathes of Brasilia and are spreading throughout the country. The drug trade remains rampant, with more groups operating in Brazil's jungle regions, and Brazil's population consuming the second-highest level of cocaine in the Americas. Organized crime and violence associated with the drug trade continues to be a destabilizing threat. As for ideology, Brazil has yet to establish a strong democratic tradition, having only recently emerged from a military dictatorship in 1985. Currently, Brazil is suffering from a great financial crunch that threatens to economically destabilize the country for years to come. Brazil has a long way to go before it can be considered a major power.

The European Union has been described by Mark Leonard as possessing the traits befitting a rising power. Without a doubt, the European Union has a huge share of the world's economic might. However, economic might and influence is the only area in which the EU has substantial clout. Attempts to create a united military command have barely gotten off of the ground, with states reluctant to cede any authority over military affairs. The much-touted rapid reaction force is in actuality only a listing of units that could be made readily available in the event of a crisis. After joining the European Union, Eastern European states were encouraged to actually reduce their military in order to fund services and promote stability.

Hardly any Western European countries maintain their defense spending above 2% of their GDP.15 As a result, many European militaries are completely unprepared to mount large independent operations. The European internal political situation is not conducive to quick decision making or even consensus building. This is evidenced by the repeated failure of the passage of the European Constitution. Quick decision making is a luxury not enjoyed by the European Union. The lack of a united national identity makes internal stability a huge problem for the European Union. Risky overseas ventures will never meet the required unanimous consensus required for collective action.

It is hard to make a case that the EU has a common culture that is recognizable on the world stage. Additionally, the recent economic crisis has exacerbated tensions within the European Union, with the Eastern European states clamoring for aid that the Western states wish not to give. The frictions exposed by this financial crisis betray the fact that the European Union is incapable of assuming great authority in the international stage. Although the EU may have the potential to act as a world power on the geopolitical stage, it is certainly unable to summon the high threshold of support it needs to do so. It is also worth noting that the EU and the U.S have many goals and interests in common, which curbs European motivation to participate in politics on a greater level with more responsibilities.

China is the state most cited as the rising superpower on the international stage. Its double digit growth rate has impressed many economic analysts while diplomatic success has convinced the world of Chinese foreignpolicy prowess. However, China possesses several glaring weaknesses overlooked in most analyses. First and foremost, the Chinese economy has yet to fully tap into its potentially lucrative but unevenly developed domestic market. Additionally, there are a myriad of state run enterprises that were never privatized, reducing the long-term efficiency of the economy.

A weak banking system leaves little protection in times of economic peril. Economic success has also led to the rise of a middle class. This class has unique economic and political needs such as social mobility and certain levels of individual freedom. We can only speculate, but the Chinese government may face problems when giving into the demands of this growing class.

The Chinese have yet to develop a military force capable of projecting overwhelming force on a regional basis. Granted, construction has begun on their new navy, but it will be many years before they even begin to develop a blue-water capacity.16 While in possession of some high-quality equipment in certain units, the majority of the People's Liberation Army is still equipped with weapons of inferior quality.

Throughout recent history China has only intervened in its immediate region, casting doubt as to whether or not China would even desire to shoulder the responsibilities of a great power. More importantly, the area where the China's power suffers the most is internal instability. The abandonment of pure, messianic Communism thirty years ago has forced the Chinese to sell a new ideology to their people.

This ideology is essentially Han Chinese nationalism with the promise of rapid economic growth. This strategy has so far proven useful, but may prove to be detrimental to long-term security. Han nationalism is a potential powder keg. Failure to meet the expectations of an increasingly nationalistic population could lead to internal destabilization and riots. The uneven distribution of wealth has already led to simmering riots in the country's interior. Further harming stability is the fact that minority populations within China have also become increasingly marginalized, leading some of them to turn to violent resistance against the government.

Finally, the promise of economic growth makes support for the government contingent on economic success. This potential for internal instability prevents the Chinese government from taking substantial foreign policy risks. If the Chinese government experienced a major foreign policy failure, it might see a devastating backlash of public opinion. In terms of having an exportable ideology, the abandonment of communism has also left nationalistic China ideologically weakened, limiting its soft influence outside of its own borders.


For the time being the world will remain unipolar with the United States as the sole global superpower, but will it always remain so? It is highly unlikely that the United States' military superiority or internal stability will diminish in the foreseeable future, but the global perception of the United States is much more subject to change. If the United States is to remain the sole global superpower, it must continue to reify the cultural and political principles that made it a global superpower. It must, in a sense, continue to be perceived as the global standard of progress and opportunity, as well as might and influence.

The election of Barack Obama, the first African-American president, is a step in the right direction. But the way in which the United States reacts to the financial crisis may be the most important test for Americans. We believe that America must take leadership in leading the world out of the current financial crisis— the United States must act in such a way to save the free market institutions that have driven so much global growth in the past centuries. If the United States fails to take leadership in the global economic recovery process and responds with increased levels of protectionism, it would harm the global attractiveness of its values and ideology and experience a real contraction of its influence in global politics. If America seizes the opportunity to lead the global economy out of the current crisis, this would be the newest reaffirmation of its status as the sole global superpower.


We wish to thank the following professors and students for their valuable contributions and commentary: Peter J. Katzenstein, Ambassador H. Allen Holmes, Eric B. Shiraev, Jake Bean, Chris Eng, Michael Jameson, Heide Celeghin, and Ryan Woo.


  1. “China may overtake US by 2025, but Vietnam may be fastest growing of emerging economies.” PriceWaterHouseCoopers. 4 March 2008.
  2. Shiraev, Eric, and Vlad Zubok. International Relations in an Uncertain World. New York: McGraw Hill, forthcoming 2009.
  3. Ferguson, Niall. The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. The Penguin Press, New York, 2008.
  4. Zakaria, Fareed. “The Future of American Power.” Foreign Affairs May/June 2008: 18-43.
  5. Altman, Roger C. “The Great Crash, 2008.” Foreign Affairs January/February 2009: 2-14.
  6. “CIA World Factbook.” 8 January 2009. <>
  7. “The World’s Top Financial Centers.” Business Week. March 2008. 8 January 2009. <>
  8. 7 Chua, Amy. Day of Empire. New York: Doubleday, 2007.
  9. Keohane, Robert O., and Joseph S. Nye. From Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition. Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, 1989.
  10. “CIA World Factbook.” 8 January 2009. <>
  11. Art, Robert J., and Robert Jervis. International Politics: Enduring Concepts and Contemporary Issues. Pearson Education, 2009.
  12. Wendt, Alexander. Social Theory of International Politics. Cabridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  13. Nye, Joseph. Soft Power: The Means to Success in Modern Politics. New York: Perseus Book Groups, 2004.
  14. Greenspan, Alan. The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World. New York: Penguin Group, 2007.
  15. “Trends in European Defense Spending, 2001-2006.” Center for Strategic and International Studies. April 2008. 8 January 2009 <>
  16. ”Warship Modernization.” 8 January 2009. <>

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