AskDefine | Define superpower

Dictionary Definition

superpower n : a state powerful enough to influence events throughout the world [syn: world power, major power, great power, power]

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. a sovereign state with dominant status on the globe and a very advanced military, especially the Soviet Union or United States
  2. a fictional extraordinary physical or mental ability, especially possessed by a superhero


sovereign state
fictional extraordinary ability

Extensive Definition

A superpower is a state with a leading position in the international system and the ability to influence events and project power on a worldwide scale; it is traditionally considered to be one step higher than a great power. Alice Lyman Miller (Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School), defines a superpower as "a country that has the capacity to project dominating power and influence anywhere in the world, and sometimes, in more than one region of the globe at a time, and so may plausibly attain the status of global hegemon." It was a term first applied in 1944 to the United States, the Soviet Union, and the British Empire. Following World War II, the British Empire ceased to exist as its territories became independent, and the Soviet Union and the United States were regarded as the only two superpowers, who then engaged in the Cold War.
After the Cold War, the most common belief held is that only the United States fulfills the criteria to be considered a superpower, although it is a matter of debate if it currently is a hegemon and if it is losing its superpower status. Also, there is a debate regarding Russia's status as either a superpower or as a potential superpower. China, the European Union, and to some extent India, are also thought to have the potential of achieving superpower status within the 21st century. Others doubt the existence of superpowers in the post Cold War era altogether, stating that today's complex global marketplace and the rising interdependency between the world's nations has made the concept of a superpower an idea of the past and that the world is now multipolar.

Application of the term

The term superpower was used to describe nations with greater than Great Power status as early as 1944, but only gained its specific meaning with regard to the United States and the Soviet Union after World War II.
There have been attempts to apply the term superpower retrospectively, to a variety of past entities such as, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, the Persian Empire, Roman Empire,, the Spanish Empire, and the largest empire of all time, the British Empire. Recognition by historians of these older states as superpowers may focus on various superlative traits exhibited by them. For example, at its peak the Spanish Empire was among the largest the world had ever seen.


The term in its current political meaning was coined in the book The Superpowers: The United States, Britain and the Soviet Union – Their Responsibility for Peace (1944), written by William T.R. Fox, an American foreign policy professor. The book spoke of the global reach of a super-empowered nation. Fox used the word Superpower to identify a new category of power able to occupy the highest status in a world in which, as the war then raging demonstrated, states could challenge and fight each other on a global scale. According to him, there were (at that moment) three states that were superpowers: the United States, the Soviet Union, and the British Empire. The British Empire was the most extensive empire in world history, which was considered the foremost great power and by 1921, held sway over 25% of the world's population and controlled about 25% of the Earth's total land area, while the United States and the Soviet Union both proved their newly gained power in World War II. The British Empire emerged from World War II significantly weakened and recognised to have lost its superpower status, while the Soviet Union and the United States were recognised as the sole remaining superpowers.


The 1956 Suez Crisis made it clear that the British Empire, economically ravaged by two world wars, could no longer compete on an equal footing with the United States and Soviet Union without sacrificing its reconstruction efforts, even while acting in concert with France and Israel. As the majority of World War II was fought far from its national boundaries, the United States did not suffer the industrial destruction or massive civilian casualties that marked the wartime situation of the countries in Europe or Asia. During the war, the United States had built up a strong industrial and technological infrastructure that had greatly advanced its military strength into a primary position on the global stage.
Following the war, most of Europe had aligned either with the United States or the Soviet Union. Despite attempts to create multinational coalitions or legislative bodies (such as the United Nations), it became increasingly clear that the United States and the Soviet Union were the dominant powers of the newly emerging Cold War, and had very different visions about what the post-war world ought to look like. The two countries opposed each other ideologically, politically, militarily, and economically. The Soviet Union represented the ideology of communism, whilst the United States represented the ideologies of capitalism and democracy. This was reflected in the Warsaw Pact and NATO military alliances, respectively. These alliances implied that these two nations were part of an emerging bipolar world, in contrast with a previously multipolar world.
The Soviet Union and the United States fulfilled the superpower criteria in the following ways:

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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