As the name suggests, a superpower is a nation that demonstrates a great capacity to dominate other nations or regions in the international order. This term was highly applicable in pre cold war times especially during the first and second world wars. After the cold war, the Soviets lost their status as an influential force in the global arena and it was established that the United States was the only superpower left. The twenty-first century has created a series of complex relations that make it difficult to ascertain whether the US is really a superpower or whether the existence of such a phenomenon in the current environment is impossible. The paper will examine American foreign policy and analyze the extent to which this country remains a superpower.
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Aspects that define superpowers
Experts on the subject matter still debate on the most important parameters for assessing superpowers. However, certain common considerations do exist amongst them. Lyman Miller claims that power should be studied under four major factors which can determine whether a country is a superpower or not and these are; cultural, political, economic and military capability. In the cultural realm, a superpower ought to have the ability to be independent; sometimes it can even set the agenda for other nations. This should be coupled with a high population relative to other countries of the world. Politically, such a nation needs to possess a strong influence on its populace as well as the rest of the world. The most important dimension is its military. Superpowers ought to have an elaborate military capacity especially in terms of their nuclear might. In terms of its economy, this nation must be richly endowed with natural and food resources that allow it to be self-sufficient. In totality, superpowers need to demonstrate both hard and soft power and must represent universal ideology where the world is heavily influenced by them. (Unger, 2010)
Having understood what makes up a superpower, it is critical to examine whether the United States actually fits into this criteria in the post-cold war. It should be noted that the cold war was critical in eliminating the second last superpower because the Soviet Union disintegrated after this war. Now the US was the only state that could fulfill some of the criteria laid out with regard to superpowers since it possessed those qualities before entry into the cold war.
Based on the latter perspective, a look at current political, social, economic and military capabilities of the US supports the premise that it is a superpower. Politically speaking, the latter country has a stable constitution and a capitalist system. It is a member of the UN Security Council and associates with the commonwealth, Latin America and the like; its ability to sponsor political organizations also contributes to its political supremacy. Furthermore, the US’s culture has permeated the entire planet with most of its music, television shows, fashion and food being consumed around the world. Its military capability is definitely something worth reckoning. The United States boasts of the biggest armies in the world. It has strong allies in NATO, its navy is the largest in the world and so is the amount of cash the country dedicates towards building military strength. It has also contracted other parts of the world to supply armament to this very group. Economically speaking, the US still has the largest economy in the world even after being the worst-hit country in the recent global economic crisis. Most corporations in the world were founded or are headquartered in this nation and its currency is the basis upon which other currencies are assessed. Its population also has a large influence on the world’s production because its citizens are the largest consumers. One can also add the geographic dimension where the US is classified as number four in terms of its large size since it has an area of approximately nine point four square kilometers. Even technologically speaking, this nation is the hub for most inventions of this nature.
Some experts have argued that analyzing the US through such preset criteria is overly simplistic; there is plenty of goings-on around the world and to merely look at the US’s internal situation without examining what is going on amongst other nations or what is going on with the US’s foreign policy is inaccurate. Therefore, some individuals have asserted that this method is outdated because immediately after the post cold war, the European Union had just been formed and it was difficult to classify this group since it was not clear how the dynamics were. Additionally, economic hardships in the US are causing their economic state to fluctuate especially as seen in the diminishing value of the dollar. Furthermore, the US has poorly managed trade with other nations. The trade gap between key partners is plummeting out of control and even its very own internal budget deficit is something to worry about. Other parts of the world are also on their toes in terms of growing technological and economic strength. This implies that the status that the US currently holds as the sole superpower may not last very long as other nations may be catching up while the US seems to be stagnating or even declining in these terms. (Gates, 2008)
As stated earlier, a superpower must demonstrate both political and economic independence from other nation-states. It should be the one that can set the agenda and determine what other countries take on. However, in modern times, the US has fallen short of this definition. It no longer enjoys such a position because its economic resources are heavily dependent on other nations. It has signed a number of treaties, trade agreements and the like and these obligations prevent it from using its advantageous position to exercise its will. Even its military strength cannot be very applicable today owing to the immense restrictions imposed by international deals.
American foreign policy and the superpower status
International politics is heavily influenced by the concept of power since the ability to control other nations determines whether a country can get its will or not. From the commencement of the post cold war era, it became evident that American foreign policy was geared towards taking this responsibility as the sole superpower. NATO has been key in these endeavors and one of the methods utilized is expansion of this alliance into Eastern Europe. The United States was doing this with the hope of getting into a territory that had been regarded as their principal competitor during the cold war era. However, this move did not go well for the US as most countries in the Eastern European region preferred aligning themselves with the European Union (EU) rather than a former enemy.
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In 1992, the United States released a defense policy guideline whose ideas are still quite relevant today. In it, the latter body accepted that it would be unrealistic to stop the rise of another superpower as doing so would mean halting any internal objectives that the US has for itself and directing everything towards its foreign policy. However, the same foreign policy outline stated that the US would focus on engaging in greater foreign interventions; a mission made possible by increased investments in missiles, aircraft carriers and marines. The 1992 policy has been implemented in the nineties decade and the new millennium as well. Such actions were driven by the fact that wars in recent times are characterized by a suddenness that necessitates countries to utilize what they have at the moment of the crisis; one of the reasons why the US chose to invest heavily in its military so as to be proactive in terms of war. (Knight, Conetta & Leavitt, 1994)
US foreign policy is characterized by humanitarian interventions as well. When the country observes some form of human rights violations, then it takes on interventions to prevent them such as its presence in Yugoslavia during the nineties. However, these involvements have not just been carried out haphazardly; owing to restraints in resources, the US has strategically dwelt on human rights interventions only when there are other material interests that the country stands to gain. United States argued that there is no point in causing so many US causalities in order to make things better for another country. It can be stated that the use of military force in order to restore democracies in foreign countries has not borne fruit. One school of thought argues that democracy is a successor of a sound economy and that the two concepts (sound economy and democracy) cannot exist without each other. Another school of thought argues that most missions of this nature have not yielded any positive and tangible results. For example, in Iraq, it was assumed that the employment of a heavy military presence there would go a long way in establishing a presidency and government that was democratically elected and one that represented the will of the people. However, even the latest election that occurred in this country has been heavily criticized by the international world and current US occupation still signifies immense problems in this very category.
In the post-cold war era, the United States’ interpretation of the need and application for force changed dramatically. This was probably a reflection of its perceptions as the sole superpower. Not only was force a defense strategy used by the country to protect its internal position, it also became a method with which the US could strengthen itself militarily. Force as an instrument of foreign policy has always been viewed as retrogressive especially in the era of non-violence and compromise. On paper, the United States continues to assert that it will resort to force only when there are no other alternatives for the country to pursue, however, upon analysis of some of its respective activities, it is clear that this country’s commitment of its troops in foreign missions is one of the highest in the world. The country’s president and its parliament have been willing to assent to extravagant plans for defense even when the stated economic and political reasons stated for wars have been vague. Currently, the US accounts for fifty percent of all international spending on the military which is approximately seven hundred and eleven billion dollars annually. Besides spending excessive amounts in the country’s military endeavours, there is also immense evidence to indicate that some of the military budget allocations have been gravely misguided. Instead of focusing on strengthening its security institutions, the US has been dedicating most of its resources towards huge military attacks and this has taken a toll on both its popularity as well as its economic conditions. (Unger, 2010)
US foreign policy in the Middle Eastern region has formed an important part of its foreign missions. It has been a strong focal point owing to the fact that the need for oil is a crucial security concern to the US. This is because the country can only afford to produce approximately forty percent of the oil it needs and the rest must emanate from other parts of the world including the Persian region. Given that over sixty-five percent of the world’s oil comes from this area then the US has a need to take interest in that area. Analysts have stated that using war to secure such interests is quite undiplomatic and unjust on the part of the United States. However, another major reason why the US has been heavily involved in the Middle East is the issue of terrorism. To protect itself against Islamist fundamentalists especially after the September eleventh attacks, the US enacted a global war on terror. The undertaking eventually led to the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Although the United States argues that it was doing this in order to make sure that its citizens remained safe in subsequent periods, there is no doubt that the US could not have carried out these invasions if it did not have the strong military power that only a sole superpower can have. In other words, it was showing the world that it had the ability to engage in war and that it was militarily superior.
Critics of American foreign policy assert that the United States is but a hegemonic force that disguises its selfish interests in the name of implementing democracy in target countries. A case in point is Iraq where one of the stated reasons for entry was to restore the rule of law and democracy in the latter country by eliminating dictatorial rule. However, it soon became apparent to the rest of the world that the US had greater stakes in this country than just their oil and their foreign intervention was therefore insincere. (Pei, 2004)
Indeed there are immense possibilities that shortly there may be a multi-polar system where the US will still be an important player but that there will be other equally strong players. China’s economic strength is definitely a force worth reckoning. In fact, it has been argued that US foreign policy on trade could have contributed towards the emerging threat of China as a strong power. First of all, the US chose to make this country a member of UNSC thus binding it permanently to China in terms of trade. Additionally, subsequent presidents encouraged trade with China after the nineteen-eighties. An example was Bill Clinton’s immense support for this union. Without US propagation for capitalism in China, this East Asian country would not have risen to its current prominence. The United States is now in a panic mode worrying that its position as a sole superpower may be under threat from China and that actions need to be carried out now to curb this threat. However, very little can be done to alter such a situation and it is the very basic fundamentals of capitalism that are supported by the US that have led to its current predicaments today. Studies now indicate that because of US concentration on the Middle East, its ability to maneuver its way in the international arena will be dramatically reduced. This leaves a lot of power to other external stakeholders such as China which might decide to take advantage of the US’ preoccupation and indulgence with the Gulf. To this end, the US is now grappling with too many foreign policy challenges at ago. This implies that achieving its strategic advantages in those areas may not be easy since its attention is divided and its resources are weakened. (Steel, 2008)
A look at current economic challenges in the US reveals that this country may not necessarily be the sole power as its independence from other nations prevents it from exerting its will freely. Its foreign policy agenda demonstrates an interest in preserving its position as a superpower; however, these actions are not as successful as planned. The country’s wars in the Middle East have taken attention from emerging powers that may create a multi-polar system. Also, questions can be raised on the country’s choices in foreign policy since most efforts have been dwelling on large-scale military interventions rather than concentrated strategic actions.
Pei, S. (2004). Why nation building failed in mid course. The International herald tribune.
Knight, C., Conetta, C, & Leavitt, R. (1994). Free reign for the sole superpower. Boston review.
Steel R. (2008). Superpower reborn. New York Times.
Krauthammer, C. (1991). Unipolar moment. Foreign policy.
Gates, R. (2008). Reprogramming the Pentagon for a new age. Foreign relations council. Web.
Unger, J. (2010). US no longer a superpower but a besieged global power. University of Illinois. Web.