What Makes a Superpower (3)


Over the previous two centuries, we have seen the rise of three superpowers and two of them have already fallen. What made those two rise and fall? The British Empire and the Soviet Union have been discussed in Part One and Two respectively. Let’s now turn to the United States of America, the only superpower left today:

The US fulfills at least two pre-conditions of becoming a superpower: a big population and a continental country protected by two oceans east and west. You may ask why not Canada and Australia? They have chosen to be part of the Commonwealth, a remnant of the fallen British Empire, whereas the US rebelled against the mother country and declared itself totally independent. More importantly, the US has a liberal immigration policy that attracts talents from all over the world, turning a sparsely populated frontier land to a “melting pot” of 326 million people.

The human resource of the US cannot be underestimated. It develops out of the proclamation that “All men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence of 1776. This was followed by the US Constitution enacted in 1787 and its later Amendments guaranteeing freedom, democracy, equal rights and equal opportunities. These are the ideals well articulated and understood that make the US system a magnet and a model for the world to emulate, even though serious contradictions exist such as slavery up to 1865 and government sanctioned racial discrimination in the south until 1966 after the passage of the Civil Rights Acts.

Like the Soviet Union, the rise of the United States as a superpower coincides with the end of the two World Wars, in both of which the US finally overcame its traditional isolationism and sent troops to assist its European Allies. After World War II when Europe and Japan lay in ruins, the US assisted in the reconstruction of Europe with the Marshall Plan, and the molding of Japan into a non-militarist democracy through its occupation lasting seven years. During the Cold War running from the end of World War II in 1945 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the US headed the capitalist camp and led NATO against the Warsaw Pact led by the USSR in the communist camp. In addition, the US maintains a ring of military bases around the world in a stated effort to maintain peace but in fact to contain its adversaries.

The US has shown leadership in creating the post-War framework of peace and commerce by spawning the United Nations, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO, formerly known as GATT). Besides military power, the US possesses plenty of soft power as shown by its advanced technologies, high industrial production, huge consumer markets, and popular culture like movies and music. Despite these, American soft power may not be welcome overseas. Many countries worry about bad American influences on their own cultures and values.

A superpower does not mean it will always do the right thing. The tragic wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan show that military misadventures can lead a superpower into a quagmire that will be hard to extricate, thus weakening its military strength and national resolve.

It should be noted that all the powers of a country are derived from its human resources, in other words, its own people. In economic terms, the strength of the middle class represents the state of a country’s human resources. As you know, the American middle class has been subject to all kinds of squeeze over the last three decades including rising oil prices, housing costs, and runaway inflation in health care and college tuition. These are in addition to job loss and stagnant wages due to foreign competition and company outsourcing. The weakening of the middle class signifies internal trouble and instability that will threaten its superpower status. Already we have seen the US government incurring over a trillion dollars of deficit and huge amounts of national debts. It is increasingly reluctant to commit itself to the maintenance of world peace. It blames other countries for causing its economic woes and imposes import tariffs instead of advocating free and fair trade. These are the harbingers of a superpower losing its balance or resolve. Let’s see what will happen in the next few years.

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