An introduction to the inequality of nations

Thursday, December 6, 2012

It's a common theme, repeated in the media and by political figures, that since the end of the Cold War, the United States remains "the world's only superpower." Given the frequency of that statement, it is worth considering its significance and, more broadly, to identify the comparisons this term might imply when examining the rest of the world.

What, exactly, is a "superpower," and by what measures will we be able to tell if another emerges? What are likely candidate nations on the way up, and into what categories might we place them? At the same time, what is the relevance of the United Nations, in which every nation has one vote, regardless of population, stability or global relevance?

A superpower is a nation able to have a direct effect on multiple events worldwide, using all means of national influence, from military capability, to economic engagement, to ideological and cultural strength, to diplomatic gravitas, in positive and punitive directions.

By these terms, only the U.S. indeed is a superpower, with the capacity to conduct military operations in multiple theaters of operations, apply leverage in many theaters of diplomatic activity, impose economic sanctions against rogue nations on several continents, affirm trade deals to support states that share our values, and lead multinational efforts humanitarian campaigns.

The U.S. also has successfully cultivated allies in every region, has indirect moral influence -- albeit not always in an affirming way -- through the popularity of our culture and, just as importantly, is recognized by friend, foe and the indifferent as a superpower.

The next tier of states -- Great Powers -- is a small group, representing nations that have global influence across the spectrum of capabilities -- military, economic, diplomatic and cultural -- but on a smaller scale.

In this category would fall the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China. All are nuclear powers, and they are able to influence other nations across the globe, with partners in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America; significant foreign trade, and cultural and diplomatic importance outside their region.

They are capable of independent military operations beyond their borders and some ability to deploy these forces by sea and air -- and not just across land frontiers. For the moment, there is a direct correlation between Great Power status and membership in the U.N. Security Council, although in recent years some rising states have questioned whether this array of Great Powers, identified in 1945, still matches global conditions.

Following the Great Powers, and hoping to become them, are the Regional Powers -- nations that have great significance in one continent, major area or zone, beyond their own borders. Some of these states have the same attributes as Great Powers, but perhaps are missing one component -- such as a deployable military or global cultural influence.

In this category would be those that have made recent claims for U.N. Security Council membership -- Japan, Germany and India -- but also those that have developed as leaders of regional alliances or movements challenging the international system. In this regard, we would see governments such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Brazil, South Africa and Turkey. We may also consider Australia, Canada and Israel in this category -- smaller nations that, as the saying goes, "punch above their weight class."

The rest of the 150-plus nations that make up the world are roughly divided in three parts. Perhaps 50 or so nations -- such as Denmark, Costa Rica, Jordan and South Korea -- are successful minor states that are stable, economically viable, and serious participants in the international system.

Another 50 or so -- such as Egypt, Thailand, Iraq, and Belarus -- are one major crisis away from collapse, but they still retain some internal strength that might allow them to remain politically united, economically viable and functional.

Beyond these are those failed states -- the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Somalia, Syria and probably Pakistan -- that are unable to control major events within their international frontiers, struggle to feed their populations, do not engage in a serious way on political issues beyond mere survival of their ruling elites, or control their own borders.

While the General Assembly of the United Nations seats representatives of all internationally recognized nations equally -- China has one vote, as does Micronesia -- understanding the context in which nations operate beyond this unnatural egalitarianism can be illuminating.

A coalition of many nations, such as the G77 (or Group of 77 -- a body of 100-plus developing nations), can seem significant. The same can be said for overwhelming votes taken in the General Assembly, such as the 138-41-9 referendum on upgrading Palestine's status in the U.N.

In practice, however, only the United States, the Great Powers and, depending on the question, the Regional Powers can move global events beyond the disruptions and modest interjections of minor states. While there is strength in numbers and even the smallest state can be a useful ally or obstacle to progress, global politics is more than just addition.

In the end, the world is comprised of a wide range of starkly unequal nations; identifying those that matter beyond their own borders is the first step toward recognizing the possibilities for advancing the national interests of the United States.

Wayne Bowen received his Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University, and is also an Army veteran.

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