Great power

Great power
Great powers are recognized in an international structure such as the United Nations Security Council.[1][2][3] Shown here is the Security Council Chamber.

A great power is a nation or state that has the ability to exert its influence on a global scale. Great powers characteristically possess military and economic strength and diplomatic and cultural influence which may cause small powers to consider the opinions of great powers before taking actions of their own. International relations theorists have posited that great power status can be characterized into power capabilities, spatial aspects, and status dimensions. Sometimes the status of great powers is formally recognized in conferences such as the Congress of Vienna[1][4][5] or an international structure such as the United Nations Security Council.[1][2][6]

The term "great power" was first used to represent the most important powers in Europe during the post-Napoleonic era.[7] The formalization of the division between small powers[8] and great powers came about with the signing of the Treaty of Chaumont in 1814. Since then, the international balance of power has shifted numerous times, most dramatically during World War I and World War II. While some nations are widely considered to be great powers, there is no definitive list of them.



There are no set or defined characteristics of a great power. These characteristics have often been treated as empirical, self-evident to the assessor.[9] However, this approach has the disadvantage of subjectivity. As a result, there have been attempts to derive some common criteria and to treat these as essential elements of great power status.

Early writings on the subject tended to judge states by the realist criterion, as expressed by the historian A. J. P. Taylor when he noted that "The test of a great power is the test of strength for war."[10] Later writers have expanded this test, attempting to define power in terms of overall military, economic, and political capacity.[11] Kenneth Waltz, the founder of the neorealist theory of international relations, uses a set of five criteria to determine great power: population and territory; resource endowment; economic capability; political stability and competence; and military strength. These expanded criteria can be divided into three heads: power capabilities, spatial aspects, and status.[5]

Power dimensions

Leopold Von Ranke was one of the first to attempt to scientifically document the great powers.

As noted above, for many, power capabilities were the sole criterion. However, even under the more expansive tests, power retains a vital place.

This aspect has received mixed treatment, with some confusion as to the degree of power required. Writers have approached the concept of great power with differing conceptualizations of the world situation, from multi-polarity to overwhelming hegemony. In his essay, 'French Diplomacy in the Postwar Period', the French historian Jean-Baptiste Duroselle spoke of the concept of multi-polarity: "A Great power is one which is capable of preserving its own independence against any other single power."[12]

This differed from earlier writers, notably from Leopold von Ranke, who clearly had a different idea of the world situation. In his essay 'The Great Powers', written in 1833, von Ranke wrote: "If one could establish as a definition of a Great power that it must be able to maintain itself against all others, even when they are united, then Frederick has raised Prussia to that position."[13] These positions have been the subject of criticism.[5]

Spatial dimension

All states have a geographic scope of interests, actions, or projected power. This is a crucial factor in distinguishing a great power from a regional power; by definition the scope of a regional power is restricted to its region. It has been suggested that a great power should be possessed of actual influence throughout the scope of the prevailing international system. Arnold J. Toynbee, for example, observes that "Great power may be defined as a political force exerting an effect co-extensive with the widest range of the society in which it operates. The Great powers of 1914 were 'world-powers' because Western society had recently become 'world-wide'."[14]

Other suggestions have been made that a great power should have the capacity to engage in extra-regional affairs and that a great power ought to be possessed of extra-regional interests, two propositions which are often closely connected.[15]

Status dimension

Formal or informal acknowledgment of a nation's great-power status has also been a criterion for being a great power. As political scientist George Modelski notes, "The status of Great power is sometimes confused with the condition of being powerful, The office, as it is known, did in fact evolve from the role played by the great military states in earlier periods ... But the Great power system institutionalizes the position of the powerful state in a web of rights and obligations."[16]

This approach restricts analysis to the post-Congress of Vienna epoch; it being there that great powers were first formally recognized.[5] In the absence of such a formal act of recognition it has been suggested that great power status can arise by implication, by judging the nature of a state's relations with other great powers.[17]

A further option is to examine a state's willingness to act as a great power.[17] As a nation will seldom declare that it is acting as such, this usually entails a retrospective examination of state conduct. As a result this is of limited use in establishing the nature of contemporary powers, at least not without the exercise of subjective observation.

Other important criteria throughout history are that great powers should have enough influence to be included in discussions of political and diplomatic questions of the day, and have influence on the final outcome and resolution. Historically, when major political questions were addressed, several great powers met to discuss them. Before the era of groups like the United Nations, participants of such meetings were not officially named, but were decided based on their great power status. These were conferences which settled important questions based on major historical events. This might mean deciding the political resolution of various geographical and nationalist claims following a major conflict, or other contexts.

There are several historical conferences and treaties which display this pattern, such as the Congress of Vienna, the Congress of Berlin, the discussions of the Treaty of Versailles which redrew the map of Europe, and the Treaty of Westphalia.


The Congress of Vienna by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, 1819

Different sets of great, or significant, powers have existed throughout history; however, the term "great power" has only been used in scholarly or diplomatic discourse since the Congress of Vienna in 1815.[4][5] The Congress established the Concert of Europe as an attempt to preserve peace after the years of Napoleonic Wars.

Lord Castlereagh, the British Foreign Secretary, first used the term in its diplomatic context, in a letter sent on February 13, 1814: "It affords me great satisfaction to acquaint you that there is every prospect of the Congress terminating with a general accord and Guarantee between the Great powers of Europe, with a determination to support the arrangement agreed upon, and to turn the general influence and if necessary the general arms against the Power that shall first attempt to disturb the Continental peace."[7]

The Congress of Vienna consisted of five main powers: the United Kingdom, the Austrian Empire, Prussia, France, and Russia. These five primary participants constituted the original great powers as we know the term today.[5] Other powers, such as Spain, Portugal, and Sweden were consulted on certain specific issues, but they were not full participants. Hanover, Bavaria, and Württemberg were also consulted on issues relating to Germany.

Of the five original great powers recognised at the Congress of Vienna, only France and the United Kingdom have maintained that status throughout to the present day, although France was conquered and occupied during World War II. After the Congress of Vienna, the British Empire emerged as the pre-eminent power, due to its navy and the extent of its territories, which signalled the beginning of the Pax Britannica and of The Great Game between Britain and Russia. The Balance of power between the Great Powers became a major influence in European politics, prompting Otto von Bismarck to say "All politics reduces itself to this formula: try to be one of three, as long as the world is governed by the unstable equilibrium of five great powers."[18][19][20][21]

Over time, the relative power of these five nations fluctuated, which by the dawn of the 20th century had served to create an entirely different balance of power. Some, such as the United Kingdom and Prussia (as part of the newly formed German state), experienced continued economic growth and political power.[22] Others, such as Russia and Austria-Hungary, stagnated.[23] At the same time, other states were emerging and expanding in power, largely through the process of industrialization. The foremost of these emerging powers were Japan after the Meiji Restoration and the United States after its civil war, both of which had been minor powers in 1815. By the dawn of the 20th century the balance of world power had changed substantially since the Congress of Vienna. The Eight-Nation Alliance was a belligerent alliance of eight nations against the Boxer Rebellion in China. It formed in 1900 and consisted of the five Congress powers plus Italy, Japan, and the United States, representing the great powers at the beginning of 20th century.[24]

Great powers at war

Shifts of international power have most notably occurred through major conflicts.[25] The conclusion of the Great War and the resulting treaties of Versailles, St-Germain, and Trianon witnessed Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan and the United States as the chief arbiters of the new world order.[26] In the aftermath of World War I the German Empire was defeated, the Austria-Hungarian empire was divided into new, less powerful states and the Russian Empire fell to a revolution. During the Treaty of Versailles the "Big Three" — France, Great Britain and the United States — held noticeably more power and influence on the proceedings and outcome of the treaty than Italy or Japan.[27][28][29] The victorious great powers also gained an acknowledgement of their status through permanent seats at the League of Nations Council, where they acted as a type of executive body directing the Assembly of the League. But the Council began with only four permanent members — Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan – because the United States, meant to be the fifth permanent member, left because the US Senate voted on 19 March 1920 against the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, thus preventing American participation in the League.

When World War II started in 1939, it divided the world into two alliances – the Allies (the United Kingdom and France at first, followed in 1941 by the Soviet Union, the United States, and China); and the Axis powers consisting of Germany, Italy and Japan.[30][nb 1] The end of World War II saw the United States, United Kingdom, and Soviet Union emerge as the primary victors. The importance of the Republic of China and France was acknowledged by their inclusion, along with the other three, in the group of countries allotted permanent seats in the United Nations Security Council.

Since the end of the World Wars, the term "great power" has been joined by a number of other power classifications. Foremost among these is the concept of the superpower, used to describe those nations with overwhelming power and influence in the rest of the world. It was first coined in 1944 by William T.R. Fox[31] and according to him, there were three superpowers: the British Empire, the United States, and the Soviet Union. But by the mid 1950s the British Empire lost its superpower status, leaving the United States and the Soviet Union as the world's superpowers.[nb 2] The term middle power has emerged for those nations which exercise a degree of global influence, but are insufficient to be decisive on international affairs. Regional powers are those whose influence is generally confined to their region of the world.

During the Cold War, the Asian power of Japan and the European powers of the United Kingdom, France, and West Germany rebuilt their economies. France and the United Kingdom maintained technologically advanced armed forces with power projection capabilities and maintain large defence budgets to this day. Yet, as the Cold War continued, authorities began to question if France and the United Kingdom could retain their long-held statuses as great powers.[32] China, with the world's largest population, has slowly risen to great power status, with large growth in economic and military power in the post-war period. After 1949, the Republic of China began to lose its recognition as the sole legitimate government of China by the other great powers, in favour of the People's Republic of China. Subsequently, in 1971, it lost its permanent seat at the UN Security Council to the People's Republic of China.

Aftermath of the Cold War

The present day governments thought of as great powers
  Great powers with Security Council vetoes and nuclear weapons: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
  Economic great powers: Germany and Japan.

China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States are referred to as great powers.[33] These five nations are the only states to have permanent seats with veto power on the UN Security Council. They are also the recognized "Nuclear Weapons States" under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, its UN Security Council permanent seat was transferred to the Russian Federation in 1991, as its successor state. The newly formed Russian Federation emerged on the level of a great power, leaving the United States as the only remaining global superpower[nb 3] (although some support a multipolar world view).

However, there is no unanimous agreement among authorities as to the current status of these powers or what precisely defines a "great" power. Sources have at times referred to China,[34] France, the United Kingdom,[35] and Russia[36][37][38] as "middle powers".

Japan and Germany are usually classified as middle powers.[nb 4][39][40][41] However, they also occasionally referred to as economic great powers, because of their major economies, and grouped with the great powers,[citation needed] despite their lack of permanent seats and veto power on the UN Security Council, nuclear weapons, or strategic military reach.

With continuing European integration, the European Union is increasingly being seen as a great power in its own right,[42] with representation at the WTO and at G8 and G-20 summits. This is most notable in areas where the European Union has exclusive competence (i.e. economic affairs). It also reflects a non-traditional conception of Europe's world role as a global "civilian power", exercising collective influence in the functional spheres of trade and diplomacy, as an alternative to military dominance.[43] The European Union is not a sovereign state and has limited scope in the areas of foreign affairs and defence policy. These remain with the union's member states, which include three great powers in aggregate or economic terms: France, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

List of great powers by date

1815 c. 1880 c. 1900 1919
 Austrian Empire[1][4][5]  Austria-Hungary[44]  Austria-Hungary[24]
 British Empire[1][4][5]  British Empire[44]  British Empire[24]  British Empire[27]
 Empire of Japan[24]  Empire of Japan[27][nb 5]
France France[1][4][5] France France[44] France France[24] France France[27]
 Prussia[1][4][5]  German Empire[44]  German Empire[24]
 Italy[45][46][47][48]  Italy[24]  Italy[27]
 Russian Empire[1][4][5]  Russian Empire[44]  Russian Empire[24]
 United States[24]  United States[27]
c. 1939 1946 c. 2000
 Empire of Japan[30]  Japan[1][6][49][50]
France France[30] France France[1][2]  France[1][2][6]
 Germany[30]  Germany[1][6]
 Republic of China[1][2]  People's Republic of China[1][2][6][49][51][52]
 Soviet Union[30]  Soviet Union[1][2][31]  Russia[1][2][6][49]
 United Kingdom[nb 6][30]  United Kingdom[1][2][31]  United Kingdom[1][2][6]
 United States[30]  United States[1][2][31]  United States[1][2][6][53]

See also


  1. ^ Even though the book: The Economics of World War II lists 7 great powers at the start of 1939 (the British Empire, the Empire of Japan, France, the Kingdom of Italy, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and the United States) This book focuses only on 6 of the 7 great powers that fought during World War II. This is because France surrendered shortly after the war began.
  2. ^ The 1956 Suez Crisis suggested that the United Kingdom, financially weakened by two world wars, could not then pursue its foreign policy objectives on an equal footing with the new superpowers without sacrificing convertibility of its reserve currency as a central goal of policy. – from superpower cited by Adam Klug and Gregor W. Smith, 'Suez and Sterling', Explorations in Economic History, Vol. 36, No. 3 (July 1999), pp. 181–203.
  3. ^ The fall of the Berlin wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union left the United States as the only remaining superpower in the 90's.
  4. ^ Germany is presented by Chancellor Angela Merkel, former president Johannes Rau, and leading media of the country, as a "middle" political power in Europe.
    Robert Birnbaum. "Porträt: Angela Merkel" (in German). Tagesspiegel online. Retrieved 2007-01-31. "Weichenstellungen in der Außen– und ihrem Unterkapitel, der Sicherheitspolitik sind zugleich von großer Bedeutung für die Zukunft der Mittelmacht Deutschland." [dead link]
  5. ^ "the prime minister of Canada (during the Treaty of Versailles) said that there were "only three major powers left in the world the United States, Britain and Japan" ... (but) The Great Powers could not be consistent. At the instance of Britain, Japan's ally, they gave Japan five delegates to the Peace Conference, just like themselves, but in the Supreme Council the Japanese were generally ignored or treated as something of a joke." from MacMillan, Margaret (2003). Paris 1919. United States of America: Random House Trade. p. 306. ISBN 0-375-76052-0. 
  6. ^ After the Statute of Westminster came into effect in 1931 the United Kingdom no longer represented the British Empire in world affairs.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t "Great Powers". Encarta. MSN. 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-20. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Louden, Robert (2007). "Great+power" The world we want. United States of America: Oxford University Press US. pp. 187. ISBN 0195321375."Great+power". 
  3. ^ Kelsen, Hans (2000). The law of the United Nations: a critical analysis of its fundamental .... United States of America: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd.. pp. 272–281, 911. ISBN 1584770775. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Fueter, Eduard (1922). World history, 1815–1920. United States of America: Harcourt, Brace and Company. pp. 25–28, 36–44. ISBN 1584770775. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Danilovic, Vesna. "When the Stakes Are High—Deterrence and Conflict among Major Powers", University of Michigan Press (2002), p 27, p225-p228 (PDF chapter downloads) (PDF copy).
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h "Great+power" Balance of Power. United States of America: State University of New York Press, 2005. 2005. pp. 59, 282. ISBN 0791464016."Great+power".  Accordingly, the great powers after the Cold War are Britain, China, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, and the United States p.59
  7. ^ a b Webster, Charles K, Sir (ed), British Diplomacy 1813–1815: Selected Documents Dealing with the Reconciliation of Europe, G Bell (1931), p307.
  8. ^ Toje, A. (2010). The European Union as a small power: After the post-Cold War. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  9. ^ Waltz, Kenneth N (1979). Theory of International Politics. McGraw-Hill. p. 131. ISBN 0201083493. 
  10. ^ Taylor, Alan JP (1954). The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848–1918. Oxford: Clarendon. p. xxiv. ISBN 0198812701. 
  11. ^ Organski, AFK – World Politics, Knopf (1958)
  12. ^ contained on page 204 in: Kertesz and Fitsomons (eds) – Diplomacy in a Changing World, University of Notre Dame Press (1959)
  13. ^ Iggers and von Moltke "In the Theory and Practice of History", Bobbs-Merril (1973)
  14. ^ Toynbee, Arnold J (1926). The World After the Peace Conference. Humphrey Milford and Oxford University Press. p. 4. 
  15. ^ Stoll, Richard J – State Power, World Views, and the Major Powers, Contained in: Stoll and Ward (eds) – Power in World Politics, Lynne Rienner (1989)
  16. ^ Modelski, George (1972). Principles of World Politics. Free Press. p. 141. ISBN 978-0029214404. 
  17. ^ a b Domke, William K – Power, Political Capacity, and Security in the Global System, Contained in: Stoll and Ward (eds) – Power in World Politics, Lynn Rienner (1989)
  18. ^ "Peace, War, and the European Powers, 1814–1914". Retrieved 2011-06-12. 
  19. ^ "Ideology and International Relations in the Modern World". Retrieved 2011-06-12. 
  20. ^ "The Transformation of European Politics, 1763–1848". Retrieved 2011-06-12. 
  21. ^ Britain And Germany: from Ally to Enemy[dead link]
  22. ^ "Multi-polarity vs Bipolarity, Subsidiary hypotheses, Balance of Power" (PPT). University of Rochester. Retrieved 2008-12-20. [dead link]
  23. ^ Tonge, Stephen; head of history at Catholic University School in Dublin. "European History Austria-Hungary 1870–1914". Retrieved 2008-12-20. 
  24. ^ a b c d e f g h i Dallin, David (2006-11-30). The Rise of Russia in Asia. Read Books. ISBN 9781406729191. 
  25. ^ Power Transitions as the cause of war.
  26. ^ Globalization and Autonomy by Julie Sunday, McMaster University.
  27. ^ a b c d e f MacMillan, Margaret (2003). Paris 1919. United States of America: Random House Trade. pp. 36, 306, 431. ISBN 0-375-76052-0. 
  28. ^ Boemeke, Manfred; Gerald D. Feldman, Elisabeth Glaser-Schmidt (1998). The Treaty of Versailles: 75 Years After. United States of America: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-62132-1. 
  29. ^ Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan has the Council of Five (Britain, France, Italy, Japan and the United States) as the main victors and remaining Great Powers.
  30. ^ a b c d e f g h Harrison, M (2000) The Economics of World War II: Six Great Powers in International Comparison, Cambridge University Press.
  31. ^ a b c d The Superpowers: The United States, Britain and the Soviet Union – Their Responsibility for Peace (1944), written by William T.R. Fox
  32. ^ Holmes, John. "Middle Power". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2008-12-20. 
  33. ^ Yasmi Adriansyah, 'Questioning Indonesia's place in the world', Asia Times (20 September 2011): 'Though there are still debates on which countries belong to which category, there is a common understanding that the GP [great power] countries are the United States, China, United Kingdom, France and Russia. Besides their political and economic dominance of the global arena, these countries have special status in the United Nations Security Council with their permanent seats and veto rights.'
  34. ^ Gerald Segal, Does China Matter?, Foreign Affairs (September/October 1999).
  35. ^ according to P. Shearman, M. Sussex, European Security After 9/11, Ashgate, 2004, both UK and France were global powers now reduced to middle-power status.
  36. ^ Iver B Neumanna, "Russia as a great power, 1815–2007", Journal of International Relations and Development (2008) 11, p. 128: "As long as Russia's rationality of government deviates from present-day hegemonic neo-liberal models by favouring direct state rule rather than indirect governance, the West will not recognize Russia as a fully fledged great power."
  37. ^ Sherman Garnett, "Russia ponders its nuclear options", The Washington Times (6 November 1995), p. 2: "Russia must deal with the rise of other middle powers in Eurasia at a time when it is more of a middle power itself."
  38. ^ Geoff Kitney, "Putin It To The People", Sydney Morning Herald (25 March 2000), p. 41: "The Council for Foreign and Defence Policy, which includes senior figures believed to be close to Putin, will soon publish a report saying Russia's superpower days are finished and that the country should settle for being a middle power with a matching defence structure."
  39. ^ Sperling, James (2001). "Neither Hegemony nor Dominance: Reconsidering German Power in Post Cold-War Europe". British Journal of Political Science 31 (02). doi:10.1017/S0007123401000151.;jsessionid=BAF3F6B6103D4CEF49834F52571F68B0.tomcat1?fromPage=online&aid=68015. 
  40. ^ Max Otte, Jürgen Greve (2000). A Rising Middle Power?: German Foreign Policy in Transformation, 1989–1999. Germany. p. 324. ISBN 0312226535. 
  41. ^ Er LP (2006) Japan's Human Security Rolein Southeast Asia
  42. ^ Buzan, Barry (2004). The United States and the Great Powers. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Polity Press. p. 70. ISBN 0745633757. 
  43. ^ Veit Bachmann and James D Sidaway, "Zivilmacht Europa: A Critical Geopolitics of the European Union as a Global Power", Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Jan., 2009), pp. 94-109.
  44. ^ a b c d e McCarthy, Justin (1880). A History of Our Own Times, from 1880 to the Diamond Jubilee. New York, United States of America: Harper & Brothers, Publishers. pp. 475–476.,M1. 
  45. ^ Kennedy, Paul (1987). The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. United States of America: Random House. p. 204. ISBN 0-394-54674-1. 
  46. ^ Best, Antony; Hanhimäki, Jussi; Maiolo, Joseph; Schulze, Kirsten (2008). International History of the Twentieth Century and Beyond. United States of America: Routledge. p. 9. ISBN 0415438969. 
  47. ^ Wight, Martin (2002). Power Politics. United Kingdom: Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 46. ISBN 0826461743. 
  48. ^ Waltz, Kenneth (1979). Theory of International Politics. United States of America: McGraw-Hill. p. 162. ISBN 0-07-554852-6. 
  49. ^ a b c UW Press: Korea's Future and the Great Powers
  50. ^ Richard N. Haass, "Asia’s overlooked Great Power", Project Syndicate April 20, 2007.
  51. ^ Yong Deng and Thomas G. Moore (2004) "China Views Globalization: Toward a New Great-Power Politics?" The Washington Quarterly
  52. ^ Friedman, George (2008-06-15). "The Geopolitics of China". Stratfor. Retrieved 2008-07-10. 
  53. ^ "Analyzing American Power in the Post-Cold War Era". Retrieved 2007-02-28. 

Further reading

  • The Tragedy of Great Power Politics by John J. Mearsheimer
  • Theory of International Politics by Kenneth N Waltz
  • World Politics: Trend and Transformation by Eugene R. Witkopf
  • The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy
  • France and the Nazi Threat: The Collapse of French Diplomacy 1932–1939 by Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, Introduction by Anthony Adamthwaite (Enigma Books, ISBN 1-929631-15-4)

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