Something that I have been thinking about lately is the Great Powers of the world. The countries that influence other countries. Sometimes the countries being influenced are on the other side of the world. Which countries are doing the influencing? Outside of the Superpowers and Great Powers, who are the Middle or Regional powers who have an informal sphere of influence?
To answer these questions, I hit my trusty friend Wikipedia to do some reading. Ten countries or supranational governments have been considered to be Great Powers since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the fall of Napoleon (by modern name or their successor state):
Russia (Superpower from 1945 to 1991)
United Kingdom (Superpower from 1815 to 1919)
United States (Superpower from 1945 to 2021)
These are the countries that have done most of the invading, trading, empire-building, inventing, and negotiating over the past 200 years. All of the permanent members of the security council are on this list. Outside of the United States, all of them can be found in Eurasia. Except for India and China, all of these powers did their fair share of colonization before 1945.
I consider all of these countries to currently be Great Powers:
People’s Republic of China
Defining middle powers is a much more difficult task. I started with the G20 because that captured the largest economies in the world. To that, I added countries with homemade nuclear weapons or ones that will soon have them (Israel, Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea) and countries that operate or operated aircraft or helicopter carriers (Egypt, Netherlands, Spain, and Thailand) to add in countries who can project military power. I then added Nigeria and New Zealand who are identified as important regional powers by scholars and were missed by the other lists.
Visualization and thoughts
With all of these countries, I looked to try to figure out how they interacted over time. Here is the resulting chart.
One of the things that jumps out is how important it was to be independent in 1815. The core colonial powers of Western Europe are on the list: Spain, France, Germany, the UK, Netherlands, and Italy. As well as the other empires of the 1800s and 1900s: Russia, Austria, Japan, and the Ottoman Empire.
The United States, Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina all moved from being colonies to countries early compared to Africa and Asia. This allowed the United States to transition to being an imperial power. Brazil and Argentina were large enough and powerful enough to engage in an arms race in the 1910s.1 Thailand, China, and Iran managed to stay mostly independent through the age of imperialism while surrounded by other colonies. I think independence before 1815 is so important because of how extractive colonial relationships were. Many colonial powers had little interest in building lasting institutions and governance was mostly an afterthought and large countries with long periods of sovereignty have the time to build those institutions
The other thing that jumps out is that the British Empire birthed so many other powerful countries. About half of the middle powers that came out of the British Empire were the so-called “white colonies” of the empire that got Dominion status after World War I. The other daughters of the British Empire — Nigeria, Israel, India, Pakistan, and Egypt — are more interesting. Large populations (Nigeria, India, and Pakistan) and being located at important geopolitical locations (Israel and Egypt) probably helped them rise to be important geopolitical players.
Four countries of the thirty-one on the list — North Korea, South Korea, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia — were neither independent in 1815 nor part of the British Empire. The Koreas were the sight of a major war in the 1950s and central to Cold War geopolitics. Saudi Arabia became fantastically wealthy after discovering large amounts of oil. Indonesia’s large population makes them an economic powerhouse.
Just like the balance of power has changed over the last 200 years, it will continue to change. Saudia Arabia and Iran rely on oil exports and reductions in fossil fuel usage has the possibility of choking their influence. India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and China are going to continue to gain power and influence as Asia becomes more important. Each has different challenges, but all need to tackle the poverty within their borders. The EU will, at some point, either operate as a country or fall apart. It houses three Great Powers — France, Germany, and Italy — and could be a center of power in its own right. As the US’s influence declines, it needs to decide how it is going to act in a multipolar world. The possibilities are endless.
I am now amazed that Chile, the other party in the arms race, did not make this list