At the dawn of the 21st century, the United States of America bestrode the world as the sole remaining superpower. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade earlier American military and economic might dwarfed that of its rivals. American culture, from music, to film, to the blue jeans they exported around the world were hungrily consumed. The political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared it to be the triumph of liberal democracy and the end of history.
However, the balance of global power is in a state of constant flux. The USA will remain a superpower for as long as can reasonably be foreseen, but other nations are closing the gap. Economists predict that within a few decades America’s economic dominance will be eclipsed. Other nations might attempt to rival the US in military force. In this list we look at 10 potential superpowers of the 21st century.
10. Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is the 12th largest country in the world, and in terms of natural resources the second richest. The Middle Eastern kingdom sits on huge reserves of oil and natural gas worth something in the region of an astonishing $34.4 trillion.
This wealth of natural resources provides both financial and political capital. As the most influential member of OPEC, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudis have considerable influence over the global supply and price of petroleum. With most countries in the world still heavily dependent on oil, this is no small consideration for friends and foes of the kingdom alike.
In recent years Saudi Arabia has added a substantial military capability to its arsenal, with spending that exceeds all other nations apart from America, China, and Russia. In 2015 Saudi Arabia led a coalition of nine African and Middle Eastern nations to war in Yemen. This demonstrated that the Saudis were prepared to use their growing military strength, and that they possessed enough influence to convince several allies to assist them.
With the Western powers becoming less influential in the Middle East, there is an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to become the defining power in the region. From there it could potentially go on to become global a superpower.
The Middle East might just have room for one superpower, but there isn’t room for two. Saudi Arabia’s interests will increasingly collide with those of Iran, another regional power with big ambitions. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are Islamic countries. However, the Saudis are majority Sunni Muslims, and about 90% of Iranians are Shias. The two groups, and the two countries, tend not to get along well.
Iran spent most of the 1980s locked in conflict with neighboring Iraq. With the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq plunging the country into chaos, and wiping it out as a regional power, Iran has looked to profit. The Iranian Government has funded rebel groups and done its best to ensure Iraq remains fractured and destabilized. A weakened Iraq serves Iran well, and the immediate goal seems to be to bring Iraq’s vast oilfields under direct or indirect Iranian control. This would vastly increase Iran’s power and influence, both in the Middle East and across the world.
Despite a well-educated population of more than 80 million, the world’s fourth largest oil reserves, an advanced nuclear program, and an increasingly hi-tech military, American led sanctions remain a substantial drag factor on Iran’s economy. According to the IMF they may have wiped as much as 15-20% from Iranian GDP since 2011. If and when these sanctions are lifted and the economy is unshackled, Iran might quickly become a major force to be reckoned with.
The West African nation of Nigeria is beset by problems. It’s widely regarded as one of the most corrupt nations, with Nigerian princes having become synonymous with internet scammers. An estimated 89 million Nigerians, more than a third of the entire population, live in poverty, and their numbers are increasing. A severe brain drain is under way as doctors and other professionals flee the country for better opportunities elsewhere. Meanwhile the government has been unable to quell an armed insurgency by the fanatical Islamic fighters of Boko Haram.
Despite these seemingly insoluble problems Nigeria is a land of immense potential, and it is expected to battle through the chaos to become Africa’s most powerful and influential nation. The process is already underway. Nigeria overtook South Africa as the continent’s largest economy in 2014. While growth in South Africa is expected to remain sluggish, in Nigeria Gross Domestic Product is predicted to more than double from 411 billion dollars in 2018 to one-trillion by 2030.
Nigeria’s growing economic strength will be boosted by its already significant soft power, which is loosely defined as the ability to influence international relations through cultural influence. Nigeria’s soft power rests on its major contributions to various peacekeeping operations, its credentials as a democracy, and an output of music and film admired around Africa and the world.
If Nigeria can take steps to address its endemic problems of corruption and poverty, then its booming population and economy should see it emerge as Africa’s dominant power.
Over the course of 21st century, climate change is likely to alter the world forever. At its worst it could herald the collapse of civilization as we know it. Even under more optimistic predictions it could reshape global politics and the balance of power.
Even a relatively modest temperature increase over the next on-hundred years could potentially render much of the Middle East uninhabitable, while rising sea levels could wipe out several island nations and leave major coastal cities across the globe submerged.
However, the suffering will not be equally shared. Already the second largest country in the world by area, the amount of available land in Canada will increase as the glaciers that cover around 125,000 square miles of the country melt away to nothing.
In addition to natural resources such as oil, minerals, precious metals, and large quantities of timber, Canada possesses 20% of the world’s freshwater. Many experts believe the major wars of the twenty first century are likely to be fought over diminishing reserves of freshwater, so this will become an increasingly valuable resource to possess in such abundant supply.
At the end of 1945 Japan lay in ruins. Defeat in World War Two had laid waste to almost every city and town, and around 3 million Japanese had lost their lives.
However, the United States of America wanted Japan to serve as a bulwark against communism in the East. With American financial aid flowing in, and a society that placed high value on a ferocious work ethic, Japan was soon back on her feet. By the 1980s she possessed the world’s second biggest economy and was being touted as an emerging superpower.
Since then Japanese growth has stalled, with their old rival China overtaking them as the world’s second greatest economic powerhouse. However, Japan should not be entirely written off as a potential superpower.
As the current century progresses, a major new arms race is likely to gather speed. Rather than being between traditional armies, navies, and air forces, it will be fought in the final frontier of space.
The Japanese are in a strong position to become a leading participant. Japan is investing heavily in its space program; this is now seen as not just a purely scientific endeavor, but as vital to the nation’s ongoing security. Given the country’s considerable economic clout and exceptionally high levels of technological prowess, there are few other nations that would be able to compete.
The ability to potentially destroy, disrupt, or capture satellites belonging to rival powers, or attack targets on the ground from orbit, would be a major strategic advantage. Control of space might prove to be as important to the potential superpowers of the twenty-first century as naval strength was to the great powers of the previous centuries.
The history of Russia provides a striking example of how quickly a superpower can rise and fall. At the outbreak of World War Two in 1939 British intelligence believed Poland to be stronger than Russia. Just a few years later and the Soviet Union, with Russia at its heart, had played a major role in defeating Nazi Germany and occupied most of Eastern Europe. At the beginning of 1990 almost nobody was predicting the imminent demise of the communist superpower, but by 1992 the Soviet Union no longer existed.
After a tumultuous two decades Russian power is growing once again. Russia’s military budget, in both real terms and percentage of GDP, is amongst the highest in the world. A significant chunk of Ukraine, once part of the Soviet Union, has again been gobbled up. With the NATO alliance in decline, Baltic states such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania fear they might face the same fate. Meanwhile, Russia feels confident enough to order the poisoning of dissidents ostensibly under the protection of powers such as Great Britain, seemingly without any great fear of reprisal.
Russia is still heavily dependent on oil, and its economy is plagued by corruption. However, it is still one of only five nations with power of veto on the United Nations Security Council, and the Russian bear still has claws in the form of the world’s largest arsenals of nuclear weapons. It’s entirely plausible that Russia might reclaim its place as a 21st century superpower.
Along with Russia, India, and China, Brazil completes the original quartet of so-called BRIC nations. They were named by Jim O’Neil of Goldman Sachs in 2001, following his investment bank’s prediction that they would become four of the world’s five biggest economies by 2050.
Since then the four nations, joined by South Africa in 2010, have formed a loose political alliance, cooperated on issues such as trade and healthcare, and formed a joint bank to fund development projects across the world.
The South American giant is held back by high levels of poverty and income inequality; this is particularly striking since just the six richest people in Brazil boast a combined wealth greater than the poorest 100 million. However, Brazil is blessed with vast natural wealth. The Tupi oil field, discovered off the coast of Rio de Janeiro in 2008, contains an estimated 8 billion barrels. A second offshore discovery was even more substantial and will see Brazil join the ranks of the world’s major oil exporters.
Brazil is also home to around 30% of the world’s remaining rainforests and with it a wealth of resources such as nickel, manganese, copper, bauxite and timber.
By 2025 it’s predicted that India will replace China as the world’s most populous nation. While China faces a demographic time bomb due to the recently lifted one-child policy, India has the largest and youngest workforce in the world.
This boom in population is being matched by impressive economic growth, and some experts believe the Indian economy will have overtaken that of the United States of America by 2050.
India is flanked by Pakistan to the west and China to the north, and these powers have not traditionally been friendly. Pakistan and India went to war in 1965, and in 1967 a border dispute brought them into military conflict with the Chinese. However, India now has enough military strength to feel secure despite the proximity of these powerful potential foes.
The military boasts a nuclear arsenal of around one-hundred warheads, and the capability to launch them from land, sea, and air. Two aircraft carriers, with a third under construction, mean that India is one of the few nations capable of projecting significant military force almost anywhere across the globe.
The increasing strength of India’s economy, military capabilities, and fledgling space program is backed up by soft power. The nation is home to more billion-dollar startup business than everywhere except the United States of America and China, and its Bollywood film industry produces more films and sells more tickets than America’s Hollywood.
Napoleon Bonaparte once described China as a sleeping lion; he warned that when she woke the whole world would tremble. For much of the twentieth century China was weak, divided and troubled, at war with herself and her neighbors. Now, in the twenty-first century, she is finally awake.
In economic terms China is already a superpower. China’s GDP of more than 12 trillion dollars is bettered only by that of the United States of America, and when adjusted for purchasing power parity the huge Asian nation comes out on top.
Chinese banks are funding vast infrastructure projects in 78 countries around the world. This has been described as the China’s answer to the Marshall Plan and the biggest infrastructure project in history. This huge investment will allow China access to foreign markets and resources, buy allies across the world, and potentially rival the United States of America as a superpower.
While China still lags some way behind the USA in military terms, the gap is nowhere near as great as it once was. James Fannel of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy predicts that by 2030 China will have more operational warships than the US Navy and will be established as the dominant military power in Asia.
1. The European Union
The United States of America has a GDP of 19.4 trillion dollars and spends more than 600 billion a year on the most powerful military machine on the planet. No single nation comes close to matching this, but the collection of nations that make up the European Union can. For this reason it has been suggested that the European Union should be classed as a superpower.
In 2018 the EU’s GDP was 18.8 trillion, placing it a very close second to the United States of America. While the EU doesn’t field a combined army, at least not yet, several of its member states possess very substantial military capabilities. This is includes more than 1.5 million active military personnel, even more than the USA’s 1.2 million. The Eurofighter Typhoon, built as a joint project between the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain is touted as the most technologically advanced combat aircraft anywhere in the world.
Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the EU, has recently said that the time had come for the EU to become a global player. However, it remains to be seen whether the political and economic union of so many nations, each of them with differing priorities and interests, is a sustainable project.