The Term “Great Powers” has been around since the end of the Napoleonic wars. It was first used by Lord Castlereigh, the British foreign minister, in 1814, and the term was used at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to describe Great Britain, France, Prussia, Austria, and Russia, who called the shots at that conference.
But what defines a Great Power?
The professor who taught me international politics in college defined the term to mean, “Any country whose interests must be taken into account by every other country.” He gave as an example of the difference between a Great Power and a lesser one an incident in 1940, after the fall of France. The Royal Navy, looking at a map of the Atlantic, realized that Iceland, without military forces and a tiny population, might be subject to a German coup de main. A German submarine base in Iceland, sitting athwart the vital Atlantic sea lanes, was a nightmare.
Britain acted like a Great Power. A force of 1,500 Royal Marines landed at Reykjavik, and the Icelandic government was simply informed, after the landing, that Britain had assumed responsibility for the defense of Iceland. That, as it happened, was fine with the Icelanders, not that they had any say in the matter, and the next year the United States took over the defense of Iceland, a responsibility that it still has.
By the turn of the twentieth century, the United States had joined the ranks of the Great Powers, and many people regarded Japan as one as well. Prussia by this point had been subsumed into Germany, and Austria lost its status after the Austrian Empire was broken up following World War I. That made six Great Powers, now operating on a global scale.
As defeated powers, neither Germany nor Japan were given permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council, but China—at that point only potentially a Great Power—was given one.
Today, the United States is often considered a Superpower, with by far the largest military establishment in the world as well as by far the largest economy with which to sustain that power. With China rising quickly, the other permanent members of the Security Council are major economic powers (Russia’s GDP being highly dependant on the price of oil, however) but much smaller military ones. Still, they are all nuclear powers, with the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons anywhere in the world. Following my old professor’s dictum, they are thus all Great Powers, as no one is going to ignore the interests of a country armed with nuclear weapons or feel free to land troops uninvited on its shores.
The great historian A. J. P. Taylor, thought military capacity was the sine qua non of Great Power status, “The test of a Great Power,” he wrote, “is the test of strength for war.”
But in a world where the possibility of Great Power wars, such as the conflicts that so dominated the first half of the twentieth century, is currently remote, and where the integration of the global economy is proceeding at a breakneck pace, I wonder if that is still true. Perhaps the test of a Great Power nowadays is the ability to compete in the marketplace, not on the battlefield.
Germany and Japan are certainly Great Powers economically, but not militarily. India and Brazil are rising to that status. According to the World Bank in 2006, there were 10 countries whose GDP exceeds a trillion dollars (roughly 2 percent of world GDP): The United States ($13.2 trillion), Japan ($4.3), Germany ($2.9), China ($2.7), Great Britain ($2.3), France ($2.2), Italy ($1.8), Canada ($1.3), Spain ($1.2), and Brazil($1.1). Russia ($.98) and India ($.9) are nearly there.
Do we have 5 Great Powers, based on nuclear weapons, or 12, based on GDP?
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