The U.S. as "Superpower". Good or Bad for International Stability?

Essay, 2008

9 Seiten


There is now only one real ‘superpower’ in world affairs. Is this good or bad for international stability?

United States (US) foreign policy has often centred on preserving the ‘American way of life’, yet since the fall of the Soviet Union it developed into that of being the undisputed leader of the world. The ‘balance of power’ that was afforded both before and during the Cold War is no longer. This essay will argue that the US does more harm than good in its efforts to be a ‘great’ superpower especially in this age of a one-sided ‘balance of power’. In other words, having only one real ‘superpower’ is bad for international stability.

The author will begin by defining what constitutes a ‘superpower’. He will then examine the theory of international relations with regards to the geometry of power, looking at ‘unipolarity’, ‘bipolarity’ and ‘multipolarity’. The author will subsequently take a brief look at the Cold War era, comparing it to the unipolar world that we presently have. The author will finish by examining the role that the United States plays in international affairs.

We live in an age of many ‘super’ things such as ‘supercars’, ‘superstars’, ‘supermodels’, ‘supercomputers’, and ‘supertankers’. Yet, we only have one so-called ‘superpower’. This was not the case when the American William T.R. Fox coined the term back in 1943. He defined a superpower as ‘a state of the first rank in the international system, with interests and capabilities of global extent’.[1] When he published his book ‘ The Superpowers’ in 1944, he at first pictured three superpowers emerging: The United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain. According to Fox, a superpower could be further defined as one being a nation that wields ‘great power plus great mobility of power’.[2] In other words, it should be a nation that has greater political, economic or military power than other nations. Indeed, with World War II still taking place, it was easy to see how these countries could be seen as ‘extremely powerful nations’.[3] However, the War had gravely damaged Britain’s economy that in turn led to the eventual collapse of the British Empire. The Cold War subsequently saw the start of a ‘bipolar’ age between the US and the Soviet Union. Therefore, what is ‘bipolarity’?

When examining the geometry of power in international relations, one speaks of ‘unipolarity’, ‘bipolarity’ and ‘multipolarity’. The Cold War, with two opposing superpowers each maintaining the ‘balance of terror’ through an arms race, is a model example of ‘bipolarity’. ‘Multipolarity’ was best seen in Europe in 1914 where Great Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Germany and Russia were the major powers. With regards to ‘unipolarity’, it is the first time that we have been in a unipolar world, with the US of course, remaining the one predominant power. Some academics, such as Charles Kupchan, see the unipolarity as but an ‘illusion,’ a ‘moment’ that ‘will not last long’.[4] Samuel Huntington, on the other hand, questioned whether we do in fact live in a unipolar world at all, with it being in reality ‘uni-multipolar’.[5] Nevertheless, when arguing that a unipolar world is a bad thing for international security, one should compare it to bipolar and multipolar systems.

One could argue that World War I should be a good enough example of the consequences of a multipolar system to make a strong case against it. However, it is on closer examination that one discovers that until 1945, we had been, to all intents and purposes, living in a multipolar system since the beginning of civilisation. There were a couple of occasions of bipolar existence such as Athens and Sparta or Rome and Carthage, but due to the lack of an in depth history of those periods, one is unable to do anything but speculate on what truly happened.[6] If one draws a comparison between the multipolar world of 1900 to 1945 and the bipolar Cold War period, one will note a substantial difference.

During the first 45 years of the 20th century, some 50 million Europeans were killed in wars due to the instability between states. Compare this to the approximate 15,000 Europeans that were killed during the Cold War, there would appear to be little doubt that a bipolar existence is more beneficial.[7] However, that 45 year long period experienced immense change. In 1950, US President Harry S. Truman initiated a document about US Policy during the Cold War referred to as National Security Council Resolution Number 68 (NSC-68) that very aptly summarises the immediate pre-Cold War era:

‘Within the past thirty-five years the world has experienced two global wars of tremendous violence. It has witnessed two revolutions—the Russian and the Chinese—of extreme scope and intensity. It has also seen the collapse of five empires—the Ottoman, the Austro-Hungarian, German, Italian and Japanese—and the drastic decline of two major imperial systems, the British and the French. During the span of one generation, the international distribution of power has been fundamentally altered.’[8]

Of course, outside of Europe, we have made no mention of the 1.2 million soldiers killed in the Korean War, neither the 1.2 million killed in the Vietnam War nor the 850,000 killed in the Iran-Iraq War, to mention but a few.[9] The problem with the multipolar system that existed in the first half of the 20th century was that whilst the various powers jostled for supremacy or advantage, an imbalance of strength occurred. Indeed, although a war between two superpowers is potentially more disastrous, smaller wars involving minor powers in a multipolar world could equally lead to a big war, as we witnessed in the First World War. Therefore a multipolar system would not be beneficial to international stability. However, as the Cold War is the only real example of a bipolar system that we can draw upon, can we use this as an alternative scenario to unipolar existence that we have at present?

Many people will associate the Cold War with the Cuban missile crisis, the U-2 affair and the building of the Berlin Wall amongst other things. It was a time of distrust, xenophobia and nervousness due to the fact that neither superpower wanted to concede to the other. Although the Cold War was rife with the fear of a nuclear war, John Lewis Gaddis famously described it as ‘The Long Peace’[10] due to the fact that Europe was free from war for almost 50 years. The author believes that the bipolar world that we had was destined to end since the balance of power was reliant on maintaining the pace set by each other. With President Ronald Reagan’s massive increase in arms production in the 1980s, the Soviet Union, under the presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev’s realised that it was unable to match the US’s budget. Thus, the Cold War ended and another superpower disintegrated.

The US, since becoming the sole superpower in this unipolar world, has provoked much controversy in the past decade or so. Not long after the fall of the Soviet Union, the US Pentagon drafted, in 1992, a ‘new grand strategy designed to preserve unipolarity by preventing the emergence of a global rival.’[11] However, this plan was quickly withdrawn as it ran into controversy both at home and abroad, with criticisms that it was both ‘quixotic and dangerous’.[12] Instead, officials spoke of the US being a ‘leader’ or the ‘indispensable nation’.[13] These words later came back to haunt the US following their rejection of the Kyoto treaty to control global warming in 2001. The Guardian newspaper, quick to take up the ‘pen of righteousness,’ said this of the US:

“America, the ‘indispensable nation,’ begins to resemble the ultimate rogue state. Instead of leading a community of nations, Bush’s America seems increasingly bent on confronting it. Instead of a shining city on a hill … comes a … nationalistic jingle: we do what we want … and if you don’t like it, well, tough.”[14]

It seems ironic that George Bush Senior should have been the US President at the time of the first statement and that his son, George W. Bush was President when they rejected the Kyoto treaty. The above statement, nonetheless, summarises our worst fears of the US’s part in a unipolar world. U.S. writer and civil rights activist Eldridge Cleaver once said that ‘Americans think of themselves collectively as a huge rescue squad on a twenty-four-hour call to any spot on the globe where dispute and conflict may erupt.’[15] Not long after the Kosovo crisis ended, the Clinton Administration issued what became known as the ‘Clinton Doctrine’. This in essence stated that the US would forcefully intervene to prevent human rights abuses, if it could do so without suffering substantial casualties, even if it meant without the authority of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The US has in effect taken on the role of the UN without the agreement of the other 187 nations. It is, in other words, undermining the authority of the UN.


[1] “Superpower”, Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2001.

[2] Fox, W. (1944) The Super-Powers. The United States, Britain and the Soviet Union: Their Responsibility for Peace, New York, Harcourt Brace, p. 21

[3] The Pocket Oxford Dictionary (1996) Oxford, Clarendon Press, p. 915

[4] Kupchan, C.A. (1999) “Rethinking Europe”, National Interest, No. 56 (Summer 1999)

[5] Huntington, S.P. (1999) “The Lonely Superpower,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 78, No. 2 (March/April 1999), p. 36

[6]Essay - An Outlook on the Future....” Available from:

[7]Essay – An Outlook on the Future …”, loc cit.

[8]US Policy During the Cold War” Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2001

[9]20th Century Atlas - Ranking Wars” Available from:

[10]Essay - An Outlook on the Future....” loc cit.

[11] Tyler, P. (1992) “The Lone Superpower Plan: Ammunition for Critics , New York Times, March 10, 1992, p. A12

[12] Wohlforth, W.C. (1999) “The Stability of a Unipolar World”, International Security, Vol. 24, No.1 (Summer 1999), p. 5

[13] “Clinton Urges NATO Expansion in 1999,” New York Times, October 23, 1996, p. A20

[14] ‘A Dirty Business: Mr. Bush Has Put US Credibility on the Line.’ Guardian, March 30, 2001, p.21.

[15] Microsoft Encarta World English Dictionary 2001

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The U.S. as "Superpower". Good or Bad for International Stability?
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Brian Brown (Autor), 2008, The U.S. as "Superpower". Good or Bad for International Stability?, München, GRIN Verlag,


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