Geography A2 Contested Planet - Superpowers

Superpower Geographies

  • Created by: Laura
  • Created on: 28-01-12 17:52

What is a superpower?

Superpowers are countries with disproportionate power & influence. They are usually large countries in terms of population & physical extent. Physical size may provide a natural resource base that the superpower can draw on. True superpowers have global influnce. Currently there is only one superpower, the USA.

Superpowers have economic, cultural & military power resulting in global political influence. Other types of powers that aren't as influencial as superpowers:

  • Emerging superpowers: have growing influence e.g. China who has a growing economy & growing military power but less cultural influence than the USA.
  • Emerging powers: are further away from superpower status. They have powerful cards such as energy resources, but not a full deck of global influence. Includes Russia & India.
  • Regional powers: play an important economic & political role in their continent e.g. South Africa & Japan. 
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Maintaining power

International influence has to be maintained. Superpowers do this using different mechanisms, some of which are hard (overt) & some of which are soft/ more subtle.

Superpowers use hard power mechanisms as they are more obvious & threatening. The USA has enormous military reach around the world giving it more military power than any other nation. Its military are present on every continent except Antarctica. The NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) military alliance provides the USA with allies in North America (Canada), Europe (UK, France, Italy & others) & the Middle East (Turkey). NATO was important during the Cold War period when the USSR was considered the USA's superpower enemy. 

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Changing Geographies

The geography of superpowers changes over time as old superpowers decline & new ones emerge. The no. of superpowers in existence at any one time can also change:

  • a uni-polar world is one dominated by one superpower
  • a bi-polar world is where two opposing superpowers exist
  • a multi-polar world is one with three or more superpowers

Many observers think the future will be a multi-polar, possibly including India & Russia.

After the Second World War, the British empire declined quickly. By 1970 it had all but ceased to exist. This happened because:

  • colonial countries demanded independence & political movements such as Gandhi's in India proved difficult to resist
  • the UK couldn't afford to run a global empire - the war had bankrupted the country
  • there was a need to focus on postwar rebuilding in the UK, rather than in far-flung colonies
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Changing Geographies (2)

Today superpower geography seems to be in a period of transition as the uni-polar US-dominated world gives way to a more multi-polar one. The BRICs increasingly challenge the post-Cold War order. This growing power can be explained by:

  • Energy resources: Russia has huge oil & gas resources, giving it economic power
  • Alliances: EU growth from 6 countries in 1957 to an economic & political alliance of 27 in 2009. EU GDP exceeds that of the USA
  • Economic power: China's phenomenal economic growth since 1990 has propelled it to become the 4th largest economy & turned it into the world's manufacturing workshop. 
  • Demographic weight: some countries have economic potential as they are 'demographic superpowers' - China & India both have over 15% of the global population & huge market potential
  • Nuclear weapons: give countries power as they represent the ultimate threat. The USA, Russia, China, France & the UK all posses them.
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Several theories have been used to explain the existence of rich, powerful countries & the weaker, poorer countries they dominate. The theories fall into 2 categories: 
- Liberal economic development theories emphasise the creation of wealth & power & view capitalism as an essential tool for creating wealth
- Marxist theories emphasise how some countries maintain their wealth & power at the expense of others; these theories see capitalism as promoting inequality.

The take-off model (Rostow, 1960) (Liberal) - economic development is a linear, 5-stage process. Countries 'take-off' & develop when pre-conditions are met, such as transport infrastructure. Industrialisation follows, creating jobs, trade & consumers. Criticisms: many countries borrowed money & invested into projects to meet Rostow's pre-conditions yet failed to develop & instead ended in debt. 
Dependency Theory (Frank, 1967) (Marxist) - the world is divided into North v South. The developed world keeps the rest of the world in a state of underdevelopment, so it can exploit cheap resources. Aid, debt & trade patterns continually reinforce the dependency. Criticisms: since the 1960s NICs & RICs have broken out of the North-South divide mould. 
World Systems Theory (Wallerstein, 1974) (Marxist) - the world is divided into core, semi-periphery & periphery. Semi-periphery nations are broadly equivalent to the NICs that developed in the 1970s. Wallerstein recognised that some countries could develop & gain power, showing that wealth & power were fluid not static. Criticisms: World Systems theory is more a description of the world than an explanation of it.

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The Role of Superpowers - Control

Maintaining control over subservient colonies during the colonial era was relatively easy. The colonial rule of direct control involved:

  • using or threatening to use military force
  • imposing government systems, usually run by administrators from the home country
  • imposing the laws & sometimes language of the colonial power
  • creating a different legal & social status between the colonisers & colonised 

This model served European imperial powers such as the UK, France, & The Netherlands, until the end of the Second World War. The expectation of former colonies was that they would quickly develop following independence - this often failed to happen, especially in Africa. Left-wing thinkers explain this lack of development by arguing that direct colonial rule was replaced by indirect forms of control - neo-colonialism.

Neo-colonialism falls into the Marxist mould of economic theory. Mechanisms of neo-colonialism: TNCs protecting much needed technologies with patents & costly licensing agreements & exploiting workers in low-skill factories by paying low wages. International organisations giving unsustainable lending of money leading to the debt crisis & not doing enough to create a level trade playing field, which might incr. trade with the developing world. Developed nations creating bilateral aid deals that benefited supplier companies in developed countries & causing a brain-drain of skilled workers to the developed world. 

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The Role of Superpowers - International Decision M

The most powerful countries are often members of overlapping international organisations, many of which have their roots in the 1940s. World leaders are often seen at meetings of organisations set up, or immediately after, the Bretton Woods conference in 1994.
IMF - To monitor the economic & financial development of countries & to lend money when countries are facing financial difficulties
World Bank - To give advice, loans & grants for the reduction of poverty & the promotion of economic development
United Nations (UN) - To prevent war & to arbitrate on international disputes. It has since developed a wide range of specialist agencies dealing with matters such as health & refugees
World Trade Organisation (WTO) - Trade policy, agreements & settling disputes. Promotes global free trade.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) - A military alliance between European countries & the USA.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD) - Analysis of economic development. Forecasting & researching development issues.  

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The Role of Superpowers - Trade & Superpower Cultu

Trade - the exchange of goods & services - generates wealth. World trade is dominated by trade within & between certain regions. Africa accounted for just over 2% of all world trade in goods in 2007, compared with over 40% for Europe.
The superpowers & emerging powers have a significant advantage when it comes to world trade:

  • most TNCs originate in rich, developed countries
  • most major shipping companies & airlines originate in the USA & Europe
  • many developed countries allow free trade between each other 

Arguably the biggest superpower export is culture - people from the same culture share common values & beliefs which may include: religious, attitudes, moral & ethical beliefs; shared language, dress, art & symbols & various 'norms'. Many geographers recognise the emergence of a global culture spreading around the world. This is a result of cultural globalisation. As global culture is seen as being dominated by Europe & North America, the term 'Westernisation' is used. Promote: consumerism (the belief that wealth & the ability to buy goods & services leads to happiness); technology (the belief that problems can be solved by using technology, especially high-end tech); economic freedom (the belief that markets should be free, & people should be at liberty to make money how they choose). Factors promoting cultural globalisation: the spread of English as the international language of business & the media; the global growth of tourism & cultural mixing; increasingly strong & widespread global trade flows; increased air travel promoting migration; the internet increasing access to information; instantly recognisable language-free global brand logos e.g. Nike. 

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Superpower Futures - The BRICs

Brazil, Russia, India & China are all emerging powers & potential superpowers. The Persian Gulf States have aspirations too. In the future, the USA & EU may be less powerful, but they're unlikely to give up their slot easily. The BRICs are rapidly adopting communication technology, & improving life expectancy through better healthcare. The emerging powers benefit from economic growth:

  • In China, 200 million people moved out of poverty from 1990 - 2005
  • India's middle class has swelled to over 300 million

In China, growing wealth could incr. pressure for political change, freedom & democracy. Projections of BRIC per capita GDP by 2050 are startling & suggest that by that time most will be consuming resources at similar levels to the UK & USA today. This would have major implications for water resources, land, air quality & ecological footprints. 
China GDP per capita (2007) = $2,500; China GDP per capita (2050) = $50,000
UK GDP per capita (2007) = $46,000; UK GDP per capita (2050) = $80,000 

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Out with the old & in with the new?

The BRICs may challenge the superpower status of the USA & the relevance of the EU. Threats to existing powers include:
- Resources: as supplies of fossil fuels & rare metals like platinum begin to tighten due to increasing demand & a shrinking resource base, countries may find themselves in a bidding war to claim resources
- Military dominance: 3 of the BRICs are now nuclear powers (Russia, China & India) & this could increasingly shift the balance of military might towards Asia
- Space: once the preserve of the USSR, USA & European Space Agency, both China & India have active, well-funded manned space programmes to explore the final frontier
- Outsourcing: India has benefited from software & IT outsourcing, & China from the global shift in manufacturing. If this continues & expands, jobs & prosperity in the West could be eroded
- Ageing: Japan & much of the EU have increasingly ageing populations & face a pension funding crisis. This is also a problem for China (due to its 1 child policy) & Russia. India & Brazil are much more youthful, & potentially innovative. 

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China in Africa

Chines FDI has boosted Africa's economic growth - Africa has a new market for its raw materials - China may only be interested in resources, not controlling African governments - Chinese investment in mines & factories often includes new roads & other infrastructure - China is providing development assistance in exchange for goods, so countries avoid debt...


Chinese factory-produced goods undercut the price of local goods - many employees are actually Chinese immigrants, so local Africans don't benefit from jobs - there have been some clashes between Chinese & Africans in places like Zambia - China has been accused of meddling in politics 

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Rising tensions?

Many observers think that a new world order is emerging & that this is likely to be a multi-polar one. This could lead to a future of incr. tensions.

  • With no dominant superpower, & greater equality of power, argument may be more common
  • some emerging powers have large energy resources that other powers will want
  • with no dominant power, trade & political agreements may become more bilateral (between 2 countries or regions) & less global
  • bilateral agreements could incr. tensions as some countries feel sidelined or excluded
  • emerging powers may interfere in traditional superpower spheres of influence such as the Middle East 
  • there could be a 'clash of cultures' 
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The nature & control of trade

The nature of global trade is that free trade has come to dominate trading relations. The WTO has led a series of trade agreements since the 1950s which has removed:
- taxes & tarrifs on imports
- quotas on imports
- subsides for domestic producers 
The result has been a huge growth in trade & wealth. Some parts of the world have benefited from trade growth such as Asia, & in particular China & India. However Africa's share of world trade has declined since 1970. These trends have several explanations: International trade is very much in the hands of the TNCs - these have chosen to invest heavily in India & China, not in Africa. In Asia, free trade zones have been used to attract investment by offering companies tax breaks, non-union areas & limited regulation. Africa will remain unattractive to much investment until it has more developed infrastructure, higher skills levels & greater political stability.  

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Americanisation/ Cultural Traffic

Global culture is most often exemplified by the ubiquity of consumer icons such as Coca-Cola & McDonald's - these symbols are global. In the case of McDonald's, 31,000 restaurants are serving about 50 million people every day. The USA is seen as the most powerful force in cultural globalisation, & the process is often referred to as 'Americanisation'. In India, McDonald's adapts its menu to suit local tastes & the Hindu & Muslim religions. 

Working against the idea of a global culture is the fact that the cultural traffic is not all one way, & neither are American or Western lifestyles adopted wholesale around the world:
- In the UK the curry, not the American burger, is the most popular takeaway food. There are 6x as many curry restaurants in the UK as there are McDonald's.
- Sushi from Japan has become an increasingly popular food in the West.
- Some cornerstones of American culture, such as American football & baseball, have proved difficult to export to the rest of the world.  

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Russia & its energy exports

Russia's economy relies on crude oil & natural gas exports. In the last 20 yrs it has uncovered significant reserves of oil & gas in its Siberian provinces. These could add significantly to Russia's global power. Russia has developed important export partnerships to the east (China) & the west (Europe). Russia depends on European market to buy 80% of its oil exports, but the USA is keen to become a buyer & China's demand for oil is ever-growing. 
Natural resource reserves have given Russia increased global significance & confidence. In 2006, Russia cut its gas supplies to Ukraine for 3 days over a payment dispute. In August 2007, Russian submarines planted 2 flags on the Arctic seabed, effectively claiming sovereignty over a large area of the Arctic though to have oil reserves. Russian gas supplies to Ukraine & the EU were cut off in 2008-09. 
All these actions have raised international tensions & led some people to speak of a 'new Cold War'. 

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How far has China become a superpower?

Undoubtedly, China's economic growth has had major impacts - not only on the demand for fuel & raw materials, but also on the cost of living for everyone else. Its cheap labour rates & drive for economic growth - free of any environmental restrictions or planning applications - have allowed relentless industrialisation.
Nevertheless, China has some way to go when compared with the USA & the EU. In 2005, only 2 of the world's biggest 200 companies were Chinese however this is likely to change in the next few years. Environmental costs:

  • China now has 16 of the top 20 most polluted cities in the world. This was blamed for over 400,000 premature deaths in 2003.
  • 30% of China suffers from acid rain, caused by emissions from coal-fired power stations. 
  • 70% of China's rivers & lakes are polluted.  

Social concerns: 

  • Its rural population has yet to see evidence of China's economic boom. 20% of China's population live on less than $1 a day.
  • Child labour was used in some factories manufacturing Olympic souvenirs & toys
  • China's record of abuse; beggars & those with mental illnesses banned in Beijing during Olympics
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Thank you! Very detailed and useful!

Karina de-Bourne





cheers for copying out the geography revision guide, completely useless as an extra resource...

Liam Stuckey


^ this



Thanks x

Mr A Gibson


A god insight into the topic of superpowers with loads of valuable information. This is something you should download to your mobile device/print out onto cards.

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