The term ‘superpower’ emerged in the aſtermath of the Second World War to describe the two main protagonists of the Cold War: the USA and the Soviet Union. These countries dominated the international order in ways in which Great Britain, as a great power in the 19th century, had not.


A state that possesses all the characteristics of a great power, but will be able to make its influence felt anywhere in the world through advanced nuclear and cyber technology (and the means of delivering a devastating military response anywhere in the world at any time), diplomacy and influence over its allies, who share its ideological beliefs.


A superpower must have significant global power and ‘global reach’. This is particularly true in the case of military power.

● It must have nuclear weapons, although recent developments in cyber technology may reduce nuclear importance.

● It should exert dominant structural power within important institutions of regional and global governance.

● It should be able to assert its global influence anywhere in the world at any time.

● It will possess a world view and the willingness to proactively enforce that world view in international relations.

● As US foreign policy professor W. T. R. Fox put it in 1944, a superpower will possess ‘great power plus great mobility of power’.

What distinguished the USA and the Soviet Union was their mobility of power. Both countries had formed blocs (spheres of influence) in which they dominated. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), led by the US, included much of Western Europe. The alliance was mainly a mutual defence arrangement: if one state was attacked, presumably by the Soviet Union or one of its allies, the other members would come to its aid. Likewise, the Warsaw Pact was formed by the Soviet Union to protect itself and Eastern European countries against possible attack from a NATO country.

These strategic military alliances were supplemented by political and economic associations beyond Europe.

The USA:

• allied with Japan and became involved in the Korean (1950–53) and Vietnamese (1955–74) conflicts to prevent communist regimes seizing power took an active interest in preventing the spread of communism in Central and South America, sponsoring right-wing opponents of Salvador Allende in Chile (1963–73) and providing arms to the right-wing Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the 1980s

• has long supported Israel to act as a counterweight to Soviet-backed regimes in Egypt, Syria and Afghanistan.

The Soviet Union:

• provided military and economic support to the communist insurgents in Korea and Vietnam

• supported communist Cuba – the stationing of Russian nuclear missiles there led to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

During the Cold War, every part of the globe acted as an arena for US–Soviet rivalry. They enjoyed global reach, which only Britain had come near to resembling at the height of the British Empire.

The development of the nuclear bomb transformed these countries into superpowers. As the first countries to develop these weapons, they controlled their proliferation and use and, as a result, became the dominant military powers of the post-war era.