Super-powers stopped the enslavement of the planet and a return to a new Dark Age. They are no more or less important than that.
What a dramatic way to start the post. Let me explain.
When I say super-power, I’m not talking about the type of super-powers that Spiderman or Batman have. I’m talking about countries. And the two super-powers that saved the world were the USSR and the USA. Their combined might, aligned with the British Empire (the third super-power) and a few others, allowed the world to be saved from much darker forces by 1945.
Having spent much of 2012 reading about the Cold War, it’s strange for me to think that the USSR and USA were ever friends, let alone countries that actually coordinated their efforts to overcome the Axis Powers. But, over the course of several conferences during the World War 2, the powers discussed strategy, even if the conferences saw the powers turn against each other as Allied victory seemed increasingly likely. There were some particularly cozy moments in the relationships between the super-powers though. For example, at one stage Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin met in Moscow and made the ‘Percentages Agreement’, an agreement in which the relative influence of the powers was agreed. The two leaders agreed the percentage of influence they would have in several countries in Europe, Churchill write it down, and then Stalin ticked the agreement (this incident is mentioned in the Origins of the Cold War by Martin McCauley Amazon US | Amazon UK).
What is a super-power?
Super-powers are more powerful than Great Powers. In fact, they are countries so powerful that they have the ability to project influence and change events on a global scale. They are a new form of world power. New technology has transformed the ability of countries to exert political and economic force around the world and launch wars in far-flung corners of the globe. It allows them to move planes and destroyers and troops to wherever they want very quickly. And nuclear weapons have changed the game even more. Now powers can annihilate others in minutes with the press of a button.
In the way that I am using it, the term ‘super-power’ was coined about 70 years ago in the final years of World War 2 to refer to the British Empire, the USA, and the USSR. The British Empire soon collapsed and nobody called Britain a super-power after that time.
But, after the term was coined, there were debates on which countries in history can rightfully be called super-powers aside from the USA and USSR. The Roman Empire and Mongol Empire have been among those mentioned as super-powers, but the problem with saying that they were super-powers is that they did not have a truly global reach. Even if we exclude the ‘undiscovered’ Americas (and thus consider only the known world), we cannot really argue that either empire had a global reach. There are two countries that I think we could consider though...
The obvious one is Britain or the British Empire from the 19th Century. Britain had a vast land Empire that included colonies across all the continents of the world, and it could influence events more or less anywhere that it wanted with the support of its all-conquering navy. Now, rather than put forward a detailed argument on why I think that Britain was a super-power (that’s for another day!), I’m going to illustrate it with one example.
It was 1868. The British Empire was at its peak. And Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia (or Abyssinia) had insulted the British. He had imprisoned several British subjects, and then rebuffed attempts to try to get them released. Instead, he imprisoned the people that the British had sent to negotiate the others release. The British were not happy.
So Queen Victoria announced that the hostages would be rescued with force. And soon enough, Indian-based British forces were prepared and sent to Abyssinia. They landed and undertook a massive construction effort, including the building of a port. Under General Napier, the troops marched over hundreds of miles of mountainous terrain in order to battle Tewodros’s forces. They eventually got to his admittedly weak forces and trounced them in a battle. The hostages were released and the British left. On a sadder note, Tewodros II then committed suicide.
Hardly Britain’s finest hour, but it illustrates my point. That’s what a super-power can do.
But there is one other super-power contender...
To the East
A friend of mine works in an art gallery in Shanghai, China. She recently told me that Westerners that visit the gallery sometimes ask about the voyages that the Chinese undertook in the early 15th Century. At the time China was the world’s most powerful country and the country undertook voyages in which they (apparently) discovered the world. In the book 1421 by Gavin Menzies (Amazon US | Amazon UK), the author asserts that under Admiral Zheng He, China launched voyages in which it discovered the Americas and circumnavigated the world. And they did so some 70 years before Columbus made his discovery of the Americas. Menzies’s book has come in for strong criticism from various quarters (although it is still an interesting read), but what is undisputed is that around this time China sent massive fleets to the coasts of Africa as well as much of Asia.
Whether China discovered the Americas or not, my point is that China could have had a global reach if it wanted at the time. It would not have been able to move as quickly as the US can today or even the British in the 19th Century; however, the power and wealth of China combined with the size of the Chinese fleets in its accepted voyages indicates that China had the resources to reach and attack all countries in the known world if it wanted to.
And that, my friends, is a super-power.
Was China really a super-power? Or conversely, do you think that I have been too conservative in only classing a few countries as super-powers?
Let me know what you think. After all, history is here to be debated...
This post was written as part of a regular series of (sometimes) humorous introductions to topics in history as part of ‘117-second History’.
We discuss how the USA and USSR emerged as super-powers, in our book, “Cold War History - To the brink of nuclear destruction - From World War 2 to the Cuban Missile Crisis - Part 1: 1945-1962 (Required History)” – available by clicking here.