During the Cold War, it was commonly thought the US and the USSR were the world’s only superpowers (during this time China barely reached a want-to-be status). However, when one examines the definition of a superpower, reality is much different than perception.
Andrei Gromyko, the former Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, defined a superpower as
“a country that has a say in every corner of the globe and without whose say nothing truly substantial can be achieved in any such corner.”
However, this definition doesn’t address what allows the superpower to achieve this amount of leverage.
I would argue that to be a superpower a nation has to meet three conditions: a large well equipped and trained standing army, a sizable nuclear arsenal, and a strong vibrant economy. Using these standards, the only true superpower was, and still is — for now — the United States.
Throughout its history, Russia has failed to capitalize on its population and resources. Peter the Great had some limited success in bringing Russia into the then modern 18th century world. And the late 19th century czars tried in vain to implement a number of measures to further modernize the country, but most of their programs failed miserably. When the communists took control of Russia and formed the Soviet Union, it continued with the centuries-old Russian traditions of systemic inefficiencies. Therefore, as the world entered the post-WWII era, the USSR continued to fail the third superpower condition of having a strong vibrant economy. The USSR was at best a 2/3 superpower.
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Before you get into shouting out too many “buts,” it must be recalled that what toppled the Soviet Union was not a military victory but an economic one: the very component the USSR lacked in its superpower arsenal. It is the same component that is driving China today closer to superpower status under what might be called a new and improved “Great Leap Forward II” program, which seems to be working better than Mao Zedong’s original effort. Ironically, it is also economics that may eventually cost the US its superpower status if we do not reverse our “Great Leap Leftward.”
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It is common for leaders to draw on international crises to distract from domestic troubles, and I don’t think it’s too wild a thought that both presidents Putin and Obama might have distraction as part of their game plans. In the case of Putin, he is also adding a bit of nationalism to further distract the Russian people because Putin has a big domestic problem on his hands. The Russian GDP is about 2 trillion per year. This is about 1/7 of the US GDP, and is lower than Brazil’s GDP. Even if adjusted for population differences — Russia’s population is slightly less than half of the US and about 75% of Brazil’s — Russia’s GDP is an embarrassment when all things are considered. The bottom line is that the Russian people are still poor and their economic engine still inefficient. (References to statistics used in this article can be found here.)
There is little Putin can do about this. Russia must export a tremendous amount of natural resources such as oil, gas, wood and even vodka just to survive. Even if Putin took over the Ukraine, what would he gain? He might get a momentary increase in national pride, a distraction from his internal problems, and another 45 million more mouths to feed without a net increase in productivity.
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Russia has more problems than just money. Its population has had negative growth for years (ditto for Ukraine). The Russian people do not seem to be interested in having children, and those outside Russia don’t seem to be clamoring to cross into the country. One should have only pity for those that do want to join Russia, such as Crimea, because it is a window into how miserable their own country is. When Russia and the Ukraine move off the front page of the newspaper, they will still have a poor and declining population laboring under an inefficient system with little hope for a turn around within a generation.
That brings us to President Obama and the United States. Obama’s need for a distraction coupled with the demands by many Americans “to do something about Putin” has led us to another silly international chest beating competition. Superpowers may have a say in every corner of the world, but a smart superpower only acts in its own best interest. Therefore, the correct diplomatic answer to Putin’s action should have been a simple statement to the effect, “We will monitor the situation but in the end the United States will act in its own best interest.” The average person would read that as being cowardly, but diplomats understand it for what it means — we have no dog in this fight; at least not yet.
Our economy and society are in trouble and Putin and the Crimea are convenient distractions. Without a strong, vibrant economy, the other two superpower conditions quickly deteriorate and become irrelevant. What the American people should be worried about is excessive taxation, oppressive regulations, hyper government spending, uncontrolled government borrowing, anemic job growth, the erosion of the rule of law, and the decay of social standards (the last two also greatly impact the economy). All of these have substantially increased under President Obama.
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Robert Bork wrote that as a nation we are morally slouching toward Gomorrah. It can also be said that as a nation we are financially slouching toward Detroit. These are not mutually exclusive. Past presidents and political leaders from both major parties are to blame for this since we have been slouching toward both cities for years, but history only cares about the person in charge when the lights go out. Only time will tell if it’s President Obama or one of his successors.
The author would like to thank Ron Browning for some of the initial thoughts on this subject.
Tony Corvo is a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with a Ph.D. in physics. He is active in local Beavercreek, Ohio politics and is the author of All Politics is Loco: Musings from the Conservative Next Door. He and his wife have two grown daughters. He writes extensively on local issues. Many of his recent articles can be found at taxbusters.wordpress.com/author/phdmc2.
All opinions expressed belong solely to their authors and may not be construed as the opinions of other writers or of OCR staff.
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