Top 10 Most Powerful Countries In 2011

The Chinese have an interesting concept that quantifies Great Power status, called Comprehensive National Power (CNP). This index is produced by processing the economic, military and cultural factors that make countries powerful: GDP, technological development, number of tanks and ICBM’s, as well as “softer” factors such as influence on global media and international institutions. Since I’m not a think-tank, I can’t be bothered doing it “scientifically” by coming up with formulas and looking up all the hundreds of relevant stats that typically go into CNP calculations. But it’s surely possible to make rough estimates. Here they are.

1. The USA is still undoubtedly the world’s leading superpower. It has China’s (gross) economic size, matches Russia’s strategic military power, and is as technologically advanced as Japan with 2.5x its population. Meanwhile, its conventional military power, power projection capabilities and cultural influence remain globally hegemonic. But its Number One position isn’t secure. Political capture by special interests at home and “imperial overstretch” abroad has made its fiscal situation patently unsustainable. This in turn threatens its dominant military position, especially coupled with accelerating Chinese military modernization. Finally, the very globalization that underpins Pax America also users in developments that actually undermine it, e.g. the economic rise of the BRICs and the growing influence of non-Western media outlets (e.g. Al-Jazeera, Russia Today). CNP – 100.

2. China is rapidly emerging as the next global superpower, now boasting the world’s largest manufacturing sector and (arguably) the biggest economy in terms of real GDP. Furthermore, they have calculatedly taken a lead in many of the world’s most prospective and hi-tech sectors, e.g. renewable energy, hi-speed railways and supercomputers. China’s rapid military modernization has already yielded it the world’s biggest navy by warship numbers and advanced drones and stealth fighters. This is all founded on a literate, 1.3bn-strong populace driving 10% economic growth rates (and there’s no reason these should fall drastically any time soon, since average Chinese incomes have plenty of space left to catch up with the West). Now assuming unforeseen shocks such as political collapse or an abrupt peaking and decline in coal production don’t derail progress, it’s very likely China will supplant the US as the global hegemon as early as 2020. CNP – 75.

3. Though Russia‘s population and real GDP (c. Germany) are respectable, they are out of the Big Two’s league (in terms of raw power, it was probably overtaken by China in 2008 because of the depth of its recession and Chinese military catch-up). Nonetheless, it may deserve the title of “third superpower” by dint of its nuclear parity with the US, military-industrial strength, and vast resource base. Covering northern Eurasia, and informally dominating Central Asia, Russia is both self-sufficient in energy and minerals, and has the armed strength to defend them. The world’s increasing food and fuel supply challenges place Russia in an enviable position to exploit its strength. Furthermore, global warming is melting the Arctic, opening up shipping routes, energy sources and living space – a development Russia is uniquely positioned to take advantage of. CNP – 60.

4. In terms of power politics, France is a lot like the US, just 5x smaller in scale. It is influential globally and in the EU, has a self-sustained nuclear arsenal and MIC, and its own semi-satrapies in West Africa. It also has the healthiest demographic indicators in ageing Europe; its economy is versatile, productive and robust; and its nuclear power industry and links with the Maghreb nations make for a (relatively) secure energy future. Overall, it is likely that France will be the predominant West European power of the next decades. CNP – 35.

5. Germany has a powerful economy, and its fiscal rectitude and export competitiveness have made it the dominant influence in the Eurozone. In the longterm, however, Germany’s prospects dim: its demographic problems are the most intractable in the European continent (fertility rates fell below 1.5 children per woman back in the 1970’s and remained there since). Hence the reliance on exports to provide savings for its rapidly aging population. What would Germany do if the Mediterranean breaks from the Eurozone and the outside world becomes more protectionist? Its conscript army is obsolete and nuclear weapons non-existent, but these can be quickly fixed. CNP – 30.

6. Japan is similar to Germany, but with 1.5x its population, several times its problems (e.g. even more rapidly aging population; 220%-of-GDP debt) and without Germany’s key advantage (a continental market). It is militarily weak and utterly reliant on food, fuel and mineral imports, many of which pass through waters over which China claims preeminence. Though one of the most technologically advanced nations on Earth, it faces an uncertain future as the US wanes and China’s rise eclipses it. But like Germany, it’s theoretically capable of rapid transformation into a leading military power. CNP – 30.

7. The UK is ostensibly similar to France, but has critical weaknesses that now undermine its Great Power status. It has a fiscal hole little better than that of Ireland or Greece; the current government is disinvesting in the future (university education) and the military; suffers from a smaller version of US “imperial overstretch”; is falling into an energetic black hole; and the City of London, which is a giant source of tax revenue, has poor longterm prospects. CNP – 25.

8. Though at first glance India might appear similar to China, or at least following in its footsteps, the real situation is far gloomier. The (educational) human capital of Chinese youth is now equal to (or above) the OECD rich country average; India still hasn’t finished eradicating illiteracy. This is of great import since educational levels are the single biggest influence on growth prospects. China has 10x more manufacturing output, 6x more Internet users and 3x more infrastructure spending. Though India’s land forces are more than capable of crushing Pakistan, its navy is quantitatively and qualitatively inferior to China’s, a matter of some import given that both countries are dependent on fuel and mineral supplies from the Middle East and Africa. And the precariousness of India’s food situation in a warming world – and its inability to pay for imports or seize them – makes its longterm prospects decidedly glum. CNP – 25.

9. With its ample lands and resources, not to mention its successes with sugar cane-derived ethanol, Brazil is set to enjoy – much like Russia – a comfortable existence as a regional hegemon in a world of rising demand for food, energy and minerals. (Though its military is much weaker than Russia’s, it doesn’t need to be particularly strong given Brazil’s geographical isolation). It is also playing an increasingly visible global role, together with countries like Turkey and South Africa, as a representative of “The Rest” (as distinct from “The West”). But its future prospects for true superpowerdom are constrained by its low educational human capital. CNP – 20.

10. Though Canada or South Korea or even Italy could just as easily take this spot, in the end I decided it should go to Turkey. It’s not just that it has a rapidly developing economy, or that it has the most powerful conventional forces in the Middle East, or that its control of river headwaters gives it leverage over states like Iraq and Lebanon. It is the major Muslim country that is most comfortable with integrating religious tradition with socio-economic modernity. This makes it a role model – and possible future leader – for many Muslims in the Middle East; then it also has ethno-linguistic connections with Turkic peoples to the east, in Azerbaijan, western Iran, and even Central Asia. Its soft power and willingness to exercise sovereignty in the international sphere earns it the tenth place. CNP – 20.

There are other countries with a similar CNP of 20. These include Canada (a potential future superpower as the Arctic opens up – assuming the US doesn’t swallow it first); South Korea (vibrant economic base, but has many of Japan’s strategic problems and is preoccupied with the North); and Italy (a modern France-sized economy but not much else).

Further down the list, with a CNP of 15, we get Saudi Arabia (world’s swing oil producer but backwards, politically fragile and reliant on US support); Iran (most visible challenger to the current international order and has leverage over its capability to shut down the Strait of Hormuz); Mexico; Australia; Spain; Venezuela (soft power through ideas of 21st century socialism); and South Africa (mineral resources and informal spokescountry for sub-Saharan Africa).

Note – So I don’t have to cover this in the comments. Many “analysts” will jump on my back for neglecting to mention the salubrious effects of India’s democracy, or how corruption dooms Russia to eternal slippage. The reason – as I’ve endlessly argued on this blog – is that these kinds of arguments are frequently flawed even where only living standards and civil rights are concerned (e.g. I’m sure the 47% of Indian children who are malnourished have nothing but praise for their glorious democracy, as does the rights activist Binayak Sen given a life sentence for supporting Maoism), not to mention completely nonsensical when comparing and projecting national power (e.g. Russia’s corruption is fairly standard for middle-income countries, and the Chinese authoritarian system of state capitalism has arguably very much helped rather than hindered its development).

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