Power, as the US diplomat Charles Freeman noted, refers to “the capacity to direct the decisions and actions of others.” Power is multi-dimensional involving cultural, military, institutional and economic aspects. However, it is in the latter that the former three are largely determined by. A bigger economy translates to a bigger army and better weapons, prosperity in society allows for its cultural blooming and these aspects are taken together in turn shape institutions. In the past century, English has become the world’s lingua franca and American culture has become globalized, adopted by the transnational elites in all countries as well as state policies have been largely influenced by the US-led global order in the form of the Bretton Woods institutes, WTO and UN. The past century has been a American dominated one because of its unrivaled lead in economic prosperity, affording it the most powerful military, a disproportionate influence on global organizations as well as great leverage in exporting its culture through its transnational corporations such as Facebook, Coca-Cola and Wall Mart; companies with a worth more than the GDP of most countries.
Before the American century, there was Pax Britannica, where the UK due to its lead in industrialization grew to become the world’s first Superpower, casting a great influence over world’s politics through its dominance of trade and commerce, backed by the might of its navy. Rise and decline of her Empire mirrored the rise and decline of the United Kingdom’s economy relative to the rest of the world.
But the rise of the Western economies has only been an outliner in the larger trend of world history. For much of the past millennia; China enjoyed its status as the Middle Kingdom with the world’s silver flowing into its borders and its industrial productivity unmatched. Institutional and technological stagnation, political instability, weak rulership and civil unrest causing the Kingdom’s rapid decline would coincide with the rise of the industrialized West. Our infographic offers a comparison between the economies of great powers in the past 200 years, from 1820 to the present day, offering a glimpse of how the rise and fall in prosperity also shaped a country ability to influence global politics.
Book worth reading: The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy
*The GDP in the first half is nominal while in the second half is in PPP.