Great power

Great powers are recognized in an international structure such as the United Nations Security Council,[1][2][3] whose meeting chamber is pictured.

A great power is a sovereign state that is recognized as having the ability and expertise to exert its influence on a global scale. Great powers characteristically possess military and economic strength, as well as diplomatic and soft power influence, which may cause middle or small powers to consider the great powers' opinions before taking actions of their own. International relations theorists have posited that great power status can be characterized into power capabilities, spatial aspects, and status dimensions.

While some nations are widely considered to be great powers, there is no definitive list of them. Sometimes the status of great powers is formally recognized in conferences such as the Congress of Vienna[1][4][5] or the United Nations Security Council.[1][2][6] Accordingly, the status of great powers has also been formally and informally recognized in forums such as the Group of Seven (G7).[7][8][9][10]

The term "great power" was first used to represent the most important powers in Europe during the post-Napoleonic era. The "Great Powers" constituted the "Concert of Europe" and claimed the right to joint enforcement of the postwar treaties.[11] The formalization of the division between small powers[12] and great powers came about with the signing of the Treaty of Chaumont in 1814. Since then, the international balance of power has shifted numerous times, most dramatically during World War I and World War II. In literature, alternative terms for great power are often world power[13] or major power,[14] but these terms can also be interchangeable with superpower.[15]


There are no set or defined characteristics of a great power. These characteristics have often been treated as empirical, self-evident to the assessor.[16] However, this approach has the disadvantage of subjectivity. As a result, there have been attempts to derive some common criteria and to treat these as essential elements of great power status. Danilovic (2002) highlights three central characteristics, which she terms as "power, spatial, and status dimensions," that distinguish major powers from other states. The following section ("Characteristics") is extracted from her discussion of these three dimensions, including all of the citations.[17]

Early writings on the subject tended to judge states by the realist criterion, as expressed by the historian A. J. P. Taylor when he noted that "The test of a great power is the test of strength for war."[18] Later writers have expanded this test, attempting to define power in terms of overall military, economic, and political capacity.[19] Kenneth Waltz, the founder of the neorealist theory of international relations, uses a set of five criteria to determine great power: population and territory; resource endowment; economic capability; political stability and competence; and military strength.[20] These expanded criteria can be divided into three heads: power capabilities, spatial aspects, and status.[21]

Power dimensions

Leopold von Ranke was one of the first to attempt to scientifically document the great powers.

As noted above, for many, power capabilities were the sole criterion. However, even under the more expansive tests, power retains a vital place.

This aspect has received mixed treatment, with some confusion as to the degree of power required. Writers have approached the concept of great power with differing conceptualizations of the world situation, from multi-polarity to overwhelming hegemony. In his essay, 'French Diplomacy in the Postwar Period', the French historian Jean-Baptiste Duroselle spoke of the concept of multi-polarity: "A Great power is one which is capable of preserving its own independence against any other single power."[22]

This differed from earlier writers, notably from Leopold von Ranke, who clearly had a different idea of the world situation. In his essay 'The Great Powers', written in 1833, von Ranke wrote: "If one could establish as a definition of a Great power that it must be able to maintain itself against all others, even when they are united, then Frederick has raised Prussia to that position."[23] These positions have been the subject of criticism.[clarification needed][21]

Spatial dimension

All states have a geographic scope of interests, actions, or projected power. This is a crucial factor in distinguishing a great power from a regional power; by definition the scope of a regional power is restricted to its region. It has been suggested that a great power should be possessed of actual influence throughout the scope of the prevailing international system. Arnold J. Toynbee, for example, observes that "Great power may be defined as a political force exerting an effect co-extensive with the widest range of the society in which it operates. The Great powers of 1914 were 'world-powers' because Western society had recently become 'world-wide'."[24]

Other suggestions have been made that a great power should have the capacity to engage in extra-regional affairs and that a great power ought to be possessed of extra-regional interests, two propositions which are often closely connected.[25]

Status dimension

Formal or informal acknowledgment of a nation's great power status has also been a criterion for being a great power. As political scientist George Modelski notes, "The status of Great power is sometimes confused with the condition of being powerful. The office, as it is known, did in fact evolve from the role played by the great military states in earlier periods... But the Great power system institutionalizes the position of the powerful state in a web of rights and obligations."[26]

This approach restricts analysis to the epoch following the Congress of Vienna at which great powers were first formally recognized.[21] In the absence of such a formal act of recognition it has been suggested that great power status can arise by implication by judging the nature of a state's relations with other great powers.[27]

A further option is to examine a state's willingness to act as a great power.[27] As a nation will seldom declare that it is acting as such, this usually entails a retrospective examination of state conduct. As a result, this is of limited use in establishing the nature of contemporary powers, at least not without the exercise of subjective observation.

Other important criteria throughout history are that great powers should have enough influence to be included in discussions of contemporary political and diplomatic questions and exercise influence on the final outcome and resolution. Historically, when major political questions were addressed, several great powers met to discuss them. Before the era of groups like the United Nations, participants of such meetings were not officially named but rather were decided based on their great power status. These were conferences which settled important questions based on major historical events.

Other Languages
Afrikaans: Groot moondheid
Alemannisch: Großmacht
العربية: قوة عظيمة
беларуская: Вялікія дзяржавы
български: Велика сила
čeština: Velmoc
dansk: Stormagt
Deutsch: Großmacht
Esperanto: Mondpotenco
français: Grande puissance
한국어: 강대국
हिन्दी: महाशक्ति
hrvatski: Velesila
Bahasa Indonesia: Kekuatan besar
italiano: Grande potenza
עברית: מעצמה
Bahasa Melayu: Kuasa dunia
Nederlands: Grote mogendheid
日本語: 列強
norsk: Stormakt
norsk nynorsk: Stormakt
ਪੰਜਾਬੀ: ਮਹਾਨ ਤਾਕਤ
Plattdüütsch: Grootmacht
polski: Mocarstwo
português: Grande potência
română: Mare putere
Simple English: Great power
slovenčina: Veľmoc
српски / srpski: Велика сила
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Velika sila
suomi: Suurvalta
svenska: Stormakt
Türkçe: Büyük güç
українська: Велика держава
Tiếng Việt: Đại cường quốc
粵語: 大國
中文: 大国