The United States of America is the world’s last remaining superpower. However, this was not always the case. The United States toiled in relative obscurity on a global scale for most of its history. As the world evolved, so too did the young nation. The United States attempted to stay out of world affairs, but a time came when that was no longer possible. Necessity dictated that the United States become a major player at the global level. The United States entered into World War II a great power and emerged a global superpower.
What is a superpower?
In order to properly examine the events that led to the emergence of the United States as a superpower it is important to understand exactly what constitutes a nation gaining the status of that title. According to Lyman Miller of the Stanford Journal of International Relations, “A “superpower” is a country that has the capacity to project dominating power and influence anywhere in the world, and sometimes, in more than one region of the globe at a time, and so may plausibly attain the status of global (2006)”. There have been many global superpowers throughout history. The United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States have all spent significant time in the past as global superpowers.
The collapse of the Soviet Union allowed the United States to become the only nation with a legitimate claim to the title of global superpower. However, there are other nations that may be able to lay claim to the title at some point in the future. Perhaps the most visible, and closest, of these countries is the People’s Republic of China. Over the past 20 years, China has grown into both a military and economic power. China has the second largest GDP in the world, next to the United States, according to the International Monetary Fund. However, Miller doesn’t seem to believe China will be evolving anytime soon. “At a broader level, in global affairs, its stature and power are growing, but in most respects it remains a regional power, complementing the cast of other great powers under the overarching dominance, however momentary, of the United States (Miller, 2006)”.
Focus on Domestic Issues
The United States stayed out of foreign affairs throughout most of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. These policies actually served the country quite well as the young nation had many domestic problems that needed to be resolved before it could take a prominent position in global affairs. This did not stop the United States from intervening when it was necessary.
Aside from this, the citizens of the United States did not really have the stomach for foreign powers. This could perhaps not be better stated than it was by George Washington, the first President of the United States, in his farewell address in 1796. “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities”.
The first major problem the United States wanted to tackle was the belief that the country was destined to expand across the continent. This led to a focus on expansion. The dream began with Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory. This purchase doubled the size of the United States. Between 1811 and 1912 the United States went from 17 to 48 states spanning from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. It took 100 years, but the United States’ dream of manifest destiny was realized. (World Book, 2011)
One issue which evolved from the nation’s rapid expansion and precluded the United States from becoming involved in global affairs was the country’s relationships with Native American’s. The United States would move Native American’s off of their land and moved them to reservations. It was a very tenuous relationship.
There were other issues within the ensuing years. The most significant of these problems was the Civil War. Between 1861 and 1865 the United States was locked in a brutal Civil War. South Carolina seceded from the union on December 20, 1860. Ten other southern states (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi in January; Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia later in 1861) followed South Carolina’s lead and formed the Confederate States of America. Over the next four years American’s killed each other in combat. This resulted in over 600,000 American deaths. The Civil War remains the deadliest war (in terms of American deaths) in United States history. The war did have a couple of positive outcomes. The war preserved the United States. Additionally, the war led to the abolishment of slavery. (World Book, 2011)
The Civil War led directly to another major issue. The issue of reconstruction was not just about rebuilding the ravaged the south, but also rebuilding the nation’s unity. Laws were passed to allow African-American’s to have the same opportunities as white Americans, though they often weren’t enforced. Former Confederate states were “required to ratify the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution in order to be readmitted to the Union (World Book, 2011)”. Reconstruction ended in 1877, 12 years after the Civil War ended.
Domestic problems were not the only things standing in the way of the United States becoming a world power. There were numerous communication barriers that prevented the United States from having any significant influence on issues of a global scale. The most obvious of these issues is the proximity of the United States to the other Great Powers of the world. There are hundreds of miles of ocean between the United States and Europe and Asia across the Atlantic and Pacific respectively. Until the advent of the telegraph the only form of communication between the new world and the old world was via letter or personal contact. Communication in this manner could take weeks to complete.
There were many positive things happening domestically for the United States. The United States has a varied climate, a diverse amount of natural resources, and geographic barriers that make it more difficult to attack the country. These issues placed the United States in a unique position to become a global superpower.
The climate of the United States gives it the ability to grow several different types of crops. Corn grows in the plains, cotton in the south, and dairy in the north. It also allows for many different types of animals co-exist as there are several different items for them to graze on. This gives the Unites States the ability to reliably feed its entire populace, at least at the current population levels.
The United States also has a plentiful supply of natural resources. These resources include both renewable resources, such as the aforementioned food and animals, and a wide array of nonrenewable resources, such as coal, oil, and metals. The vast amount of natural resources have allowed the United States to create an economic infrastructure that is capable of sustaining the populace without outside assistance from other nations.
While the nations geographic barriers have made it harder to communicate with other world powers (at least initially), they also make it harder for a country to maintain a sustained offensive against the United States. It is hard to keep supply lines stocked when the venue of war is halfway across the globe. Most countries do not have the resources to keep up that type of attack for an extended period of time, and even fewer have the ability to maintain an occupying force over the course of several years to combat insurrection.
Effect of War
Wars had a profound effect on the emergence of the United States as a global superpower. Not only did these wars show that the United States had a military worthy of global recognition, but they also helped to give the United States more clout on the world political stage. World War I and World War II probably had the largest effect, but the Korean and Vietnam Wars, while smaller in size, had large effects on the United States’ sphere of influence. This gave Americans the wherewithal to become more involved in world politics.
World War I was the first major overseas conflict in which the United States became involved. The United States attempted to stay out of the war. When German submarines began sinking United States merchant vessels shipping supplies to Europe, however, it became impossible for the United States to maintain its neutrality. “These and other acts of aggression convinced Wilson and other Americans of the need to join the war against Germany to make the world “safe for democracy (World Book, 2011)”. The United States joining the war was enough to tip the scale in the allies favor. A little over a year and a half after the United States joined World War I it ended with the surrender of the Central Powers. The European countries in the war spent nearly 60% of their GDP on the war. This number was much lower for the United States. This gave the United States a much needed economic boost over the European powers. (World Book, 2011)
After World War I there was a relatively short lived peace between the powers. In the late 1930’s war sentiments in Europe began brewing again. In 1939 Germany invaded Poland sparking World War II. Again the United States took a militarily neutral stance. They did support the Allies (the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union) against the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) economically by sending supplies. Some American soldiers even volunteered to go fight for the United Kingdom. It once again took an unprovoked act of aggression (this time Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor) to provoke the United States to join the conflict. While the United States’ intervention in World War I helped secure an allied victory, the United States’ intervention in World War II helped change the course of the entire war.
The United States did not recede back into isolation following World War II; unlike the end of World War I. With most of the combat happening in Europe, Africa, and Asia the United States again suffered very little damage to their infrastructure. Europe was quite the opposite. With two major conflicts in less than 50 years European infrastructure was decimated. Japan was forbidden from keeping a large enough standing military to have any true significance on a global level thanks to their treaty with the United States. The Soviet Union stopped cooperating with the western Allies before the ink was dry on the peace treaties ending the war. The Soviets refused to unite their portion of Germany with the rest of the country, effectively splitting the country in two.
The Cold War had begun.
The Cold War necessitated that the United States remain on the forefront of global affairs because neither France nor the United Kingdom were in a position, economically or militarily, to defend against the Soviet threat. While the Cold War didn’t have any direct combat between the two remaining superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, it did have conflict. The United States was involved in combat in Korea (which resulted in the split of Korea into two countries) and Vietnam. The Soviets were involved in combat in Afghanistan. The Cold War caused the United States to continue its military growth. As seen in the following chart, National Defense expenditures peaked in 1954 at almost 70 percent of the nation’s total budget (U.S. Government, 2009).
The size of the United States’ military put them in a position of global dominance, but it takes more than a large military to become a global power. It also takes influence in foreign matters. This is another thing the United States has developed over the two and a half centuries since being founded. There have been more than a few global matters that the United States has influenced other than wars.
After World War I the League of Nations was formed. While United States President Woodrow Wilson was an advocate of the League the United States Senate was not. They voted down the motion for the United States to join the League of Nations. Many Americans believe that had the United States joined the League of Nations it would not have failed. This could have helped stop the Nazi spread through Eastern Europe. Decisions made by the United States influence the economies of every nation on earth. The world also looks to the United States for action in times of need. “I think that the authorities would do better to sit down with Ambassador Thomas and take advantage of whatever voluntary help the only superpower in the world today has to offer the Philippines to put a stop to the worldwide problem of women trafficking (Vitas, 2011)”.
Without the United States the spread of communism would have continued unabated following World War II. To this end the United States helped to create the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to create the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact. This helped to ensure the safety of democracy for the world. It also helped to curb the spread of communism.
The United States also sets the tone culturally. Hollywood is the predominant film industry in the world. Perhaps the area where the United States had the largest cultural impact on a worldwide scale was with regards to space. It was a large achievement for all members of the human race when the Americans landed on the moon.
The United States went into World War II as a world power and emerged as one of two superpowers. There were many things leading up to the nation’s emergence. The United States has the world’s largest economy, largest military, and the decisions made by its President have far reaching impacts. It has given the country a large sphere of influence that is still evident in the world today.
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