Few geopolitical terms are used as often while lacking a definition—or even a shared meaning—as great power. From the origins of World War I to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, certain countries are labeled “great powers,” while others are reduced to being merely “midsize” or “small powers,” based, it seems, on impression rather than anything else.
This is not simply a linguistic problem, or an issue consigned to the corridors of university international-relations departments. It has real-world implications: The common belief before Vladimir Putin’s troops crossed into Ukraine in February was that Russia was a “great power” and Ukraine merely a “small” one, and many foreign-policy experts suggested that the latter should have its fate determined by the former.
The biggest problem with how we conceive of great powers is the focus on military force, instead of considering the economic, technological, social, and political structures that shape a country. As Putin’s Russia is revealing as it struggles to make progress in its assault on Ukraine—just as Benito Mussolini’s Italy in World War II or Franz Joseph’s Austria in World War I showed in the past—military forces on their own are a deeply deceptive metric in understanding what makes a nation “great.”
Indeed, looking at the question from both historical and contemporary perspectives, it actually makes more sense to approach the issue from the opposite end: to question what generates military power, the answer to which will then help us understand the difference between true “great powers” and false ones. Militaries are manifestations of the underlying factors that create them, and these factors have far more impact on how militaries function in war than numerical tables of how much equipment they hold or how many soldiers they have. To understand how a genuine great power is built, we should explore a country’s characteristics in three distinct categories: the foundational, the shaping, and the product.
Observing the world from 1900 to today, the foundational element of all genuine great powers, and that all faux-great powers lack, is that true great powers are the technological and economic leaders of their era. This means that not only can they develop the most advanced technological products (including weapons), but they have the ability to produce and operate them in large numbers. All three of these elements—development, production, and operation—must be present, because possessing a large number of high-tech systems is very different from being able to use them efficiently in war. History is filled with examples of militaries who bought or procured the most advanced weaponry but never got the most out of them.
Of course, being a technological-economic leader isn’t enough. Today, for instance, Germany and Japan would qualify as such countries, but they are not great powers, because they have not translated that capacity into military force, though Japan is looking like it might head down that path. Why some technological-economic leaders become great powers and others don’t is thus down to what can be called shaping factors. These are the key social, cultural, and political characteristics of these countries, elements that translate the capabilities of the states in question into military power.
During the 20th and 21st centuries, the general (but not absolute) rule of thumb has been that the freer and more flexible a state, and the more functional its rule of law, the better this process works. States with committed populations, with political systems that work against one-person rule, and that encourage scientific and general philosophical inquiry have a higher likelihood of translating their technological-economic strength more effectively into military power—the product. These nations will not simply have advanced weaponry, but are more likely to have better-trained soldiers and better-maintained equipment, and be guided by more sensible strategies, ones that are not skewed by the whims of an autocratic leader.
Using this model, we see that only one country has consistently met the “great power” threshold since 1900: the United States. Britain and Germany—the two largest technological-economic powers in Europe, and the anchors of their various alliances in both world wars—also fulfilled this definition from the beginning of the 20th century through the end of World War II. And from the end of that conflict onward, the Soviet Union more narrowly could be considered a “great power,” so long as we recognize that its economic and technological dominance was based largely on industrial production and science, rather than other forms of innovation or growth. The Soviet Union began losing this status sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, however: Soviet shaping characteristics, as Mikhail Gorbachev realized, were not capable of creating an open and flexible-enough system to compete in the era of computing.
The decline of the Soviet Union out of great-power status left the U.S. the world’s sole great power until the relatively recent rise of China. Certainly for China, the strength of its technological-economic position in today’s world is superior to that of the Soviet Union at any point in its history, at least competitive with Germany and Great Britain at the height of those two countries’ power, and may in some ways have overtaken that of the U.S., or might soon do so. The Chinese have seriously questionable shaping factors—characterized by an unfree society in which one-man rule is becoming entrenched—but the country has tried to put in place a system that allows for strong economic growth as compensation. If lessons of the past 120-odd years hold, however, this might be China’s Achilles’ heel were it to ever try to exercise military power. The Chinese military is large, with seemingly integrated advanced systems, but ones it has never operated in war.
This last point is key. A great power’s military is not only created by foundational and shaping powers; its very operation in war is greatly affected by them. The Russian military, for instance, was drastically overrated in its creation, and we have seen in Ukraine that its operation has been hampered significantly by the fact that Russia is technologically not productive and Putin’s system lacks flexibility. Soldiers are being generated from the poorer parts of Russian society and being given substandard, rushed training, to the degree that they seem incapable of using their weapons as effectively as they should. Moreover, the rigid Russian command structure means the military has trouble adapting and reacting, often repeating the same mistake over and over, as it did, for instance, in its attempts to fortify Snake Island.
Questioning what makes a great power “great” may seem arcane and academic, but the exercise of doing so offers us lessons on how countries might be able to use their supposed power. Beyond a handful of examples—and none more long-lasting than the U.S.—it would be very difficult to classify any other country since 1900 as a great power. Be it Mussolini’s Italy, imperial Japan, or Putin’s Russia, when faux–great powers try to act like genuine ones, they can sometimes pull off the charade in times of peace, when prestige makes a difference. But when times of war come, their true weakness is exposed.