European Geostrategy’s ‘Audit of Major Powers’: the world’s fifteen most powerful countries in 2014
As geopolitical analysts, we are keenly aware of the power dynamic behind international relations. Certain countries have long been understood to sit above and beyond all others in terms of national attributes and capabilities, forming a kind of hierarchy of nations. The term ‘great power’ emerged in the early nineteenth century to account for the leading European countries; since then, a plethora of terms have been invented, such as ‘major power’, ‘regional power’, ‘world power’, ‘global power’, ‘superpower’ and even ‘hyperpower’. At one and the same time, various research projects and academic institutions have sought to quantify the world’s countries’ capabilities, including the Correlates of War Project’s Composite Index of National Capability, International Futures’ National Power Index, the Foundation for National Security Research’s National Power Index and the Social Sciences Centre’s Comprehensive National Power, amongst several others.
At European Geostrategy, we find many of these rankings difficult to accept, irrespective of the detailed and/or scholarly work that has gone into developing them. There are two key reasons for this:
- Many existing power indicators fall into the trap of economic or demographic determinism: we have not selected Gross National Income or population size as the most important attributes of national power – after all, throughout much of history, economic output and population size have not been the determining factors of international influence. Elizabethan England and the United Provinces took on and defeated powers with larger economic outputs and populations. Likewise, France failed to defeat the United Kingdom throughout much of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, despite having a population nearly double the size and an economy considerably larger. What matters – we believe – is not so much economic heft or population size, but a country’s ability to mobilise resources through political, economic and financial infrastructure.
- Most existing power matrixes focus on the sheer volume of warships, submarines, warplanes or military personal held by each nation, yet this does not – in our view – provide an accurate depiction of each nation’s armed power. After all, countries like Russia, China and North Korea possess formidable arsenals of conventional forces on paper, yet they lack the means to project and sustain them in distant theatres, while much of their inventories are obsolete or suffer from poor training and a lack of combat experience. What really matters in modern warfare is a combination of military might, technological sophistication and geostrategic reach. Countries like the United Kingdom and France possess far smaller armed forces than many other countries, but they more than make up for this with better technological means and global mobility, sustained by an extended-regional or even worldwide array of military installations. These two powers also have a proven fighting capability over long distances for extended periods of time – note the British and French military efforts in the Middle East and North Africa over recent years. Likewise, they have long maintained a strategic ‘shadow presence’ in many areas, like the Persian Gulf, North Africa and the South Atlantic, thus reducing or even preventing geopolitical struggle. Then ask: what have or can the Russians, Chinese or North Koreans do that is comparable?
So while power may well be a capacity, we believe it is also a productive force, which can be used to either change or sustain the geopolitical status quo. Consequently, we have developed our own matrix – an ‘Audit of Major Powers’ – to rank the fifteen countries commonly believed to possess a ‘special’ place within the international geopolitical system. We have chosen four different categories – cultural pull, diplomatic influence, economic strength and military reach – with each divided into five subcategories, each weighted in relation to the others. Within each category, we have selected one key attribute that we believe to be critical:
- Within the cultural pull category, we have chosen the number of the world’s top one-hundred universities based in each of the fifteen countries, due to the fact that universities drive the innovative forces behind the post-industrial technological economies of the world’s foremost nations.
- In the diplomatic influence category, we have chosen the reach of the fifteen countries’ respective intelligence systems, including both government intelligence (signals, human and cyber intelligence), as well as open-source intelligence (i.e. think tanks and research institutions), as this ability provides each of the fifteen governments with its own eye to facilitate better understanding and strategic action in the world.
- Amongst the economic strength category – and in keeping with our critique of economic and demographic determinism above – we have selected the number of ‘alpha’-grade Global Cities each country possesses, as these locations represent the ‘command centres’ of the global economy, with London and New York each possessing a truly hegemonic position.
- And finally, among the military reach category, we have chosen ‘operational reach’ as the most important of all: this is because it is one thing for a country to mobilise large armed forces, but quite another for it to project them against enemies and/or to use them to prevent opponents from even materialising. Our benchmark for this is the ability to dispatch and sustain approximately 40,000 troops in any global theatre against any conceivable opponent for a prolonged period of time, as well as to support distant partners and allies.
We have made our calculations based on open source material or a system of our own judgment using three sets of calculations. To begin with, using the raw data we ranked each of the fourteen powers using percentages in relation to the leading power. Then, we established a hierarchy of importance of each of the twenty components of national power within the four categories, reducing the weight of the least important component – in our view, international tourist arrivals – by ninety-five percent, with five percent added cumulatively for each of the other components based on their importance. We then added each country’s score up and re-assigned a percentage rank relative to the highest-scoring country (the United States in all instances), to generate both scores for each category, as well as a final result.
This leads to the simplified matrix above-right, which includes our own subjective descriptions of each of the fifteen major powers.
Our descriptions include:
- Super Power (100%-70% of the strongest country’s total power) – a country with systemic power within every continent, including a comprehensive global military footprint; a top-tier technological economy, massive diplomatic influence and enormous cultural pull;
- Global Power (69%-40% of the strongest country’s total power) – a country lacking the heft or comprehensive attributes of a superpower, but still with a wide international footprint and means to reach most geopolitical theatres, particularly the Middle East, South-East Asia, East Asia, Africa and South America;
- Regional Power (39%-15% of the strongest country’s total power) – a country lacking the comprehensive attributes of a superpower, or even the reach of a global power, but with a strong and highly concentrated regional footprint, perhaps extending to the nearest zones of adjacent continents;
- Local Power (14% or less of the strongest country’s total power) – a country with significant influence in its local vicinage, perhaps courted by superior powers due to its regional importance or reputation.
Of course, our Audit of Major Powers is not infallible: we have only used open source information, which may not be entirely accurate, particularly due to the fact that many nations guard such information tenaciously. Another problem is that the audit represents a mixture of data for different years; because statistics for the last year are not available for some countries for some components in each category, we have been forced to use statistics from previous years (i.e., the most up-to-date we could find for each country). In addition, our audit cannot take on board all aspects of national power. One category we have deliberately de-emphasised is cultural pull – commonly known as ‘soft power’ – as we feel this kind of power, although important, is very difficult to wield by the countries concerned. In a way, it is a negative form of power: it is hard for governments to build up and use but very easy for them to damage. Soft power is a truly national asset, but not one that can be readily utilised by the government of each country, although it can be strengthened with national festivals and sporting spectacles or grandiose building projects. Consequentially, this is the least-weighted category of power within our audit.