Last year was full of nasty surprises as ISIS exploded, an Ebola epidemic rampaged across West Africa and Russia invaded Ukraine. 2015 could be more of the same, but as we try to figure out what the new year will bring, it’s worth taking a step back from the headlines to ask who the real world powers are. That’s complicated; ranking countries by power is hard to do. Measured by the destructive capabilities of its nuclear weapons, for example, Russia is as much of a superpower as was the old Soviet Union. But it isn’t easy to turn the ability to destroy all life on earth into the power to get other countries to recognize your annexation of Crimea.
What follows is a highly subjective ranking of the G-7, the seven great powers that can rock the world. We’ve ranked them by their ability to shape both their regional environments and the international system as a whole; among all the world’s countries these are the ones with the most ability to affect global politics by their choices.
As the New Year unrolls, we will bring out other lists of countries to watch: the ‘upper middle powers’ who don’t quite rank with the G-7 but are still a cut above the rest, the bellwethers we’ll be watching because even though they are not huge powers what happens there can have an outsized impact on the world and, finally, the critical states who matter to the world because their weakness and failures can create significant dangers to the rest of us.
One thing to note: the world’s institutions increasingly fail to match the realities of world power. Our list of the G-7 group of great powers doesn’t look much like the membership of the Security Council’s list of five permanent members or, for that matter, like the membership list of the original G-7, the group of mostly western countries plus Japan that was intended to provide leadership in global economic policymaking. This is one of the reasons why global institutions so often disappoint; the other, of course, is that the different great powers often want different things, and one of the perks of being a great power is that you often don’t have to listen to global institutions when you don’t want to.
Global Power Rankings for 2015
The United States has been the most powerful country in the world for close to a century; not surprisingly, 2014 saw no change. If anything, despite renewed geopolitical challenges from countries like Russia and Iran, and the continuing economic development of China, America’s place at the top of the global pecking order seems more secure at the end of 2014 than at the beginning.
In 2014, American power grew despite some foreign policy errors. There is nothing unusual about that. The ultimate sources of American power – the economic dynamism of its culture, the pro-business tilt of its political system, its secure geographical location, its rich natural resource base and its profound constitutional stability – don’t depend on the whims of political leaders. Thankfully, the American system is often smarter and more capable than the people in office at any given time.
In 2014, America continued to power out of the recession faster than either Japan or the EU, while the fracking boom had a growing impact on the world’s economic and geopolitical balances. A newly assertive Japan and its growing relationship with India helped check China’s bid for regional supremacy, and falling oil prices in the last quarter of the year undermined the Iranian and Russian economies.
As is usually the case, America’s greatest foreign policy failures came in the Middle East. By tilting toward Iran even as the regional balance seemed to be shifting away from the Sunni Arab powers, the U.S. set off waves of hostility and apprehension among key regional allies. The explosive rise of ISIS, the end of the Morsi government in Egypt and the failure of U.S. efforts to broker a cease fire over the latest Gaza war thanks to Egyptian and Saudi resistance testified to a changing regional climate. Even so, nothing has yet challenged America’s role as the strongest and most effective outside power in this strategic region.
Not since the 1940s has Germany played such an important role in world politics. The rift between Russia and the West gave Germany the ability to determine the West’s response and gave it the decisive voice in the shaping of a new European security order. At the same time, Germany continued to benefit from its pivotal position within the European Union. It holds the balance between north and south and east and west in Europe, giving it a place in the European order that no other country can challenge.
That Germany has achieved this position without nuclear weapons, without spending much money on defense and without cripplingly large bailouts for its troubled European neighbors says much for the country’s ability to benefit from the logic of events and its geographic position. Nevertheless, many in Berlin find Germany’s new geopolitical prominence unwelcome. The responsibilities that accompany German power – to deal with the internal troubles of the EU and to handle the relationship with Putin – are hefty.
Wilhelmine Germany managed the tensions of its unique regional role as long as it was led by Otto von Bismarck, but even he blundered by annexing Alsace-Lorraine in 1871. In lesser hands, the German government was unable to execute the difficult balancing act to which Germany is condemned by geography. On the whole, German political leadership was exceptionally able from the foundation of the Bonn Republic through the fall of the Berlin Wall. After that, the record is mixed: Helmut Kohl’s disastrous mismanagement of the monetary consequences of German unification and the shift to the euro left his successors with an extremely difficult legacy, and Gerhard Schroeder, despite his successful domestic economic reforms, hardly covered himself with foreign policy glory on the way to his current job working for Vladimir Putin at Gazprom.
As she attempts to hold the European Union, the transatlantic alliance and the vision of a greater Europe (including Russia) together, Angela Merkel carries one of the most difficult portfolios of our time. Should she make substantial progress on the various items on her to-do list, she will be remembered as a great German chancellor, and Germany’s position at the center of the world system will become much more secure and, perhaps, less stressful. The odds are not necessarily in her favor; Germany’s choices are both consequential and difficult. That is what life in the big leagues is all about; it matters gravely when you get it wrong.
That China ranks third in the global power ranking while many Chinese nationalists passionately believe it ought to rank first is a source of much disquiet in Beijing, where the limits of China’s international position seem to be more fully understood than among the general public. Despite China’s immense accomplishments and extraordinary strengths, it punches and is likely for some time to punch well below its weight in international affairs.
There are three basic reasons for the shortfall. The first is China’s regional environment. Unlike the United States, surrounded by friendly states and wide oceans, or Germany (bordered by weak states), China is in a region of strong and in many cases growing and ambitious powers. While China sees itself as a world power, regional rivals like Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, Australia and Indonesia are intent on blocking its emergence as a regional hegemon and enjoy U.S. backing in this effort. As long as China is embroiled in controversy over its boundaries and as long as a network of neighboring states work to limit its influence, China simply cannot emerge as the global superpower it would like to become. Certainly Germany today enjoys more influence in its home region than China has in East Asia.
The second problem stems from the nature of China’s economic model and the facts of geography. As a manufacturing power, China depends on access to both raw materials and markets around the world. Critically, this includes a dependency on oil and gas from the Middle East. For the foreseeable future China is unable to protect the sea routes on which its economy depends; if it were to embark on building the kind of aggressive long range naval and aviation capacities necessary to control sea routes across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it would strengthen the U.S./Asian coalition against it and provoke an arms race that even China’s mighty economy could not win. For the foreseeable future, China simply cannot guarantee the flow of necessary resources on which its economy depends; this reality limits the flexibility and freedom of Chinese policymakers.
Moreover, China’s very success as an exporting economy ties its fortunes to access to markets. If China could not sell to the Americas and to Europe, its factories could not pay their workers and its financial system would collapse. China’s strength and progress depends on the security of a world order largely designed by the United States, and there are no easy ways to get around the limits this places on China’s foreign policy choices.
The third problem is rooted in the nature of China’s extraordinary growth. China has grown so quickly and on such a vast scale that much of its social and economic infrastructure is under stress. The vast environmental cost of China’s grow-at-all-costs strategy is only one of the ways in which the consequences of quick success haunt China, Inc. The financial system has serious problems and has never been tested by a real downturn. The consequences of the one-child policy are now making themselves felt in ever less pleasant ways. The manufacture-for-export growth strategy can no longer serve as the basis for China’s development, but it is difficult to switch growth models — and it is far from clear exactly what comes next. These domestic constraints, and the political unrest that China’s leaders worry constantly about, also place limits on the country’s global freedom of action and reduce the size of China’s footprint in international politics.
The gap between the power that many Chinese think their country should have and the actual position of the country in world affairs is likely to remain a long term problem both for China’s leaders and their international partners. The drive within China for a more assertive national strategy is strong, and it is politically costly to resist it — but it is even costlier at this point for China to give in to nationalist demands that would wreck its relationships in the region and beyond.
Japan continues to be the most underrated country in conventional thinking. Economically stagnant, saddled with a U.S.-imposed pacifist constitution, falling under the shadow of a rising China and long accustomed to low key diplomacy, Japan is sometimes seen as an insignificant and fading power.
That perception is wrong; Japan remains a great power and thanks to a newly assertive and clever foreign policy, its weight in world affairs is actually growing. It has the world’s third largest economy, and while it just entered a recession, Japan’s level of technological sophistication and its global trade and production networks make it an extremely formidable force. In the 21st century, it will be technology rather than grunts on the ground that counts most in military competition; Japan’s ability to produce and deploy sophisticated military technology and to hold its own in the high tech arms competition of our time means that Japan has the potential to remain a major military power for a long time to come.
In 2014, Japan made strong moves to translate these advantages into geopolitical heft. It reinterpreted its understanding of its pacifist constitution to allow for “collective self-defense”–essentially rearmament plus closer relations with the militaries of friendly states. It (unsurprisingly) has a very technologically advanced military, and following an end to a decades old ban on arms exports it has begun to compete effectively in the global arms market, notably selling some sophisticated submarines to Australia.
Japan is moving to place itself at the center of set of regional defense relationships with countries like Vietnam, Australia and India that are similarly concerned with the rise of China. The prospects for a deeper relationship with India are especially bright; the economic complementarities and common geopolitical interests suggest that the Tokyo-Delhi relationship could be one of the fundamental realities shaping 21st century politics. Thanks in part to its ability to work with other powers in the region including India, in 2014 Japan stared China down; that is an accomplishment that lesser powers can only envy.
Russia is a nation in decline, but it has not yet finished declining and it by no means reconciled to the prospect. This makes it extremely dangerous. It may be failing at some of the most important tasks of a great power, but it still has nukes; plentiful natural resources; effective (and often underrated) intel, infowar and cyber capacities; and is currently led by a tactically canny president who punches above his weight. Were these ratings a ranking of willingness to use power, Russia would come in much higher on the list; the invasion of Ukraine this year left no one under any illusions as to what Vladimir Putin will do to bolster Russia’s place in the world, and to reverse, as best he can, what he sees as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century: the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The case for Russian weakness is well known and often repeated in the West. Russia’s population is in decline; it has failed to develop an effective post-Soviet economy. There is great tension between ethnic Russians and the various Muslim minorities in the Federation. Politically, Russia is a house built on sand–Putin has fearsome power over his people, including the oligarchs, but his position is much more vulnerable than that of a president in an established democracy or even a hereditary monarch. Now, the oil collapse (aggravated by sanctions) has undercut Russia’s economy and its international heft at just the time sanctions are beginning to bite.
But Russia enjoys compensating advantages that make Putin’s quest for at least a partial restoration of the Soviet behemoth something other than a madman’s folly. With the exception of the Baltic Republics and China, Russia is surrounded by some of the weakest and worst led countries in the world. Ukraine is struggling to reform, but massive corruption, corrosive state weakness and economic incompetence make Ukraine a weak opponent. How much money will a cash-strapped EU and a distracted United States be willing to lavish on a corrupt and poorly managed country that cannot pay for the energy it needs to survive? How long will western taxpayers willingly chip in more funds even as Ukrainian oligarchs do their best to rob the country blind?
In Central Asia and the Caucasus, most of the former Soviet Republics are if anything in worse shape than Ukraine. With the U.S. moving out of Afghanistan, Western interest in Russia’s back yard is likely to decline; Moscow might reasonably suppose that the West would prefer Russian to Chinese influence in the Stans.
Russia has levers to pull in Europe as well. Bulgaria and Romania have been unable to follow Poland’s path to successful post-socialist life. Greece and Cyprus are angry at the European Union and are historically and culturally linked to Russia. Hungary enjoys playing the Russia card against its fellow members of the EU, and (like some in Italy and France) sees Russia as a valuable counterweight against an over mighty Germany. Turkey is increasingly restless in institutions like NATO and is no longer seriously seeking to join the EU. The recklessness and adventurism that characterizes Turkish policy these days under Erdogan could easily bring it into some kind of relationship with Putin.
Putin’s Russia has a weak hand overall, but it is not without some important cards. Given Putin’s past performance, and knowing his profound contempt for the quality of Western leadership, it is hard to see him giving up the struggle prematurely without giving it everything he has.
India has long had the potential for success in the modern world – a large, population with more English speakers than any country except for the United States, a strong network of elite educational institutions, a booming high tech sector and an established democracy. Though India has long surprised foreigners by its ability to underperform, its new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has the strongest mandate of any Indian politician for many years. As the former chief minister in Gujarat, he has a history of delivering on the sort of economic reforms that India desperately needs–slashing red tape, cutting the licensing raj, killing barriers to trade both internally and externally. India’s economy, already benefitting from globalization and the tech revolution, could really take off if the Modi government delivers.
But what makes India a great power today has less to do with its future potential than with its strategic position in the evolving Asian balance of power. Four great powers (the United States, China, Japan and India) seek to play a major role in the region, and India – the most flexible of the four in terms of its options – has been able to cast itself as a kind of swing voter. The United States and Japan both want to build strategic, long term relations with India as part of a new Asian architecture that would balance a rising China. India is similarly concerned about China, but understands that it benefits more by keeping a little distance between itself and its suitors in Tokyo and Washington. With China, Japan and the United States all competing for India’s friendship (and with EU nations and Russia desperate to increase trade), India has been able to enjoy the benefits of many friendships without having to make any commitments.
If power means the freedom to do what you want while others dance to your tune, India is giving the world a demonstration these days of how the game is played.
7) Saudi Arabia
2014 was the second year running in which Saudi Arabia shook the world. In 2013 the Saudis helped the Egyptian military overthrow the Morsi government in a move that threw the Obama administration’s Middle East policy into thorough disarray. In 2014 the Saudis engineered an oil price collapse that upended international politics. Great power reveals itself in the accomplishment of big things; many countries with larger populations, more powerful military forces and more sophisticated technological foundations than Saudi Arabia lack the desert kingdom’s ability to revolutionize the geopolitical balance and reset the global economy.
Regionally as well as globally, the Saudis are getting more done than many great powers achieve in their regions. Alarmed by Iran’s threats, the Saudis have assembled a strong coalition that includes both Sunni stalwarts like Egypt and the UAE as well as, improbably, Israel. The Saudis have continued to squeeze Qatar into abandoning its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and joining the Saudi coalition; that effort seems to be slowly bearing fruit. Saudi backing helped Egypt and Israel defy U.S. (and Turkish and Qatari pressure) to cut Hamas some slack in the most recent war.
Should worst come to worst with Iran, and the Saudis have to defend themselves without the American backing they no longer take for granted, the Kingdom should be able to muster a unified Sunni coalition stretching from the Gulf States to Cairo. The Israeli air force may also step in. And as a last resort, the Saudi relationship with Pakistan, a relationship that has been steadily growing closer as the Saudis lose confidence in Washington, assures that there will be Sunni bombs in the region to offset Shi’ite nukes.
But perhaps it will not go that far. At the end of the year, Saudi Arabia stunned the world, using its economic might and political heft to force OPEC hawks to accept a collapse in the world oil price. Yes, this did have some effect on U.S. fracking companies—the policy’s stated aim—but what it really did was start to cause huge financial losses in petroleum-dependent Tehran. Saudi Arabia, with its deep reserves of money as well as oil, can absorb such losses for quite a while; it knows that Iran is much less well positioned to stand the pain.
As the world’s swing oil producer that can alter the trajectory of the international economy and upend the budgets of a dozen states, as the leading ideological force in the Islamic world, and as the currently undisputed leader of the Sunni world in the religious conflict in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia deserves a place at the table among the world’s greatest powers.