What it is: An exceptionally powerful state. The word has been used particularly of the Soviet Union (USSR) and of the USA, opponents in the Cold War. Since the end of the Cold War, the USA has been regarded as the only world superpower, though not necessarily the last.
What it means: So far, to be a superpower means having enormous military power. From this other powers flow, influencing events far beyond the superpower's own borders. Power also breeds hubris, the superpower's arrogant belief that it can do what it wants. After the Second World War America played a leading role in setting up the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other international pro-peace institutions and laws, but by the 1990s the US leadership had begun to feel that these rule-systems limited their country's power in ways they disliked. It is easy enough for a superpower to ignore treaties and agreements that don't suit it - as long as no-one else (except, perhaps, useful allies) does the same. But by ignoring international law when it wanted to, America's government and military leadership has risked destabilising the world. Decades of American military and political interference (often devious and covert) in other states' affairs have brought hostility rather than admiration. America's many military bases and installations, imposed on many localities around the world, are no longer (if they ever were) seen as a guarantee of security, they are resented. So is its leadership's apparent ignorance or disregard of other states' traditions, cultures and values. American policies in the past have contributed to the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's brutal dictatorship in Iraq. As a result of US military action, Afghanistan and Iraq, bombed by America in the name of 'freedom' and 'peace', have endured devastation, social disruption, poverty, and lawlessness. America has brought dangers on itself as well, not least the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11 2001, which many onlookers agree have changed American attitudes radically, and for the worse. Since then people have been wondering about this superpower's fate: would this new kind of imperialism meet the fate of every empire in history: decline and fall?
Think about it: Think about these remarks by political commentators (all of them are worried Americans): 'This planet is never going to be ruled from any single political centre, whatever its military power.' 'Total security and total defence in the age of globalisation are not attainable.' 'Sooner or later America will learn that the global economy, global environment and global responsibilities are more interconnected and more costly, as well as less prone to military domination, than we thought (or hoped). America's high-tech, high-altitude destructive capabilities are no more suitable to bring democracy to poor nations or alleviating terrorism than is a tank to fight Aids.' 'The American choice is between attempting to create a new global system based on shared interests, or using its global power to protect its own security.' What will the choice be: to lead the world on a path to peace, freedom and human rights (stated ideals on which America was founded)? Or dominate it by a perpetual threat of force? Why, do you think, is the choice so difficult to make? 'Power tends to corrupt,' said the 19th century British historian Lord Acton, adding 'absolute power corrupts absolutely.' Could he be right?