Are Great Powers Growing Greater?

A Study of Super, and Soft, Power

Image Description: Several people in black silhouette in front of the American flag in bright, contrasting colors. (Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels)

When looking into the future for answers, a wise approach is to first look for clues in the past. History defines the present, providing hints to how modern societies should approach old problems and new with revolutionary solutions. No empire lasts forever, and new ones eventually rise. It is up to politicians and citizens alike to decide whether to continue in conflict or move towards cooperation with the goal of preserving their national identity. Despite many citizen’s claims to the contrary, the US has been declining in power for some time, and recent signs of conflict are only more visible than the ones in the past. In the rapidly changing climate of the modern world, the US will have to learn to cooperate with other great powers or be crushed in the undertow of emerging super powered nations utilizing social influence as physical currency.

One of the first factors defining US decline is its obsession with the American republic. Although America champions itself as a hallmark of perfect democracy, its ratings on the Democracy Index have fallen steadily. These results are based on factors such as declining electoral freedom and pluralism, lack of civil liberties, increasing government gridlock and shutdown, declining political participation, and a tremulous political culture. Previously the US had been defined as a “full democracy,” the highest designation for democratic governance. Recently, the US has been reclassified as a “flawed democracy” as it has fallen in its score.[1] The US has seen gradual change in its political and social climate over the past hundred years, therefore it is prudent to look for external factors that may be affecting this decline. Although recent events may seem to have staggering effect on the nation, the tensions behind these effects have been growing for some time. America, although strongly bound together by its diversity, can also be toppled by the conflict that causes.

An additional point to this argument would be the relative age of the US as a nation. Since 1776, America has only seen two hundred and forty-one years as a nation. In addition to this, it has been considered a superpower for an even shorter period. Although the dates are debated, most scholars agree America only began to position itself on the global stage after World War II.[2] In its early stages America was called a ‘great power.’ As its influence grew, and the Cold War began in earnest, the international community was forced to redefine the concept of international authority. These events left their mark on international history, nevertheless it is important to remember that America has only held its powerful position for a relatively short amount of time in the world of politics. When countries overextend themselves, such as becoming the world’s largest relief institution at the beginning of its infancy, there is a possibility they may take on more than they can handle.

Image Description: Several people walking on the paved streets of Beijing. There is a Chinese PLA policemen at the front of the frame and focus. (Photo by hitesh choudhary from Pexels)

Now, however, the United States has a new rival in the international aid field. In addition to assistance in Africa, China is aggressively pushing into styles of media abroad to increase soft power. For example, the recent film “The Great Wall” was designed specifically to increase Chinese prestige. The producers hoped to use Chinese storytelling and actors to form the base of the film but added famous actors such as Matt Damon to increase mainstream Hollywood appeal. They hoped to co-produce with traditional Hollywood forces to bring more recognition to Chinese filmmaking and actors. Along with a hope of a Sino-Hollywood alliance, “the Chinese government […] long sought to project cultural influence abroad and hope[d] that ‘The Great Wall’ [would] be an international blockbuster.”[3] China is attempting to add to their authority through media influence, hoping its unique culture will be a draw for international audiences. Media forms such as film have had a large influence for America in the past, and China is attempting to utilize that power to increase its national presence.

Although China does respond to disasters as a form of soft power, it is difficult to argue that their approach is like the United States’ soft power push. America’s soft power came through natural extensions of democratic influence through programs such as the IMF and the World Bank, who defined their existence through American, and Western, ideology. Although China is pushing aid, unlike America they have not forced their ideology with it. In contrast to the Washington Consensus, “the Beijing consensus […] is associated primarily with pragmatism and taking a non-doctrinaire approach to whatever seems to work.”[4] This approach is primarily influenced by China’s knowledge that its governmental structure is not seen favorably on the world stage. To combat this, the government purposefully approaches aid from a neutral standpoint, to stand in direct contrast to Western powers and to appear a more appealing option. This prevents provocation of other countries fearing a communist takeover, while still attempting a soft power approach. Despite this fact, it is more difficult for China to increase their soft power in other countries because it specifically does not advocate its national ideology through its efforts. It can be argued that China is primarily focusing on its media presence to increase soft power and avoiding a provocative standpoint like that of Western countries because it is still playing a game of catch up.

Although America may still be seen as the ultimate haven and land of the free, China’s influence is steadily increasing across the globe. It seems China prefers a silent battle for likes and favorites rather than a hard powered, militaristic approach with Western countries such as America. Strategically, China is avoiding World War III, but they are also aware that a Cold War would not be helpful for their primary goals. They are currently more interested in growing their economic power, and soft power is but a small part of that effort. It is more advisable for the US to continue to work with China in something akin to friendly competition if not full cooperation. If the US were to work together with China, they might both benefit from increases in soft power, and decreases in dangerous, competitive, and militaristic action. Although the two superpowers may never fully focus on soft power as a main goal, it would be prudent to move towards that ideal as the world continues to globalize and great powers continue to become greater. America may or may not be in democratic decline, but it still has time to rewrite its history as that of a stabilizer of world order.


[1] The Economist Intelligence Unit. “Democracy Index 2016: Revenge of the “deplorables”.” The Economist Intelligence Unit. 2017. Accessed April 6, 2017."

[2] Miller, Lyman. “SJIR: China an Emerging Superpower?” SJIR: China an Emerging Superpower? 2006. Accessed April 06, 2017.

[3] Associated Press. “Matt Damon defends being cast in ‘The Great Wall’” Fox News Entertainment. December 6, 2016. Accessed April 6, 2017. file://localhost/Users/maykearney/Library/Application%20Support/Zotero/Profiles/teu5ryi7.default/zotero/storage/P6W67EH5/matt-damon-defends-being-cast-in-great-wall.html.

[4] Beeson, Mark. “The China Model?” In Regionalism and Globalization in East Asia Politics, Security and Economic Development, 163. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

They/Them Pronouns | 中文名字: 柯梅 | Intelligence Specialist & Diversity Advocate |

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