The United Kingdom has long been considered a superpower on the world stage. As recently as the 20th century, the UK possessed the largest empire in history and wielded tremendous economic, military, and cultural influence globally. However, in the 21st century, there are growing questions around whether the UK still qualifies as a superpower.
What is a superpower?
A superpower is generally defined as a nation that possesses superior military and economic strength and wields outsized political influence on the global stage. The primary superpowers during the Cold War era were the United States and Soviet Union. Key qualifications for superpower status include:
- A large population and territory
- A dominant economy
- Powerful military forces equipped with nuclear weapons
- Widespread political, economic, and military alliances and influence
- Significant cultural power and worldwide recognition
During its imperial heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the UK unambiguously met these criteria. However, its global dominance gradually eroded over the course of the 20th century due to the ravages of two world wars, the rise of the US and Soviet Union, and the collapse of its empire after 1945. Nonetheless, the UK still remained a major world power and maintained its permanent membership on the UN Security Council.
The UK retains formidable military forces, though not on the scale of the largest armed forces in the world. According to 2023 estimates, the UK has approximately 152,000 active frontline personnel. Its military arsenal includes over 200 nuclear warheads, making it one of nine nuclear powers. The UK is one of only five nations recognized as a Nuclear Weapons State under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The UK maintains cutting-edge military technology and spending. As of 2022, the UK had the 6th highest military expenditure in the world at over $68 billion, though this was dwarfed by the spending of the US and China. The UK has advanced cyber warfare and surveillance capabilities through GCHQ, its signals intelligence agency.
However, the UK’s military has contracted significantly since its peak around the Second World War period when British forces numbered over 4.5 million personnel. The UK no longer has the manpower or resources to unilaterally deploy large-scale operations overseas for extended periods of time.
Recent military operations
In recent decades, the UK’s military engagements have been focused primarily through multilateral organizations like NATO or as part of US-led coalitions:
- Gulf War (1991)
- Intervention in the Balkans (1990s)
- War in Afghanistan (2001-2014)
- Iraq War (2003-2011)
- Intervention against ISIS in Iraq and Syria (2014-present)
While formidable compared to most countries, the UK’s current military strength does not confer the global reach and influence enjoyed by the dominant superpowers of the 21st century – the United States and rising power China.
The UK has the 5th or 6th largest economy in the world measured by GDP, depending on the metric used. Key facts about the British economy:
- GDP of $3.17 trillion (2022 estimate, IMF)
- 6th largest economy by GDP (IMF, World Bank)
- 5th largest economy by GDP (nominal – International Monetary Fund)
- GDP per capita over $48,000 (2022 estimate, IMF)
The UK has a diversified, highly developed economy and ranks very high on measures of economic freedom and competitiveness. London is one of the world’s preeminent financial hubs.
However, the UK is significantly outpaced on economic measures by the United States and China. America’s GDP is nearly 8 times higher at approximately $25 trillion. China produces over $17 trillion in GDP. Major EU economies like Germany and France also outrank the UK in economic size. The UK’s growth trajectory has also lagged behind many other developed and emerging economies.
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The UK’s share of global GDP has fallen from around 5% in the early 20th century to under 3% today. Its economy is now about the size of Texas when comparing US states by GDP.
The UK retains considerable “soft power” and international political influence derived from its history, culture, language, and financial markets. It wields outsized impact through its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and close alliance with the United States.
However, the UK’s ability to drive global political outcomes and initiate military interventions is severely limited compared to the unipolar power of the United States in the post-Cold War era. The UK’s political capacity has also taken a hit from rising nationalism and separatism (Scottish independence, Brexit), defense funding cuts, declining diplomatic corps, and reduced international aid budgets.
On most major geopolitical issues, the UK’s role is largely consultative today. For example, the UK was not able to exert significant influence over the US invasion of Iraq or the NATO intervention in Libya. The UK is increasingly perceived by other nations as a junior partner of the United States rather than an independent global agenda setter.
The UK’s exit from the European Union in 2020 has magnified concerns over its international status. Loss of full access to the EU’s single market has raised costs for UK exporters. Brexit necessitated the renegotiation of the UK’s trade relationships with dozens of countries. The UK also lost political influence in Brussels that it had previously leveraged to shape EU regulations and foreign policy.
On the other hand, Brexit frees the UK to pursue an independent foreign and economic policy. Proponents argue the UK can now move faster to ink new free trade deals and strengthen alliances beyond Europe like the “CANZUK” partnership proposed with Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Is the UK still a superpower?
Opinion remains divided on whether the UK still qualifies as a superpower. Traditional hallmarks of superpower status like military and economic strength clearly place the UK a tier below the United States, and increasingly China as well. However, the UK remains more powerful and globally influential than “middle powers” like Japan, Germany, India, and regional players like Iran and Brazil.
Given its permanent UN Security Council seat, nuclear arsenal, elite intelligence services, and outsized diplomatic impact, most experts suggest the UK can still be considered a “Great Power” if not necessarily a true superpower. Its close security partnership with the US enhances the UK’s global clout.
However, there is wide acknowledgement that the UK’s power is waning and increasingly constrained. Its capacity to wield authority on its own is much diminished from the height of its imperial period. Barring a major realignment of global politics and economics, the UK is unlikely to regain superpower status on par with the US or rising Asian giants like China and India.
The UK retains significant capabilities and influence that exceed all but a handful of nations. However, its economic and military strength is dwarfed by the dominant superpowers of the 21st century. While still an important player in bodies like the UN Security Council, the UK is reduced to a primarily consultative role on major world affairs today. Brexit has raised further doubts about the UK’s global standing. The verdict remains that the UK falls short of true superpower status but retains enough vestiges of power and influence to be considered a Great Power.