The Evolution of Great Powers

By George Friedman

The evolution of military power is one of the most important if underrated geopolitical changes happening in the world today. Throughout the 20th century, military power was the province of large nations. Machines dominated the battlefield, and the production of these machines, the materials that fueled them and the ordnance they used required access to complex factories and massive amounts of raw materials. This, in turn, required vast numbers of workers – and the housing and food the workers needed to function. An economy of this scale needed to produce large numbers of ships, planes, tanks and all other manners of wartime materiel, even as they required functioning economies outside the wartime economy, providing the basic necessities of life and, ideally, maintaining national morale.

Battlefields are black holes of consumption. Any nation can build a plane or tank or send a man to his death, but wars were won by nations that could build enormous numbers of planes and tanks and replace the ones that had been destroyed by the enemy – not to mention replenish the steady stream of dead soldiers.

Small nations could not engage in high-intensity war because they lacked the resources to do so. The definition of a great power, then, was a country with a large population, the agricultural system that fed it and the mineral base that could arm it. Given the deaths and damage the enemy could inflict, the key to military power was the size of the population and its resources. It also ideally had to be vast, with resources dispersed such that an enemy victory in one region would not mean a victory in all regions.

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