Rise of the Superpowers (USA & USSR) from events priorto and during WWII World War II: the process ofsuperpowerdom It is often wondered how the superpowersachieved their position of dominance.
It seems that thematuring of the two superpowers, Russia and the UnitedStates, can be traced to World War II. To be asuperpower, a nation needs to have a strong economy, anoverpowering military, immense international political powerand, related to this, a strong national ideology. It was thiswar, and its results, that caused each of these superpowersto experience such a preponderance of power. Before thewar, both nations were fit to be described as great powers,but it would be erroneous to say that they were superpowersat that point. To understand how the second World Warimpacted these nations so greatly, we must examine thecauses of the war.
The United States gained its strength inworld affairs from its status as an economic power. In theyears before the war, America was the world’s largestproducer. In the USSR at the same time, Stalin wasimplementing his five year plans’ to modernise the Sovieteconomy. From these situations, similar foreign policiesresulted from widely divergent origins. Roosevelt’sisolationism emerged from the wide and prevalent domesticdesire to remain neutral in any international conflicts.
Itcommonly widely believed that Americans entered the firstWorld War simply in order to save industry’s capitalistinvestments in Europe. Whether this is the case or not,Roosevelt was forced to work with an inherently isolationistCongress, only expanding its horizons after the bombing ofPearl Harbour. He signed the Neutrality Act of 1935,making it illegal for the United States to ship arms to thebelligerents of any conflict. The act also stated thatbelligerents could buy only non-armaments from the US, andeven these were only to be bought with cash. In contrast,Stalin was by necessity interested in European affairs, butonly to the point of concern to the USSR. Russian foreignpolicy was fundamentally Leninist in its concern to keep theUSSR out of war.
Stalin wanted to consolidate Communistpower and modernise the country’s industry. The SovietUnion was committed to collective action for peace, as longas that commitment did not mean that the Soviet Unionwould take a brunt of a Nazi attack as a result. Examples ofthis can be seen in the Soviet Unions’ attempts to achieve amutual assistance treaty with Britain and France. Thesetreaties, however, were designed more to create security forthe West, as opposed to keeping all three signatories fromharm. At the same time, Stalin was attempting to polariseboth the Anglo-French, and the Axis powers against eachother. The important result of this was the Nazi-Sovietnon-aggression pact, which partitioned Poland, and allowedHitler to start the war.
Another side-effect of his policy ofplaying both sides was that it caused incredible distrusttowards the Soviets from the Western powers after 1940. This was due in part to the fact that Stalin made severaldemands for both influence in the Dardanelles, and forBulgaria to be recognised as a Soviet dependant. The seedsof superpowerdom lie here however, in the late thirties. R. J. Overy has written that “stability in Europe might have beenachieved through the existence of powers so strong that theycould impose their will on the whole of the internationalsystem, as has been the case since 1945.
” At the time,there was no power in the world that could achieve such afeat. Britain and France were in imperial decline, and moreconcerned about colonial economics than the stability ofEurope. Both imperial powers assumed that empire-buildingwould necessarily be an inevitable feature of the worldsystem. German aggression could have been stifled early hadthe imperial powers had acted in concert.
The memories ofWorld War One however, were too powerful, and thegeneral public would not condone a military solution at thatpoint. The aggression of Germany, and to a lesser extent thatof Italy, can be explained by this decline of imperial power. They were simply attempting to fill the power vacuum inEurope that Britain and France unwittingly left. After theeconomic crisis of the 1930’s, Britain and France lost muchof their former international standing–as the world marketsplummeted; so did their relative power.
The two nationswere determined to maintain their status as great powershowever, without relying on the US or the USSR for supportof any kind. They went to war only because furtherappeasement would have only served to remove from themtheir