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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli

A great power is a nation or state that has the ability to exert its influence on a global scale. Great powers characteristically possess economic, military, diplomatic, and cultural strength. Nations often consider the opinions of great powers before taking actions of their own.

The term "great power" was first used to represent the most important powers in Europe during the post-Napoleonic era. Since then, power has been shifted numerous times, most dramatically during the First and Second World Wars. While some nations are widely considered to be great powers, there is no definitive list, leading to a continuing debate.

Contents

Modern Powers (1400-1815)

France (1450s - 1945)

France was a dominant empire possessing many colonies in various locations around the world. The Empire of the French (1804-1814), also known as the Greater French Empire or First French Empire, but more commonly known as the Napoleonic Empire, was the empire of Napoleon I in France. It was the dominant power of much of continental Europe during the early 19th Century.

Napoleon became Emperor of the French (L'Empereur des Francais) on 18 May 1804 and crowned Emperor December 2 1804, ending the period of the French Consulate, and won early military victories in the War of the Third Coalition against Austria, Prussia, Russia, Portugal, and allied nations, notably at the Battle of Austerlitz (1805) and the Battle of Friedland (1807). The Treaty of Tilsit in July 1807 ended two years of bloodshed on the European continent.

Subsequent years of military victories known collectively as the Napoleonic Wars extended French influence over much of Western Europe and into Poland. At its height in 1812, the French Empire had 130 départements, ruled over 44 million subjects, maintained extensive military presence in Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Duchy of Warsaw, and could count Prussia and Austria as nominal allies. Early French victories exported many ideological features of the French Revolution throughout Europe. Seigneurial dues and seigneurial justice were abolished, aristocratic privileges were eliminated in all places except Poland, and the introduction of the Napoleonic Code throughout the continent increased legal equality, established jury systems, and legalized divorce. Napoleon placed relatives on the thrones of several European countries and granted many noble titles, most of which expired with the fall of the Empire. Historians have estimated the death toll from the Napoleonic Wars to be 6.5 million people, or 15% of the French Empire's subjects.

The French colonial empire is the set of territories outside Europe that were under French rule primarily from the 1600s to the late 1960s (some see the French control of places such as New Caledonia as a continuation of that colonial empire). In the 19th and 20th centuries, the colonial empire of France was the second largest in the world behind the British Empire. The French colonial empire extended over 12,347,000 km² (4,767,000 sq. miles) of land at its height in the 1920s and 1930s. Including metropolitan France, the total amount of land under French sovereignty reached 12,898,000 km² (4,980,000 sq. miles) at the time, which is 8.6% of the Earth's total land area.

France began to establish colonies in North America, the Caribbean and India, following Spanish and Portuguese successes during the Age of Discovery, in rivalry with Britain for supremacy. A series of wars with Britain during the 1700s and early 1800s which France lost ended its colonial ambitions on these continents, and with it is what some historians term the "first" French colonial empire. In the 19th century, France established a new empire in Africa and South East Asia. Some of these colonies lasted beyond the invasion and occupation of France by Nazi Germany during World War II.

Venetian Republic in Modern Era (1489 - 1718)

In the high Middle Ages the Republic of Venice was able to become a very wealthy and powerful state through the rich trade between Europe and the Levant. During the Modern Era started the decline of Venice, but it was a very long and "golden" decadence, in fact for almost three centuries the Republic was the only Italian state able to preserve his independence; in particular Venice was able to match the invading powers of the French and Spanish monarchies in Italy and in the same time, the Republic was also able to stop many times the expansion of Ottoman Empire in South-East Europe and Mediterranean. The last main success of Venice was the conquest of Morea between 1669 and 1718. The Republic of Venice ended in 1797 when Napoleon conquered the city and ceded its territories to Austria.

Qing Empire (1660s - 1800s)

The Qing Dynasty, occasionally known as the Manchu Dynasty, was the ruling dynasty of China from 1644 to 1912. The Qing Dynasty was the last Imperial dynasty of China. During its reign, the Qing Dynasty consolidated its grip on China, integrated with Chinese culture, and saw the height of Imperial Chinese influence. The collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1912 brought an end to over 2,000 years of imperial Chinese rule.

Safavid Empire (1550s - 1700s)

The Safavids (1501-1722) are considered as the greatest Iranian Empire since the Islamic conquest of Persia. The Safavid empire originated from Ardabil in Iranian Azerbaijan in northern Iran. It was a Turkic-speaking dynasty whose classical and cultural language was Persian. The Safavid dynasty had its origins in a long established Sufi order, called the Safaviyeh. The Safavids established an independent unified Iranian state for the first time after the Islamic conquest of Persia and reasserted Iranian political identity, and established Shia Islam as the official religion in Iran.

British Empire (1600 - 1997)

The British Empire was the largest empire in world history and between 1815-1914 was unchallenged as the foremost global power. The empire began in the 17th century as a combination of factors led to its creation, such as the growth in British trade with India and the Far East, the success of the British East India Company, numerous British maritime explorations around the world, and the vast Royal Navy.

British colonies were created along the east coast of North America during the 17th century and 18th century but by the late 18th century most of these colonies rebelled against British rule, leading to the American War of Independence and formation of the United States of America. Nevertheless Great Britain retained significant colonies in Canada, the Caribbean and India, and shortly thereafter began the settlement of Australia and New Zealand. Following France's defeat in the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Great Britain took possession of many more overseas territories in Africa and Asia, and established informal empires of free trade in South America, China and Persia.

It was after this period during the 19th century that the United Kingdom became the first country in the world to industrialise and embrace free trade, giving birth to the Industrial Revolution. This rapid industrial growth transformed Great Britain into the world's largest industrial and financial power, while the world's largest navy gave it undisputed control of the seas and international trade routes, an unassailable advantage which helped the British Empire, after a mid-century liberal reaction against empire-building, to grow faster than ever before. The Victorian empire colonised large parts of Africa, including such territories as South Africa, Egypt, Kenya, Sudan, Nigeria, and Ghana, most of Oceania, colonies in the Far East, such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong, and took control over all the Indian Subcontinent, making it the largest empire in the world.

After victory in the First World War the empire gained control of territories such as Tanzania, and Namibia, from the German Empire, and Iraq, and Palestine from the Ottoman Empire. By this point in 1920 the British empire had grown to become the largest empire in history, controlling approximately 25% of the world's land surface and 25% of the world's population. Because of its magnitude, it was often referred to as the empire on which the sun never sets.

The political and social changes and economic disruption in the United Kingdom and throughout the world caused by First World War followed only two decades later by the Second World War caused the empire to gradually break up as colonies were given independence. Much of the reason the empire ceased was because many colonies by the mid 20th century were no longer as undeveloped as at the arrival of British control nor as dependent and social changes throughout the world during the first half of the 20th century gave rise to national identity. The British Government, reeling from the economic cost of two successive world wars and changing social attitudes towards empire, felt it could no longer afford to maintain it if the country were to recover economically, pay for the newly created welfare state, and fight the newly emerged Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Nonetheless, most former colonies of the British Empire remained members of the Commonwealth of Nations, with Queen Elizabeth II as head of the Comonwealth. Some members have retained the British monarch as their head of state as Commonwealth realms and remain in intimate if informal association. A few scattered islands remain under direct British control as British Overseas Territories.

Low Countries/The Netherlands

The Dutch EmpireTemplate:Ref is the name given to the various territories controlled by the Netherlands from the 17th to the 20th century. Their skills in shipping and trading aided the building of an overseas colonial Empire from the 16th to 20th centuries. The Dutch initially built up colonial possessions on the basis of indirect state capitalist corporate colonialism, with the dominant Dutch East India Company. A cultural flowering roughly spanning the 17th century is known as the Dutch Golden Age, in which Dutch trade, science, and art were among the most acclaimed in the world.

Mughal Empire (1550s - 1700s)

The Mughal Empire was an Islamic imperial power that ruled the Indian subcontinent which began in 1526, invaded and ruled most of Hindustan (South Asia) by the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and ended in the mid-19th century. In 1526, Babur, a Timurid descendant of Timur and Genghis Khan, swept across the Khyber Pass and established the Mughal Empire, which lasted for over 200 years. The Mughal Dynasty ruled most of the Indian subcontinent by 1600; it went into a slow decline after 1707 and was finally defeated during the 1857 War of Independence also called the Indian Rebellion of 1857. This period marked vast social change in the subcontinent as the Hindu majority were ruled over by the Mughal emperors; most of them showed religious tolerance, liberally patronising Hindu culture. The famous emperor Akbar, who was the grandson of Babar, tried to establish a good relationship with the Hindus. However, later emperors such as Aurangazeb tried to establish complete Muslim dominance and as a result several historical temples were destroyed during this period and taxes imposed on non-Muslims. During the decline of the Mughal Empire, which at its peak occupied an area similar to the ancient Maurya Empire, several smaller empires rose to fill the power vacuum or themselves were contributing factors to the decline. The Mughals were perhaps the richest single dynasty to have ever existed.

Maratha Empire (1674 – 1820)

The Maratha Empire or the Maratha Confederacy was a Hindu state located in present-day India. It existed from 1674 to 1818. At its peak, the empire's territories covered much of South Asia. It expanded greatly after the death of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707, only to lose Punjab region in Third battle of Panipat in 1761. Later, the empire was divided into confederacy of Maratha states which eventually lost to the British in the Anglo-Maratha wars by 1818.

Ottoman Empire (1400s - 1800s)

Ottoman Empire (1299 to 1922) was a Turkish state, which at the height of its power (16th - 17th centuries) spanned three continents (see: extent of Ottoman territories) controlling much of Southeastern Europe, the Middle East and most of North Africa. The empire has been called by historians a "Universal Empire" due to both Roman and Islamic traditions.

The empire was at the center of interactions between the Eastern and Western worlds for six centuries. The Ottoman Empire was the only Islamic power to seriously challenge the rising power of Western Europe between the 15th and 19th centuries. With Istanbul (or Constantinople) as its capital, the Empire was in some respects an Islamic successor of earlier Mediterranean empires - the Roman and Byzantine empires.

Poland-Lithuania (1569 - 1795)

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, also known as the First Polish Commonwealth, (Template:Lang-pl or Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów (Commonwealth of Both Nations); Template:Lang-lt) or as the "First Commonwealth," was one of the largest, most powerful and most populous countries in 16th, 17th, and 18th century Europe. Its political structure — that of a semi-federal, semi-confederal aristocratic republic — was formed in 1569 by the Union of Lublin, which united the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and lasted in this form until the adoption of the Constitution of May 3, 1791.

Portugal (1415 - 1999)

The Portuguese Empire was the first global empire in history, and also the earliest and longest lived of the Western European colonial empires, existing from 1415 to 1999. Portugal's small size and population restricted the empire to a collection of small but well defended outposts along the shoreline. The height of the empire power was reached in the 16th century but the indifference of the Habsburg kings and the competition with new colonial empires like the British, French and Dutch started its long and gradual decline. After the 18th century Portugal concentrated in the colonization of Brazil and African possessions.

Prussia

The Kingdom of Prussia dominated northern Germany politically, economically, and in terms of population, and was the core of the unified North German Confederation formed in 1867, which became part of the German Empire or Deutsches Reich in 1871.

Prussia attained its greatest importance in the 18th and 19th centuries. During the 18th century, it became a European great power under the reign of Frederick II of Prussia (1740–86). During the 19th century, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck pursued a policy of uniting the German principalities into a "Lesser Germany" which would exclude the Austrian Empire.

Russian Empire

The Russian Empire as a state, existed from 1721 until it was declared a republic the 1st of September 1917. The Russian Empire formed from what was Tsardom of Russia under Peter the Great. Peter I, (1672–1725), played a major role in bringing his country into the European state system, and laid the foundations of a modern state in Russia. From its modest beginnings in the 14th century, Russia had become the largest state in the world by Peter's time. Three times the size of continental Europe, it spanned the Eurasian landmass from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean.

Spanish Empire

In the 16th century Spain and Portugal were in the vanguard of European global exploration and colonial expansion and the opening of trade routes across the oceans, with trade flourishing across the Atlantic Ocean between Spain and the Americas and across the Pacific Ocean between Asia-Pacific and Mexico via the Philippines. Conquistadors toppled the Aztec, Inca, and Maya civilizations, and laid claim to vast stretches of land in North and South America. For a time, the Spanish Empire dominated the oceans with its navy and ruled the European battlefield with its infantry, the famous tercios. Spain enjoyed a cultural golden age in the 16th and 17th centuries as Europe's foremost power.

From 1580 to 1640 the Portuguese Empire and the Spanish Empire were conjoined in a personal union of its Habsburg monarchs, during the period of the Iberian Union, though the empires continued to be administered separately.

From the middle of the 16th century silver and gold from the American mines increasingly financed the military capability of Habsburg Spain in its long series of European and North African wars. Until the loss of its American colonies in the 19th century, Spain maintained one of the largest empires in the world, even though it suffered fluctuating military and economic fortunes from the 1640s. Confronted by the new experiences, difficulties and suffering created by empire-building, Spanish thinkers formulated some of the first modern thoughts on natural law, sovereignty, international law, war, and economics — they even questioned the legitimacy of imperialism — in related schools of thought referred to collectively as the School of Salamanca.

Constant contention with rival powers caused territorial, commercial, and religious conflict that contributed to the slow decline of Spanish power from the mid-17th century. In the Mediterranean, Spain warred constantly with the Ottoman Empire; on the European continent, France became comparably strong. Overseas, Spain was initially rivaled by Portugal, and later by the English and Dutch. In addition, English-, French-, and Dutch-sponsored privateering and piracy, overextension of Spanish military commitments in its territories, increasing government corruption, and economic stagnation caused by military expenditures ultimately contributed to the empire's weakening.

Spain's European empire was finally undone by the Peace of Utrecht (1713), which stripped Spain of its remaining territories in Italy and the Low Countries. Spain's fortunes improved thereafter, but it remained a second rate power in Continental European politics. However, Spain maintained and enlarged its vast overseas empire until the 19th century, when the shock of the Peninsular War sparked declarations of independence in Quito (1809), Venezuela and Paraguay (1811) and successive revolutions that split away its territories on the mainland (the Spanish Main) of the Americas. Spain retained significant fragments of its empire in the Caribbean (Cuba and Puerto Rico); Asia (Philippines), and Oceania (Guam, Micronesia, Palau, and Northern Marianas) until the Spanish–American War of 1898. Spanish participation in the Scramble for Africa was minimal: Spanish Morocco was held until 1956 and Spanish Guinea and the Spanish Sahara were held until 1968 and 1975 respectively. The Canary Islands, Ceuta, Melilla and the other Plazas de Soberanía on the northern African coast have remained part of Spain.

Sweden

The seventeenth century saw the rise of Sweden as one of the Great Powers in Europe.Sweden also had colonial possessions as a minor colonial Empire that existed from 1638-1663 and later 1784-1878.

The mid 1600s and the early 1700s were Sweden's most successful years as a Great Power. Sweden reached its largest territorial extent during the rule of Charles X (1622–1660) after the treaty of Roskilde in 1658. However, after more than a half century of almost constant warfare the Swedish economy had deteriorated. It would become the lifetime task of Charles' son, Charles XI (1655-1697), to rebuild the economy and refit the army. His legacy to his son, the coming ruler of Sweden Charles XII, was one of the finest arsenals in the world, a large standing army and a great fleet. Sweden's largest threat at this time, Russia, had a larger army but was far behind in both equipment and training. The Swedish army crushed the Russians at the Battle of Narva in 1700, one of the first battles of the Great Northern War. This led to an overambitious campaign against Russia in 1707, however, ending in a decisive Russian victory at the Battle of Poltava (1709). The campaign had a successful opening for Sweden, which came to occupy half of Poland and making Charles able to claim the Polish throne. But after a long march exposed by cossack raids, the Russian Tsar Peter the Great's scorched-earth techniques and the cold Russian climate, the Swedes stood weakened with a shattered confidence, and enormously outnumbered against the Russian army at Poltava. The defeat meant the beginning of the end for Sweden as an empire.

See also




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