If asked to identify the world’s superpowers today, most people would name the United States, Russia, and China. Although many citizens of these countries maintain that this status is based on the superiority of their national way of life, the reality is that it rests upon their nations’ enormous capacity for violence.
Certainly none has a peaceful past. The United States, Russia, and China have a long history of expansion at the expense of neighboring countries and territories, often through military conquest. Those nations on their borders today, including some that have wrenched themselves free from their imperial control, continue to fear and distrust them. Just ask Latin Americans, East Europeans, or Asians what they think of their powerful neighbors.
Nor has there been any significant reduction of their military might in recent years. Despite their professions of peaceful intentions, all three nations maintain vast armed forces and a clear willingness to use them when it suits their rulers. According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, in 2014 the United States had 2.3 million active duty military, reserve military, and paramilitary personnel, Russia had 3.4 million, and China 3.5 million. These figures do not include many other people they kept fully armed, such as China’s 3 million-strong People’s Liberation Army militia. In 2015, the combined military expenditures of the three superpowers constituted more than half the world total, with 36 percent ($596 billion) spent by the United States, 13 percent ($215 billion) by China, and 4 percent ($64 billion) by Russia.